Reflections of the Third Eye
20 April 2013
Spartacus (1960)
Now Playing: late night ambience
Topic: S

This is not a full-blown review of Spartacus, which you are likely to have seen and certainly owns no shortage of critique, from Kubrickians and others. Rather, I figured I'd post some random thoughts from my most recent viewing.

The background you know; Kirk Douglas commanded the project and fired the original director after shooting had begun, in his place Douglas recruited the up and coming Stanley Kubrick, who had impressed the Hollywood star when the two collaborated on the much-respected Paths Of Glory (1957). Both Douglas and Kubrick embarked on the Spartacus rescue mission with their own private agendas, which didn't prevent the film from becoming a commercial and critical success.

The first thing to observe is that the movie has aged fairly well. It looks and feels "old" in the sense of a classic Hollywood production, but only rarely does it seem dated. This era saw a number of ancient epics such as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, El Cid et al. Of these, Spartacus is clearly the most relevant experience for a modern viewer. This is not due to some particularly brilliant directing from Kubrick, who does a skilful but fairly traditional job on the massive Cecil B DeMille type sequences, and lets the actors dominate the smaller scenes. One could say that if Kubrick's objective was to add a successful A-list movie to his resume', he did it just right. Thanks to the strength of the story, the frequently terrific acting, and a shrewd use of classic plot devices, the movie ages with dignity, like an old Bentley.

But it takes a few particular actors and scenes to make Spartacus a living experience rather than just a grand exhibition piece. Top honors must go to Charles Laughton who plays his scheming, powerful yet goodhearted Roman senator as though it had been custom-made for him. It is a wonderful display of a kind of larger than life performance that would fall out of fashion a few years later, and has never really returned. Laughton turns his Gracchus into a vividly alive and generous Falstaff kind of man, while on another level he is a survivor among the backstabbers in Rome and undoubtedly one with blood on his hands.

Yet this exquisite package isn't all that the viewer perceives, because Laughton's presence carries just enough of a hint of irony, like a quick wink of the eye, to remind you and the crew and probably himself too, that this is all theatre. This meta-comment is effective for several reasons, the simplest one being that it is true, it is all theatre and the audience is granted the intelligence to share this consensual hallucination with Laughton and Olivier and the other great actors.

Furthermore, the setting of the senate in Rome resembles a stage where political monologues and dialogues determine the nation's future, and the scenes in this milieu, strongly dominated by Laughton, emerge as a kind of play-within-play in Shakespeare's manner. This observation suggests another undercurrent to Laughton's multilayered presence; the enormous tradition of stage productions set in the classic Rome of Spartacus, leading by way of Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar all the way back to the playwrights and rhetoric masters of the ancient high culture. In addition to bringing to life his admirably vivacious Gracchus, Laughton's subtle meta-performance reminds us of the extraordinary context, even in a commercial Hollywood movie, of a Roman stage.

Of course, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov hold their own ground as thespians; Olivier's complex, ambivalent Crassus bringing much of the same Shakespearean nutrition to the table as Laughton, while the younger Ustinov represents a slightly more naturalistic and less formalized kind of acting. The scenes between Laughton and Ustinov are not only wondrously entertaining, but also make for a passing of the torch, to some extent.

The American actors can't help but suffering in the Anglofied tone of the movie, and there is an awkward clash between traditions at times, such as Olivier and his brother in law (Broadway actor John Dall) who seem to be in separate movies. Kirk Douglas, whose movie it after all is, does a good job in emphasizing the physical aspects of his Spartacus; a commanding example of the hero in his most visceral incarnation. With this choice comes a natural lack of insight behind the righteous warrior mask of Spartacus, whose entire emotional life is distilled down to his love for Varinia (a very beautiful Jean Simmons). The hero archetype rests comfortably on Douglas' broad shoulders, but it also shifts the thematic bias away from the notion of the 'rebel' to that of the 'warrior', and turns Spartacus into more of a war movie than it maybe should have been. Compared with Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Spartacus finds a presumed rebel becoming a field general, while Gladiator finds a field general becoming a rebel. The later movie gains in emotional pull from this characterization of the hero role.

Kubrick may not have left too strong a mark on this movie, except for its general excellence, but the memorable final scene stands out enough that it hints of the unique ideation of the great director. As the crucificed hero suffers on the cross, his wife and new-born child stand by and silently weep, unable to reveal their identity. It's a heavy, archetypal scene, if not outright psychedelic then certainly Jungian, and it is a fitting apex to a closing reel that also saw Olivier and Douglas finally meet in a scene which brilliantly contrasts two types of power--that of the office and law, with that of nature and the common man. While the overall bias towards a gung-ho war movie reduces the movie of its potential multi-layered quality, there are enough moments of depth and ambivalence to satisfy the psychedelic mind, and the closing scene in particular is almost Dali-esque.

A final thought: Kubrick does well in exploting the studio resources and huge number of extras at his hands, and creates a movie that truly looks expensive, even today. At the same time, many of the sets still look like studio back-lot creations in a manner typical of older Hollywood movies, and it's unfortunate that not more filming took place in actual outdoors settings. This effect is compounded by a curious presentation of Southern Italy as about the same size as your local neighborhood, so that slaves on the run keep bumping into one another in the most unlikely fashion. These two drawbacks are perhaps the strongest reminders that the movie belongs to a much earlier era and different audience attitude than Scott's Gladiator.

NOTE: the reinstated scenes featuring a subtle (or not so subtle) homosexual undertone between Olivier and young Tony Curtis are quite worthwhile and contribute to the modern and more ambiguous aspect of Spartacus. The sequence is slightly inferior technically and you can tell where it begins and ends, but it nevertheless is a vital addition to the film. Anthony Hopkins was apparently hired to imitate Olivier's voice as the original soundtrack had been lost, while Curtis was still around and redid himself.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:49 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:41 AM MEST

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