Film: Spartacus (1960)
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, John Gavin, John Dall
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Oscar History: 6 nominations/4 wins (Best Supporting Actor-Peter Ustinov*, Costume*, Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Film Editing, Score)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars
to complete a film or two off of the list yourself, as even the worst of the bunch are still iconic parts of American cinema.
(Spoilers Ahead) Spartacus came at arguably the height of the biblical or time-of-Christ epics, and like many of those films it is VERY long. Clocking in at just over three hours, it's the sort of film you need a Saturday night and a bucket full of popcorn to complete, but thankfully that was the route I went as I really enjoyed the picture. Telling the tale of Spartacus (Douglas), a slave who can no longer stand his station, he is sentenced to fight as a gladiator, but succeeds in killing his master and then escaping to form a slave army, causing a rebellion that makes its way all the way to Rome, where political maneuverings between Crassus (Olivier), Gracchus (Laughton), and an emerging Julius Caesar (Gavin) result in Spartacus' gaining great fame and eventually causing his doom, but not before hundreds of men die in a senseless act of violence that seals Spartacus' fate as a legend. The film ends with Kirk Douglas hanging from a cross, seeing his son (who is now free) and having the comfort that he did not die in vain.
I am a self-professed fan of historical epics of this era (I loved Ben-Hur as you may recall), which may surprise some but I'm always a sucker for a gigantic story if it's done well, and this is true of Spartacus. The script, written in secret by Dalton Trumbo (it was essentially the film that ended the blacklist, as you'll recall from the recent biopic about the writer, and a lot of that had to do with Kirk Douglas demanding Trumbo get credit-Douglas was too big of a star for Hollywood to ignore, and the box office for this film was gargantuan so the blacklist suddenly had no purpose). The movie's core is centered around a man largely devoid of fault, which made director Stanley Kubrick (isn't it weird to think that this is a Kubrick film since it's so alien to the rest of his pictures?), but in reality Spartacus is a man of deep pride who doesn't really know how to play his own game. There are moments in the film where doing exactly what is right costs him dearly, and so he might be a man without blemish on his character, but tactically he's not always brilliant, so I didn't get the "saint" factor that sometimes plagues films of this nature. He's essentially Ned Stark, for those of you who watch Game of Thrones, and they meet similar ends.
The film is of course noted for its iconic "I am Spartacus" scene and with good reason. I'd seen this film in clip shows at least a hundred times before, but positioned in the final third of the movie, it is still a gut punch, and one that will leave you in tears. Watching hundreds of men sacrifice themselves for a cause, particularly considering the way that this clearly was a metaphor for the Red Scare and what was happening to Dalton Trumbo himself during this era, is deeply moving. History repeats itself, and Trumbo's script knows that that's the case, and finds ways to make sure the audience can see past the gladiator wear and into their own present.
The film is famed for the homosexual overtones between Crassus and Antoninus (Curtis), and the scenes between them are truly provocative (famously, as Olivier was dead, Anthony Hopkins did the dubbing for this scene which was re-introduced to the picture after being cut by censors in the 1960's when it was added back into the movie in the 1990's). The scene is rather shocking as there's little subtlety or even hints that Crassus could be talking about something other than having sex with Antoninus, and while it's problematic that we have the "predatory gay" scene here (not to mention the absolute disgust from Antoninus over the entire situation), it's still pretty progressive in terms of simply acknowledging the clear homosexual overtones of a film where only Jean Simmons appears as a major female character. Plus, any film with John Gavin is at least gay in my mind, so there's that.
The film won six Academy Award nominations, though oddly enough not one for Best Picture, with the Academy perhaps worn out of gladiator epics so soon after Ben-Hur won eleven trophies. Still, it managed a stronghold on the tech categories, and rightfully so. The cinematography is breathtaking, a wonderful Technicolor concoction, is one of the most beautiful of the era, and we see gigantic plains of actors, extras, and magnificent settings that feel fully-detailed. Russell Metty was only nominated for an Oscar once in his career, but thankfully it was for the right picture here. The Art Direction and Costume are full of great touches, and in the case of the Art Direction in particular the scenery feels (while clearly part of a movie set) relatively-detailed and manages to be both best AND most, which is something that we don't oftentimes see in this category. The score by Alex North is instantly iconic, and rumbles throughout the picture but never in a way that feels like bombast (or at least when it does, it's tonally appropriate bombast as this is a sword-and-sandals film). One of the few weak points in the nominations, though, would be the editing. Occasionally the film's political scenes feel too talky and though I don't quibble with the movie being 184 minutes long, there are scenes that probably could have used some trimming to keep the focus a bit tighter.
My biggest complaint, and why this film doesn't hit five stars (and flirted dangerously with three), is that the acting isn't particularly good. Kirk Douglas nails his lead role, but it's not a challenging one which is probably good as nuance was never Douglas' forte. The rest of the cast, though, runs the line between hammy and hammier. Casting Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov in your movie is basically begging for Royal Shakespeare Company style acting, but it also means that they are all trying to one-up each other in scenery-chewing. I am kind of flabbergasted that it was Ustinov over the showier Laughton and Olivier who managed the supporting nomination (perhaps their egos made it impossible for them to compete for anything other than lead?), but Ustinov's morally corrupt, but still with a slight heart of gold, mid-level official is hardly worth noticing except that Ustinov is always fun to watch in a camp sort of way. The role and most of the other characters feel like cartoons more than anything else, and while Trumbo's script and Douglas' gravitas keep the movie grounded, the side scenes with these characters, except for when the occasional catty aside comes out are nearing the level of bad acting.
Those are my thoughts on this gargantuan movie. I suspect (considering its status in American cinema) that most of you have seen this-if you have, please share your comments below. Are you as shocked as I that this is a Stanley Kubrick film? Are you with me that the film is great, but the acting a massive disappointment? And considering Ustinov's competition, who were you cheering for in the Supporting Actor race of 1960? See you in the comments!