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Spartacus (1960)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"They trained him to kill for their pleasure... but they trained him a little too well..."

This historical action / adventure film has everything: romance, conflict, individualism, brotherhood, the struggle for freedom, as well as an insightful look at one style of drive toward power. The large and truly excellent cast portray realistic characters loosely drawn from historical events. An actual slave revolt against Rome, that day's dominant superpower, provides the story for veteran screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who composed perhaps his best screenplay. The great cast, outstanding script and memorable score provide the elements from which one of film's greatest directors: Stanley Kubrick, created this masterpiece.

After a long musical introduction the credits roll over sculpture with a marked classical appearance. After the credits a narrator gives a bit of historical background and goes on to tell the early story of a mining slave: Spartacus (Kirk Douglas). When attacked after helping another slave, Spartacus fights back against one of his captors. As punishment, chained to a rock, he will die of hunger, thirst and exposure. Onto the scene comes Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a lanista searching for potential gladiators to train at his camp/school. When Batiatus sees Spartacus chained he nonetheless finds him promising, purchases him, and after a long journey returns with him and other slaves to Capua.

In Capua at Batiatus' school, Marcellus (Charles McGraw) trains the slaves as gladiators. Marcellus seems to take an instant dislike to Spartacus and singles him out for special attention. Life in the training camp may not seem like a picnic, but it compares well to the mines. Some of the gladiators develop into friends, such as Crixus (John Ireland) and, as promised by Batiatus, women come to favored trainees. In this way, Spartacus meets Varinia (Jean Simmons) a slave taken from Britannia, who cooks and carries at the school. She and Spartacus appear to develop feelings for one another.

The school at Capua may seem quite a step up for Spartacus, at least until the school gets prominent visitors. Traveling Roman dignitaries Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier ), Helena Glabrus (Nina Foch), her brother Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall) and his betrothed Claudia Marius (Joanna Barnes) stop on their journey. Batiatus covers a statue of Gracchus (Charles Laughton, outstanding in his role) with cloth, unsuccessfully attempting to hide his political sympathies from Crassus (Gracchus' Senatorial opponent). The visitors desire to view a pair of combats “to the death.” Batiatus objects, but Crassus pays his stated price for the requested contests. When the women select combatants, they choose Spartacus as one of them. In the first fight Crixus defeats his opponent. Now Spartacus and the large Ethiopian Draba (Woody Strode) must fight to the death. Telling that much of the story introduces all the main characters -- except Julius Caesar (John Gavin) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis), who enter the story later – but commits no spoilers. Of course, even small blurbs about this movie say it concerns a slave revolt against Rome. That revolt starts shortly after the point where I stopped with the story.

Throughout the movie words spoken by Spartacus, Crassus, Gracchus and the other main characters ring with significance and insight, each from their different points of view. Many quotes sparkle from this movie, but I favor this: “When just one man says 'No, I won't', Rome begins to fear.” In this way as well as many others the current “imperium” resembles Rome. I don't generally like to use the terms “left” and “right” (as commonly understood) since I believe those who identify with either stance usually miss the essence of most important questions. However, the “left” generally claims Spartacus as one of their pantheon of heroes. Crassus -– surely, as depicted in this film and probably also as a historical figure -- qualifies as a tyrant of the “right.”

I don't think the “right” holds a monopoly on tyranny. I have reviewed other films (e.g. Red Dawn, 1984) that portray other styles of tyranny and the struggles against them. Although the main villains of this film may be figures of the “right” and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo identified with the “left,” the heroic rebels of the slave revolt transcend both labels. They wish to be free from the global hegemon that sits astride their world. They join together to fight that beast in pursuit of their desire to live free of slavery, free to pursue their own ends.

Although early in the movie a narrator claims that 2000 years later humanity will win its struggle against slavery, I believe that statement too optimistic. Chattel slavery survives. In addition, other forms have developed, most prominently slavery to the State. However, this film frames the continuing struggle for freedom so well I don't believe I could overstate my praise. It has been one of my favorites for a very, very long time.

Even though I have seen this film many times, it always moves me deeply. If the eternal struggle against tyranny rates as one of your favorite movie themes, if you identify with often oppressed segments of humanity, if you see the “patrician classes” as a perennial source of that tyranny, then after seeing this movie maybe you will feel emotion swell within you as you think or say to yourself: “I'm Spartacus.”

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