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.