2.5 Stars out of 4
Spartacus seems like a long, reluctant picture. It’s over three hours, it went through three directors until reaching its final product, and it is merely an extension off the array of Roman epics. Ben Hur had reigned 74, 000, 000 dollars at the box office and one year later, Spartacus would accompany it at a measly 1.8 million. But Spartacus as cinema feels like an ordinal, underwhelming picture. As it was for Kubrick.
The plot: a gaggle of Roman slaves are forced to work in treacherous conditions in the province of Libya. Spartacus, an innate rebel, bites the ankle of one of the guards and is sentenced to death by starvation. This leads to Spartacus revolting in the village and creating an uprising of Moses proportions.
Spartacus’s rival: Crassus (Laurence Olivier), Spartacus’s alliance: a steadfast Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov). My prose seem linear and fairly unequivocal, doesn’t it? I do this with disappointment. Spartacus is not a bad movie, but it is a film that frays unconventional thought. Those who admired Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and The Killing, films completely intent on raw emotion and ambiguous inquiries, will find Spartacus an overly austere, watered down Kubrick, without the iconoclastic edge.
It has great performances. Kirk Douglas as Spartacus is a stout, robust, honourable protagonist who acts like a Christ-like prophet for his fellow friends. Laurence Olivier is antagonizing but he was more obsessive in his Hamlet. Peter Ustinov is charming but was more complex as Nero in Quo Vadis.
Spartacus is a film that begins with liberation, love, redemption, and then unfolds into despair, loss, and sacrifice. It pays off, it has action, and it thrusts itself on an arc Kubrick has never travelled on. It was told Kubrick had trouble working on Spartacus because he lauded trademark cynicism and Dalton Trumbo (one of the writers) preferred simple optimism. Spartacus would have been more fascinating if it had to been told through a Kubrick lens, one that looks on its characters with uncertainty.
It was adapted from a book by Howard Fast and Spartacus began with mixed reviews and snowballed into generally positive-spoken ones. Spartacus is enchanting, dramatic, emotional, and perhaps melodramatic. But it seems to be tapping its shoes to other Roman epics that were just as adequate.
But there is a great scene: when Crassus asks which soldier is Spartacus and Douglas, before speaking up, is supported by his whole army who proclaim: I am Spartacus. This is a rare time when an icon gets lost in a crowd. Perhaps there, Kubrick would be smiling.