Spartacus, by Albert W. Vogt III

The career of Stanley Kubrick is an interesting one.  At some point in the 1960s, it appears that he went a bit batty.  Before this, he produced well made movies that, on the surface, look no different than any other made at the time.  There is a little context needed.  By the end of the 1950s, the rules that governed the way movies had been made from decades previously were beginning to be undone.  One of the people pushing against these strictures was Kubrick.  I tell you this not simply from what anyone can look up on the internet, but having read Kubrick’s own words while doing research for my dissertation, The Costumed Catholic: Catholics, Whiteness, and the Movies, 1928-1973.  Kubrick contended with the people responsible for putting these guidelines in place while working on bringing Vladimir Nabakov’s abhorrent novel Lolita (1955) to the screen in 1962.  Yes, abhorrent.  It is a book about a man in love with a twelve-year-old girl.  Before Kubrick got to this point, there is his early masterpiece Spartacus (1960).  I will not be describing the moments in it that lead to Lolita and the rest of his body of sometimes subversive work.  Yet, if you ever watch Spartacus, which is mostly acceptable, keep this information in mind.

After a long overture and opening credits, Spartacus begins with the title character (Kirk Douglas), a Thracian (an area near Greece) slave working in mines of North Africa.  He is unruly, but strong, and it is this strength that catches the eye of a trainer of gladiators named Batiatus (Peter Ustinov).  He has come to this area from Italy to purchase new slaves to teach in his gladiatorial school, and Spartacus is picked.  His training begins upon his arrival.  Not long after this, he is introduced to Varinia (Jean Simmons).  She is a slave woman that is given to Spartacus as part of their “reward” for learning to be killers.  The idea is to keep the enslaved in a relative state of happiness by letting them fornicate.  So taken is he be her beauty, though, that he does not go through with it despite being egged on by Batiatus and his overseer, Marcellus (Charles McGraw).  In any case, it develops into love between Spartacus and Varinia.  Later, Batiatus is visited by one of the highest ranking men in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier).  The women with him demand that the gladiators put on a show.  Of course, Spartacus is picked, while Varinia waits on the guests above watching.  She is noticed by Crassus, who buys her from Batiatus.  Spartacus looks on the next day as she is put onto a cart to be taken to Rome.  Marcellus notices the horror in Spartacus’ demeanor and taunts the slave.  This is enough to spark an uprising that takes down the entire household, though Batiatus and the rest escape.  From there, Spartacus begins to ride around the countryside, plundering villas and freeing everyone in chains.  At first, those newly released from bondage behave as a rabble, making sport of some of those they capture.  Spartacus steps in and gives their growing cause a purpose.  He tells them they should stop behaving as the Romans do and instead fight to bring freedom to all enslaved.  In doing so, he is eventually reunited with Varinia, who managed to get away from Batiatus as he fled.  News of the swelling ranks of former slaves reaches Rome, and the Senate is split as to what to do about it.  Preaching a more measured approach is Gracchus, a senator who opposes Crassus.  Others want more direct action, and eventually the new commander of the garrison of Rome, Marcus Glabrus (John Dall), is given a portion of those guarding the city to deal with the rebels.  Crassus is not pleased with this move, showing the men leaving the city to confront Spartacus to his servant, Antoninus (Tony Curtis).  Seeing them, Antoninus decides to defect to the slave encampment ahead of a battle between Spartacus’ forces and those of Glabrus.  Learning of the presence of the Roman soldiers, Spartacus decides to lead a raid on their encampment instead of fighting them in the field.  This is one of his first major successes, and it is enough to impress the Cilician pirates in ferrying the slaves out of Italy to wherever they would like to go, for a huge sum of money, to be fair.  This becomes Sparacus’ message to Rome: let them depart and they will spare any town between them and their march to the sea.  This is never truly going to be an option, and Gracchus bribes the pirates further into abandoning the uprising.  This is not enough, though, from preventing Crassus from becoming First Consul of Rome and forcing Gracchus into exile.  Meanwhile, he and three other armies converge on Spartacus’ forces.  In desperation, he decides to march on Rome itself, but is defeated in battle outside of the city.  Many die, though he, Antoninus, Varinia, and her newborn son all survive and are captured.  Crassus wants Spartacus to make an example of the upstart, but he cannot identify the man.  Thus, he attempts to enlist the help of the survivors.  This is when you get the famous scene where they all stand up and claim to be Spartacus.  Crassus’ solution to this dilemma is to crucify the lot of them.  He is able to locate Varinia and her baby, not believing her when she says that Spartacus is dead.  Instead of putting her back into enslavement, Crassus takes her into his household with the intention of making her love her conqueror.  He cannot understand why threatening the life of her son does not make her develop the affection he seeks.  Outside the city walls, Crassus has identified Antoninus and Spartacus, forcing them to fight each other to the death.  The victor, Spartacus, is crucified.  As this goes on, at Gracchus’ behest, Batiatus is sent to smuggle Varinia and her child out of Crassus’ household.  Gracchus then grants her freedom and sends her off with Batiatus.  She gets one last look of her beloved Spartacus as they depart Rome, bidding a tearful goodbye before the movie ends.

You might be expecting this historian to say something about the accuracy of Spartacus.  The problem is that the events depicted therein took place over 2,000 years ago.  Further, what historical evidence there is of these events is conflicting and scant.  It does seem that there was a Spartacus, and that he was part of slave uprising called the Third Servile War.  What interests me more as a Catholic are the crucifixions.  Those who choose not to believe in God often do so because they think there is no proof of the events depicted in the Bible.  To be clear, neither the happenings in the movie or those on which they are based are intended to prove the existence of God.  At the same time, there is this tantalizing parallel between the punishment given to Spartacus and his men to that inflicted on Jesus.  Indeed, we are talking about moments in time only a few decades apart.  We tend to think of a few years ago as a part of the distant past, but historically speaking, roughly ninety years is the blink of an eye.  And if there is one thing we do know about the slaves turned rebels that the movie features is that the survivors were punished by dying on a cross.  This is a physical reality that gives credence to the Bible.  There are also some similarities in ideology, though this is likely a departure from history.  The movie depicts Spartacus as an idealist, and somewhat reluctant to fight, preferring to leave Roman territory peacefully.  Whatever it is that happened to the real Spartacus, it does not seem that he shared this belief.  What gets to me here is the notion of being a slave.  Over the centuries, the Church has spoken out against slavery.  There have been some so-called Christians who have attempted to use faith to justify the institution.  In the Bible, Paul often refers to himself as a slave for Christ.  Interestingly, in the film Spartacus refers to death as the only true freedom for a slave, which is what galvanizes his followers for the final battle.  At such a time as the first century BC, this made sense.  These days, having a relationship with God is the only real freedom.

The last thing to say about Spartacus is that it is epic.  The climactic battle scene is particularly impressive in its scale.  Unfortunately, epic often equates to long, and this film is no exception, being over three hours in length.  It moves along okay most of the time, but it can lag.  Still, I say it is worth your time, especially if it keeps you away from the rest of Kubrick’s movies.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s