Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Spartacus (1960) - #105

When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That's why he's not afraid of it. That's why we'll win.

As ambitious in scale, investment of talent and commercial aspirations as any film in the Criterion Collection, and significantly more so than most, Spartacus may seem at first glance to be something of a misfit when placed alongside the foreign, art house and more independent/auteurist films that Criterion is known for. As part of the ancient  classical epic genre, ranked alongside major studio productions like Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, The Robe and, most significantly Ben-Hur that preceded it over the course of the 1950s, Spartacus looks and feels like your standard colossal Hollywood blockbuster of that era, featuring massive sets, abundant pomp and pageantry, portentous dialogue and the proverbial "cast of thousands." But despite these similarities, Spartacus stands quite apart from them in its underlying tone of subversion and challenge to popular mores and conventional power structures.

Telling the historically-based tale of a slave revolt that posed a serious challenge to the authority of the Roman Empire in pre-Christian times, the idea for this film was sparked by Kirk Douglas after his bid to be cast as the lead in Ben-Hur was rejected in Charlton Heston's favor. Though I can understand Douglas' disappointment, I think it turned out for the better. I'm not a big fan of Heston's wooden, grimacing over-acting style, but he makes a better Ben-Hur than his rambunctious dimple-chinned rival would have, given the pious direction that William Wyler and MGM took with that movie. And Kirk Douglas as the executive producer of Spartacus turns in an arguably better performance than Kirk Douglas the star performer. In assembling an impressive international cast, giving Stanley Kubrick an important opportunity to solidify his reputation as a director, and breaching the barriers to intellectual honesty posed by the McCarthy-era blacklisting of identified communist sympathizers by naming screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the credits, Spartacus proved to be as radical and world-changing in its lasting impact on cinema as was the ancient uprising it chronicled on the politics and militarism of its time.

Watching Spartacus among the other Criterion films of 1960 doesn't really help much in assessing its place its achievements in that era, so for comparison's sake, I watched Ben-Hur via a streaming rental on YouTube to put the two epics side by side. The last quote in the trailer above, saying that Spartacus surpassed Ben-Hur "in wit, characterization and romance," was easily borne out in my opinion, even though Ben-Hur obviously earned much greater recognition in terms of awards and box office receipts. I think that's largely attributable to the conflicting goals of the two films. Whereas Ben-Hur aimed to provide a message that closely adhered to and reinforced the expectations of its mainstream audience, through its embellishments on the biblical accounts of Jesus Christ and its embrace of the triumphant individualism of its titular hero, Spartacus is at its heart a story of class struggle and collective solidarity. Both films concern a man who rises up from slavery to boldly challenge corrupt imperial forces, but it's significant to note that Judah Ben-Hur was heir to wealth and privilege, fell into slavery due to injustice and envy, and accomplished his victory through a form of acquiescence to the future power of a Christian church destined to merge with the Roman Empire. In contrast, Spartacus was born into slavery, never received any kind of formal education, and inspired a revolt based not on an appeal to ancient religious traditions but only to the inherent striving for freedom and self-determination common to oppressed peoples whose consciences have been awakened. Ben-Hur is, in short, a film much more compatible and even subservient to cultural authoritarianism than Spartacus could ever be construed or accused of.

Perhaps it's this inherent threat to the status quo, more than the appearance of a particular man's name for a few seconds on the opening credits, that led John Wayne and the American Legion to vociferously oppose Spartacus and call for the film's boycott when it was first released - a sad indication of just how repressive and unreasonable our nation's popular culture was at the time. One of the most vital supplements featured on Criterion's two-disc DVD set (and an expensive one, at that!) offers fascinating background to the controversy surrounding Spartacus, and the significant part it played in destroying not only the blacklist but also the Hayes Code. A letter from the MPAA outlines in disturbing but humorous detail the specific offenses that Trumbo's script committed (of course, the text was turned into them before the decision to credit Trumbo directly rather than the "Sam Jackson" alias he'd been forced to use in his work on other films.) Some of the mandated cuts were implemented in the first theatrical release; others appear to have been ignored altogether. Thankfully, we have the complete film as Trumbo, Kirk Douglas and replacement director Stanley Kubrick intended, thanks to a comprehensive restoration from 1991 that not only reinstated the deleted scenes, but gave us a visually magnificent document of the kind of films they just don't make any more.

Another point establishing the superiority of Spartacus over Ben-Hur is found in the supporting cast, and the overall quality of acting in general. One can debate the merits of Kirk Douglas vs. Charlton Heston as a matter of personal preference (which of the two is the snail, which is the oyster?) but no equivalent to the cumulative talents of Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis is anywhere to be found among the cast of Ben-Hur. I have to applaud the courage of Kirk Douglas in putting this troupe together, knowing full well that he'd likely be overshadowed by the complexity and intrigue they each brought to their respective roles. Whereas Douglas as Spartacus is a straightforward action man, possessed of all the requisite taciturn virtues befitting his role (though he allows himself a few choice moments to seethe as only Kirk Douglas can), the best lines and most provocative performances are pushed further down the bill. Olivier as the sexually-ambiguous, vaingloriously insecure tyrant in the making, Jean Simmons as a slave woman conscious of her status as chattel but maintaining her integrity as best she can, the shrewd exchanges of Ustinov's slave trader and Laughton's cynical populist politician - the four of them are each masterful, commanding their scenes with poise and elegance. And their British roots contributed to the "hell with it" attitude that pushed Douglas to make the fateful decision to defy the blacklist, as their careers faced less risk than would have been the case if he'd recruited a more conventional Hollywood-based  supporting cast.

Setting aside then all the background information that makes the production of Spartacus a significant story in its own right, we are left with a film that captures and expresses a sense of mounting fury and outrage in response to the unchecked abuses and contempt of untrammeled might and authority. As such, it's a film that speaks to us today, in an age where wealth, privilege and access to power are increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few, to the detriment of the many. The old-fashionedness of epic-scaled costume dramas like Spartacus, with its requisite concessions to still prevailing taboos, may present some obstacles to connecting with a younger audience more accustomed to across-the-board extremity and explicitness. More recent retellings of the Spartacus myth, like the motion comic or the episodic series produced by Starz, have expanded liberties in which to tell their story, and though I haven't taken the time to do more than sample viewings, it seems clear enough that they wouldn't enjoy these opportunities to continue the Spartacus legacy if it hadn't been for the brave efforts of Kirk Douglas, who risked a hard-fought reputation as a Hollywood leading man in order to bring his vision of an ancient rabble-rouser and true freedom fighter on to the big screen for all the world to gaze upon in awe and admiration.


David said...

I can remember nobody as supporting roles in Ben-Hur,but Spartacus,what a force!!
Is Kirk the only actor who had worked with SK twice?
BTW,I know that SK's other color films release rights are in Warner's hands,any possibility they get released by CC?

Dave said...

David, I know that Kubrick has a reputation for not working with the same actors more than once, but Wikipedia shows these exceptions to that rule: "Kubrick did not generally reuse actors on film after film in the manner of John Ford, Martin Scorsese, or Akira Kurosawa. However, Kubrick did on several occasions work with the same actor more than once. In lead roles, Sterling Hayden appeared in both The Killing and Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, and Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory and Spartacus. In supporting roles, Joe Turkel appears in The Killing, Paths of Glory, and The Shining, Philip Stone appears in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, Leonard Rossiter is featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon, while Timothy Carey is in both The Killing and Paths of Glory. A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon saw the largest crossover, with six actors (including Patrick Magee) having roles of various lengths in each film."

This leads me to add a comment about Kubrick's near-disavowal of his work on Spartacus later on in his life. While I can understand his dissatisfaction at having to come in as a replacement director and not be in on the early development of its creative process, it seems to me that he's not giving sufficient credit to either Kirk Douglas or his own work in salvaging what could have been a huge flop if it were entrusted to less capable hands. Sure, it's not a Kubrick film in the way that either his earlier or later films carry his distinctive auteurist stamp, but this is a film in which one could argue he was overshadowed by the talent surrounding him. Maybe he just had a hard time dealing with being in that humbling situation! Still, I can't help but wonder if he would have had the opportunity to take on some of his later projects were it not for the confidence his work on Spartacus inspired in some of the producers of that time.

My impression is that Warner intends to hang onto all of the Kubrick films they currently have rights to for as long as possible. They just released a comprehensive blu-ray box set which I don't own myself but from what I've heard, it's an impressive package. Sure, it would be nice to get all the distinctive packaging and supplemental goodies that I know Criterion would lavish upon these films if they had the chance but Kubrick is too lucrative a draw based on his name alone for a studio like Warner to hand over to some other company for distribution. If MGM were in better financial shape, Criterion may not have even been given the chance to distribute Paths of Glory or The Killing over the past year or so.

David said...

Dave,Your actor list is so detailed,maybe I should say Kirk is the only "leading role" he had worked with twice.Since Kirk was always the producer,and he had such desire of controlling actors,he must have had some tough time!!

Yes,SK never admitted that Spartacus is his film,but this epic surely makes it more convincing that he is the "SK Almighty".

Since Warner has just released the blue-ray box-set,I doubt they would dare to give the rights away and compete with CC,and I think every SK film deserves hours long bonus materials!!

David said...

I re-watched it last night,thought it is probably the worst film directed by Kubrick.It is totally Hollywood style and has no cutting edge,I was wondering why he chose to take over.

David Blakeslee said...

David, I just saw this comment, never replied, apologies for taking too long!

I think Spartacus has a lot more cutting edge to it than you give it credit for - it forcefully broke the blacklist code by giving Dalton Trumbo screen credit for writing the script, it managed to slide a transgressive (for its time) homosexual innuendo in the dialog and interactions between acting legend Laurence Olivier and Hollywood idol Tony Curtis, it left early Christianity completely out of the narrative, quite unusual for blockbuster epics set in ancient times, and it was about a slave rebellion against the privileged upper class, not exactly mainstream values in the USA at that time. Even Jean Simmons skinny-dipping was a boundary-pusher. But alongside what Kubrick did later, the easing of censorship controls across the spectrum of "allowable content" and all the other advances in cinematic arts we've grown accustomed to, I can see why Spartacus doesn't quite hold up. And the fact remains, Kubrick had to make a lot of compromises on this film, dealing with egos as large as his own and more used to than he was at the time in having things done *their* way.