Kubrick-fest 04 - Spartacus

Kubrick goes Hollywood! If you haven’t seen this film, you should before you die.

A Sword and Sandals epic launched due to Kirk Douglas’ pique at not getting the lead in Ben-Hur . Douglas picked up Howard Fast’s novel and eventually tapped Dalton Trombo, blacklisted brilliant screenwriter (and die-hard CPUSA member who ran all the cells in Hollywood before his blacklist), to write the screenplay. Production began in California by Douglas’ company Bryna Productions, with Anthony Mann directing (after David Lean turned down the project). After a week, Douglas canned Mann, later stating “He seemed afraid of the scope of the project.” And brought in his collaborator from Paths of Glory, Kub, to direct.

Boasting a phenomenal cast from top to bottom and fine performances by all, The film won accolades internationally, four Academy Awards, broke box office records and opened Kubrick’s career to do whatever he wanted for his next project. It also permanently ended the personal and professional friendship Kub and Douglas had developed.

Its available for streaming rental at Google Play, Amazon (just recently, btw), YouTube, Vudu, iTunes. It is not free and is a $3.99 ish rental. I’ll leave to UK/European/International participants to fill in availability in those locations in-thread.

Below are 6 reasons to watch this film in images:

Reason 1

Reason 1

Reason 2

Reason 2

Reason 3

Reason 3

Reason 4

Reason 5

Reason 6

So I started watching this, and given the 3 hour length it may be a few days before I finish. But through the first hour and a half (up to where Spartacus is reunited with Jean Simmons’ Varinia) here are some thoughts.

Immediately this does not feel like what ‘typical’ Kubrick does. The shot selection and framing are very much more… traditional. One thing I have tried to do for these films, which I have been watching for the first time, is engage it as both a technical and theatrical experience. And on the technical level this feels instantly familiar. The framing, the 3 minute opening ovation, the narration, color work, dialogue, all of it feels instantly familar and like the sword and sandals Biblical epics of the era. Even the first lines of dialogue intimate that this is intentionally so, where a story otherwise unrelated to Christian events starts ‘200 years before the birth of Christianity would reshape Rome’ (very paraphrased, but you get the idea). It continues and ties directly into concepts more more modern, by linking Spartacus’ story to the abolishment of slavery in the US. Perhaps a bit heavy handed, and on the nose overall, but also effective at conveying how this movie intends to frame and personify Spartacus.

But on every technical level this film feels very much as part of the lineage of Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, etc. Almost slavishly so at points. There is a distinct lack of the type of dynamic camera pans that I have come to associate with Kubrick. Which I do not mean as an indictment! Merely an observation. This is Kubrick, as @Navaronegun put, going to Hollywood. Executing on tried and established techniques and composition. And you know what, that’s fine. It is a film that knows what it is, what it is reaching for, and how it wants to present it. And on that level it executes flawlessly so far.

Even so a few times I did find myself getting caught in the moment. In particular the 4 man gladiator fight put on for the benefit of Lawrence Olivier’s Crassus. That is really a spectacular fight, all things considered. I am sure that an actual weapon master could discuss flaws in technique and form, but from a visual flow it is exceptionally well done. So many movies, especially films that are not choreography and action first, tend to have very obvious blocking. Where a person will hold their sword in a very obvious ‘ok now you two parry here, then do this’ where the timing just doesn’t match up. Here it flows very well. Douglas exudes a physicality, and his counterpart with the trident has the same. You don’t feel like you are watching two people go through a dance as much as a fight. Fast parries and reversals, Douglas is appreciably on the back foot and aggressively looking for openings and narrow misses. If this is the quality throughout, consider me suitably impressed especially as I do not associate Kubrick with that type of fight scene.

The intrigues in the senate also are very strong. The way Gracchus manipulates separating Crassus from the Roman guards, appointing Julius Caesar, and doing so while with honeyed words getting eager ascent from his duped victim. It is smartly played so far.

So while it is a far more conventional film than I expect from Kubrick (and why I was surprised to learn it was him!), it is also executed spectacularly. And though it definitely feels, in many ways, older than the other Kubrick films due to this adherence to form, I can’t but appreciate the craft on display.

Just going to peak in here and say this is one of my favorite movies. It has been since I was a kid and the double tape piece is one of the few VHS “sets” I still have. I didn’t think I had ever watched something Kubrick made, but then @Navaronegun conversations made me look it up, and I realized he actually made a fav.

This was also one of the movies that gave me a permanent love of period pieces.

watching it right now (from my DVD collection). First thing I noticed, it has a musical ouverture. That was a more civilized time, when you could put an audience in the dark for 5-10 minutes to listen to actual music.

Other great movies that did this (that I have seen) is Laurence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t know, maybe it was popcorn-buying time when the ouverture played.

I like the titles, the colored roman statues (faces). And then the confirmation, done by Saul Bass. I love his work up to Phase IV. I didn’t know he was involved in Spartacus.

Unfortunately my copy of the film is starring some Harles Laughton and Aurence Olivier. I hope they can handle the script by Dalton Trumbo. I am impressed, what can go wrong with that kind of production values…

An absolute classic - didn’t realize this was a Kubrick film.

“I’m Brian… wait, no Spartacus.”

That was indeed a very good film. Very different than the others. Overall my impressions from earlier mostly held. There wasn’t as much combat as I anticipated given it was a 3 hour movie on the subject of the Third Servile War, but thats an expectations thing. Certainly there are points where I see the influence, both in adherence and jabbing at, the Hayes Code, and the specter of McCarthyism is certainly alluded to (in a way I might not have immediately grasped, were it not for being aware of it via the Criterion commentary on the presence of Trumbo). And overall one thing that did strike me was that there was certain things that filter through a more contemporary lens.

The subject of Roman slavery is a complex one, that has implications all up and down Roman society. And much like the external wars are presented only in terms of recalling the legions from Spain, and the conflict in the Levant cutting off grain, the social impacts of the consolidation of massive estates and the influx of slaves displacing local farmers and the ensuing unrest and conflict is backgrounded. You get hints of it, if you know the era, when things like the grain dole are obliquely alluded to and how the pirates cutting off grain are increasing unrest in Rome. But the dialogue and depiction of Roman slavery seem to intentionally draw on more modern conceptions. I am certain, given the era, this was not accidental.

A more versed Roman scholar could probably identify dozens of ways this film is not historically accurate. But it is as accurate as most films of that era. And that is fine. It is a good movie at the end, and certain concessions to audience expectation, or drama are something to accept and move on. If the film is good, these things are easily forgiven.

How would I rank it to other Kubrick films? This, in many ways, feels like the wrong comparison to draw. It isn’t really a Kubrick film. It is something wholly different. It lacks the artistry and symbolism of other Kubrick films. The camera work and framing are much more traditional. It is, in every way, an intentional blockbuster of its day. So while I can compare it to Dr Strangelove or 2001, doing so feels as meaningful as comparing Avengers Endgame to Moonlight or The Revenant. They are movies designed for very different purposes, focusing on very different things. This fits a much better film to compare to the Ben-Hurs, Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia type films of the day. So how would I place it against those?

Honestly I can’t say. It’s been a while since I’ve seen most of those. So can I say that Spartacus is better or worse than Ben Hur? No, I can’t. But I can say that it certainly earns its reputation, and is a stellar example of the period epics of the golden age of Hollywood. This has long been one of those movies I’ve never seen that I’ve meant to. One of the classics that are on the lists of movies you need to see.

And now I have.

Finished it in one sitting. I am a huge Kubrick fan, but this film didn’t feel much like one of his films.

There were a few moments that were edited very well like the scene of the first deadly gladiator fight (ordered by Crassus, causing the uprising), when Spartacus is waiting for his fight. Then the last battle, just before it starts and when the Romans were moving into formation, edited against a pulsing score.

The scenes between Virinia and Spartacus were great, I think Kubrick never got so romantic ever again in his other films.
The scene between Olivier and Curtis was well done (was it cut for the release and restored later?)

The first 60 minutes are paced really well, but after the uprising, not much is going on visually or dramatically.

I was really annoyed by the music most of the time, bombastic without a cause. The final battle, when it started wasn’t particular interesting.

It made me want to see the new Spartacus series again.

The cuts between themes were particularly abrupt. Especially during the montage of the war, where it would be battle, then cut to Spartacus and Virginia. The music would just jump back and forth in 20 second chunks, between two very different tones. Distracting!

Modern films can be just as blunt, but tend to be a little better with the blending and variations on the theme, plus cut back in the audio mix to not be as prominent.

Who is Spartacus?

History and Source Material

When getting into actual historical source material for the Ancient World, I have a joke. For example, when someone designs a game on the Battle of the Granicus I’ll always say, “this is great, but its all ‘Arrian Says’.” Caveat: it could be Arrian Says and Diodorus Says, but they contradict one another. What I mean by this is that from the second half of the 19th Century to the present we have learned a lot about Ancient History – via economic studies, discovered records in bizarre places that deal with local issues, Archaeology, etc. But when it comes to motivations and actions of individuals or factions, we’re usually left with accounts written hundreds of years later that are at best Pop Histories akin to something Gore Vidal would write, or later political propaganda attempting to justify a new regime, faction or movement via reinterpretation of events at worst. No contemporary sources. Thus no motives, detailed accounts, letters between participants, etc. that mark studying historical events Post Renaissance (in Europe. Its easier in Asia, harder in Mesoamerica and Africa).

Most of what we know of Spartacus and the Third Servile War fall into this category. However, in this case its “Appian and Plutarch (and Kinda Florus and heck, we dunno even who he is!) Says.” There was a revolt. Gladiators were involved. There may have been an attempt to advance on Rome. They may have gone South to escape the Peninsula (for Sicily or other areas). They may have made for the North to return to their homes (were they mostly Gauls?). They defeated a Consular Army. Crassus was given a Praetorship. They were crushed. The end. This is all interesting, but immaterial to the film. The film was based on a popular novel written by Howard Fast (who was a backlisted communist, like Trumbo, who adapted the novel into a screenplay). In fact, many of the very themes credited to Trumbo as groundbreaking were already in the novel.


I don’t give Trumbo a lotta credit here (themes used fictionally from ancient history applied to the current political situation and a subtle critique of capitalism) because Fast did that already. Its why Douglas bought the property. It’s what Douglas wanted in the script, a faithful adaptation of the novel. Trumbo complied. But I do give Trumbo all the credit in the world for being a master screenwriter. Translating the book into scenes, creating dialogue, gorgeous dialogue, where there is none due to third person narration in the novel, etc.

The film is what it is; an excellent period piece. That starts with the script. In a film, you must build a world, unlike a novel where much is left in the reader’s head. So Trumbo’s references to other situations in the empire, descriptions of scenes, dialogue, all that must create a believable Roman world. And it passes that test. You can believe that events occurred the way they are told in the story. The politics are believable. The characters and their motivations are believable. In a Roman context.

Period Piece and Contemporaries

It holds up. Its an epic with an intermission made in Cinemascope. Its very similar, in all I outlined above with Ben-Hur (based on the Lew Wallace novel which has a fictional protagonist not rooted in historical accounts). Its better than Quo Vadis (a good film, but Spartacus has better casting and dramatic performances). Its not revolutionary in any way. But as those films do, it places you in the world of the time, a believable, realistically historical version of that world, and tells you a story. I think it does so just as well as Ben-Hur , and better than Quo Vadis . The method of delivery of the story is not revolutionary or innovative. It is simply excellently done in a straightforward way. By a master craftsman.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to follow up manana with “What is Spartacus” about the film itself. I’ll probably do a “How is Spartacus” after that about how it fits into Kub’s ouvre and career trajectory.

So…I’ll push Kub-fest forward later today.

Sorry for the indecisive delay. I have a lot of thoughts spinning around regarding this film. Not in terms of its production and quality; we’ve all commented on that. But more in terms of its impact on Kurbick’s career. But after fits and starts and metaphorically crumpling up drafts to talk about that here, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best time to talk about that is after we have seen much more of Kubrick’s career. However, I’ll post this thesis statement now, with the intent to return here and ruminate/debate/discuss it here as the fest continues:

Spartacus is the most important film Kubrick made in terms of his career trajectory.

Kontroversial Kubrick-fest 05 is up. But please keep watching and discussing Spartacus!

Do you mean in terms of knowing how he DIDN’T want to work in the future?

Maybe a bit like David Lynch and Dune

I think you’re on my wavelength here, Mr. Gaunt. As well as learning very important lessons about working with actors (big name actors), large budgets, seeing and using the capabilities of well-resourced special effects and set design staffs, etc. Advantages and disadvantages. Costs and gains, artistically and financial. That’s the nut of my statement I want more time to ruminate on.

There’s an old Army saying, kind of an in joke, that I used to use all the time, thats not really in the popular parlance. It’s guided me through many endeavors in my life and is almost a philosophical guidepost for me. When you’re promoted, there’s a ceremony. And you have to get up in front of everybody in the unit, accept the promotion and make a short speech. Many end that short speech with the phrase, “and I’d like to thank everyone who mentored me and through example. showed me what to do to succeed in my career and as a leader. And those who showed me what not to do.”