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.
Next: Shoot the Piano Player