By all accounts, Spartacus is the least "Kubrickian" of all of Stanley Kubrick's films, and yet it was the film that made me a fan. After seeing it at an early age, I was eager to check out his other work, but I was perhaps thankfully not shown more until I was smart (or maybe just old) enough to appreciate it. Today, the film maintains a tenuous sort of longevity as Kubrick's mainstream breakthrough, and probably ranks high in audiences' collective memories as one of the better biblical epics made during the 1950s and '60s.
Of course, I say "probably," because it's a movie that a lot of people remember, but not as many have seen recently. But Universal's recently-released Blu-ray gave me an opportunity to revisit the film in high definition. Much has already been said about the new transfer, which restoration expert Robert Harris said was abysmal – and he should know, since he assembled the version that Criterion released a few years ago. (Personally, while I defer to Harris' expertise, I would say that the film looks pretty amazing at 50+ years old, and more casual fans of the film will be duly satisfied by this presentation.)
But notwithstanding the controversy over its remastering, I was especially curious to see if Spartacus continued to survive as any kind of superlative example of Kubrick's filmmaking. As such, the film is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released in 1960, Spartacus was Stanley Kubrick's fifth feature film (including the little-seen Fear and Desire), and it established Kubrick as a major Hollywood director. Star Kirk Douglas recruited Kubrick to helm the film after Anthony Mann bowed out under still-unclear circumstances, and enlisted the filmmaker to construct an epic on par with Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments.
Despite rumored acrimony between Kubrick and Douglas, whose previous friendship deteriorated during production, Spartacus went on to earn six Academy Award nominations and four wins, including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov, who was the only actor to win an Oscar in a Kubrick film. It also won a Golden Globe for Best Picture, and maintains a 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: "Kubrickian" or not, Spartacus still works as a sprawling, epic tale. The script, written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, finds remarkable and subtle ways to communicate the human dimensions of this larger-than-life story, while Kubrick's clear-eyed camera captures the action and slowly builds dramatic momentum. Arguably better than those other biblical epics of that same period, the film dotes attention on the small, intimate details of Spartacus' life, creating more than just an arch depiction of the time period, but a real portrait of people in that world.
The battle scenes are epic and magnificent, revealing the brutality and the cacophony of battle more than the strategy. Meanwhile the performances, particularly by Spartacus' on screen adversaries, are really, really wonderful: Oscar-winner Ustinov is all sniveling self-preservation as Batiatus, the man who inadvertently helped Spartacus prepare for his uprising; Lawrence Olivier oozes arrogance and privilege as Crassus, a patrician-class Roman citizen who both uses Spartacus' rebellion as an opportunity for political positioning and engineers his own self-destruction; and Charles Laughton is pretty magical as Gracchus, an aging senator whose tacit acceptance of Roman corruption – most of all within himself – plays oddly in righting the film's moral compass.
Amazingly, Kubrick languishes in character details that seem almost out place in a film of this size, but which personalize the conflicts of the characters. For example, immediately before Spartacus is to fight his first gladiator battle, he and his opponent sit in a confining wooden chamber, watching through slits in the wood as two other fighters try to kill one another. It's suspense for the audience but it gives a much more intimate sense of the characters' feelings as they enter the arena and are forced to fight, in some cases, people whom deserve their (and the audience's) mercy and respect.
And in another scene, Crassus enlists Antoninus (Tony Curtis) to wash him, and the two men engage in a conversation about oysters and snails. This sequence was actually removed from the film prior to 1991 thanks to its suggestion of homosexuality, but restored in the film it not only shows a more authentic portrait of the potential relationships of Rome in 70 BC, it subtly examines the power dynamics between slaves and their owners, and in particular the balancing act slaves would have to endure to protect themselves and not offend their masters.
What Doesn't Work: Mostly the movie doesn't work as a Kubrick movie, which is admittedly like saying something is bad because it isn't "the best" enough. Because Kubrick had already demonstrated his mastery of filmmaking form and genre with his work on The Killing and especially Paths of Glory, his control of the execution of the film from a visual and narrative standpoint is terrific. But thanks to Douglas' control of the production, which was meant to primarily be a star vehicle for him, and I'd argue Kubrick's youth and mostly lack of control, the end result is not as distinctive or unique as the director's other work.
I would also say that as charismatic and forceful as Douglas is, he really doesn't seem to fit into the landscape of the film at all as Spartacus – he's a thoroughly modern performer in an antiquated universe. In that sense, many of the actors are not physically right for their parts, even if their performances are still effective. Otherwise there isn't really anything in particular that is missing from the film in terms of its scope or story; indeed, the fact that the film only shows the battle in which Spartacus and his men are defeated is more a testament to its restraint and commitment to a narrative than a deficiency of its ability to please a crowd.
What's The Verdict: Spartacus really holds up, I think, better even than almost all of the other biblical epics of that period. In comparison to Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, the film really has a much stronger and more compelling story, and the sophistication of the characters and their interplay is just fascinating. Of course, for Kubrick this was a film he disowned and which later prodded him to vow never to go without final cut again. But as a thrilling epic, a serious and substantial character study or just a oft-impugned entry in Kubrick's otherwise stellar filmography, Spartacus is terrific.