It is hard to imagine a Hollywood film with a bleaker tone than Spartacus, and just about impossible to think of another relentlessly downbeat story told on such a huge scale. It makes even a grand bit of self-loathing like Lawrence of Arabia seem positively sunny. Over three hours and God only knows how much money were spent telling this highly fictitious account of the slave revolt in the late Roman Republic. What is perhaps most remarkable about the film, however, is not so much its pessimism as its commercial success. Apparently audiences have not always been allergic to serious subjects treated intelligently.
The first film credited to Dalton Trumbo after being blacklisted, and based on a novel by another blacklisted author, Howard Fast, Spartacus is sometimes interpreted as a coded critique of the McCarthy era. If so, the parallels are tenuous at best, which is not to say the film is devoid of contemporary political relevance. It provides a schematic demonstration of the Marxist assertion that representative government will, in times of crisis, resort to dictatorship to suppress class struggle. Even that analogy, however, is buried pretty deeply under the specifics of the situation. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and the slaves may represent the “proletariat,” Grachus (Charles Laughton) the “good liberal” and Crassus (Laurence Olivier) the fascist tyrant, but all of those classifications are subsumed within the tensions and passions of the story.
Such sublimation would be impossible without the wonderful cast, but the actors also point to some of the film’s problems. Several are in top form, particularly Olivier, Laughton and Peter Ustinov. There is nonetheless a disconnect between Olivier’s refined, quasi-Shakespearean Crassus, say, and his educated slave, Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis with a thick Bronx accent. Curtis is otherwise quite good, but he’s never able to overcome that juxtaposition, and for that matter, while Douglas commands attention, he’s always Douglas. Similarly, while the scenes between Ustinov and Laughton (purportedly re-written by the former) have a high camp charm, they’re difficult to reconcile with the overall tragedy.
Perhaps this unevenness should be laid at the feet of the director, one Stanley Kubrick. Certainly Paths of Glory, which immediately preceded Spartacus, suffers from similar problems. Ironically, Spartacus is probably most famous today because Kubrick disowned it, not because of its powerful indictment of injustice or because it was a huge commercial success, and certainly not because of the director’s failings. To be sure, much of the film demonstrates Kubrick’s brilliance. The scenes in the gladiatorial school are particularly sharp, with each camera position and cut calculated for maximum visceral impact. Nonetheless, Kubrick’s disavowal of Spartacus results from a belief that films should express a director’s personal vision that he is given total control to realize. Spartacus might be so uneven because he did not have that control. The results can just as plausibly be attributed, however, to a young director still finding his feet.