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Spartacus Movie Review

curtis peter kubrick douglas

1960 – Stanley Kubrick –

Although Spartacus is probably Stanley Kubrick's least personal film, you can still recognize in this story of a slave-led rebellion in ancient Rome the director's continual interest in the idea of dehumanization. Kubrick inherited the directorial chores from Anthony Mann, who had a difference of opinion with star and executive producer Kirk Douglas, and never had full control of the script. The film was publicized as a thinking-person's epic that explored the clash of slavery and freedom, but Dalton Trumbo's script really makes it more of an epic for liberals. The opening narration sounds almost like a tract from the Thracian chapter of the ACLU: “Spartacus lived out his youth and his young manhood dreaming the death of slavery, 2,000 years before it finally would die.”

In spite of Kubrick's consistently negative remarks about the film (resentful over his lack of control), Spartacus is full of wonderful moments both large and small. Peter Ustinov's Oscar-winning performance as the cherubically grubby Batiatus enriches every scene he is in. Ustinov seems to be enjoying a private joke throughout the movie, and he rewrote some of the dialogue in his scenes with the equally impish Charles Laughton to enhance both their parts. The extreme long shots in the prologue to the final battle scene, showing the Roman legions marching into place (8,000 Spanish soldiers worked as extras), fill the Super Technirama-70 screen majestically. This and other moments, such as the long perspectives showing the crucifixions of 6,000 captured slaves on the Appian Way, the gladiator fight between Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Daraba (Woody Strode), and the expansive shots in the Senate meetings, make rich use of the widescreen dimensions.

A number of scenes are effectively designed to contrast foreground and background elements. When Spartacus and Daraba fight for the amusement of Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his guests, the combatants grunt and bleed in the background while in the foreground, the aristocrats giggle and gossip, practically ignoring the life-and-death struggle below. Later, when Crassus shows Antoninus (Tony Curtis, who never quite drops his Bronx accent) the splendors of Rome, he gestures expansively beyond a portico, where a legion of troops sprawls impressively across the screen.

The 1991 reissue, supervised by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, generated a new 65mm preservation negative and restored Alex North's original overture and five minutes of footage that didn't pass the censor in 1960. For this flirtatious “oysters and snails” scene between Olivier and Curtis, Olivier's widow Joan Plowright selected Anthony Hopkins to dub her husband's voice on the deteriorated soundtrack. Tony Curtis read his own lines, and his voice was then “lightened” electronically to approximate the timbre of a younger man.

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Marcus Licinius Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Tony Curtis (Antoninus), Charles Laughton (Lentulus Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Lentulus Batiatus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), John Ireland (Crixus), Herbert Lom (Tigranes), John Dall (Glabrus), Charles McGraw (Marcellus), Joanna Barnes (Claudia Marius), Harold Stone (David), Woody Strode (Daraba), Peter Brocco (Ramon) Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo Cinematographer: Russell Metty, Clifford Stine Composer: Alex North Producer: Kirk Douglas and Edward Lewis for Bryna Productions; released by Universal MPAA Rating: PG-13 (restored 1991 version) Running Time: 184 minutes Format: VHS, LV, DVD Awards: Academy Awards, 1960: Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color Cinematography, Costume Design, Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov); Nominations: Film Editing, Score; Golden Globe Awards 1961: Film—Drama Budget: $12M Box Office: $14M (rentals).

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