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from Spartacus
[click photos for larger versions]

Like the corrupt and venal Rome it portrays, Spartacus was borne from the struggle of many creative and powerful people working against and in collaboration with each other. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, and it arrived in a period when the epic motion picture dominated American movie-going much as the summer blockbuster does today. For a Hollywood film, Spartacus has an unusually high artistic pedigree, including not just director Stanley Kubrick, but also its supporting cast (mostly British stage actors turned movie stars) and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer. All of this makes what went on behind the camera as interesting if not more so than the movie itself. The Criterion Collection has recently released Spartacus in a two-disc DVD set; the movie has been digitally transferred from the restored print used in the 1991 re-release. As breathtaking as the movie is, it’s fair to say that the extra features, which include several audio commentaries, interviews, and short documentaries, are the main attraction here. The making of Spartacus was its own epic struggle, a fact which this DVD release explores in exhaustive and fascinating detail.

Adapted from the novel by Howard Fast, Spartacus concerns itself with the two extremes of Roman society: the slaves and the senators. Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a Thraecian slave by birth who gets recruited by a Roman gladiatorial school. There he learns to fight to the death for the amusement of pagan aristocrats. The training scenes at the school are choreographed like militaristic dances; one can see the beginnings of Kubrick’s man-as-machine obsession. Douglas, square jawed and block shouldered, hardly speaks. His Spartacus is both a savage and an automaton, able to perform with physical perfection but harboring deep, unspoken rage.

Part of that rage runs over when he falls in love with the demure slave girl Varinia (Jean Simmons). Their first scenes together are beautiful, near wordless encounters. She is presented to him as a courtesan, and he, clearly a novice at romance, does not know what to do with her. They take to giving each other long, aching glances across courtyards and through iron bars. Later, when she’s callously given to another gladiator for the evening, Spartacus must endure the sounds of love making, and he paces his cell like a caged beast. His almost constant state of repression, emotional or otherwise, constitutes what screenwriter Dalton Trumbo calls in the audio commentary the "small Spartacus." It is the Spartacus we can empathize with and pity – a dark, brooding ex-slave plagued by self-doubt and a low self-esteem. It is the Spartacus who, in spite of his humble nature, leads a spontaneous revolt against the school. Letting out all of his repressed anger, Spartacus attacks the school guards with amazing savagery and leads his fellow gladiators on a rampage through the countryside.

From here, the movie lurches through time and space. It is a few years later and we are in the Roman senate where patricians debate over how to quell a massive slave insurrection led by a slave named Spartacus. At odds with each other are Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a regal, statuesque general and Gracchus (Charles Laughton), a portly elder statesman. The two are as different in politics as they are in appearance. Crassus is militarism incarnate. From his palatial estate, he commands his far-flung armies in the name of his beloved Rome. So strong is his love for the empire that it prompts one senator to declare that "This republic of ours is something like a rich widow. Most Romans love her as their mother but Crassus dreams of marrying the old girl to put it politely." Olivier is brilliant. A single shot of him surveying his property, back arched, sword by his side, says everything about his character. His disdain for the plump, laid-back Gracchus is evident but never stated. It is all registered in his arched eyebrows and meticulously clipped elocution.

In one of his final screen performances, Charles Laughton plays Gracchus as someone who’s seen it all but who still gets a kick out of all this nonsense. He is as egalitarian as Crassus is elitist, and in one scene, he warns the young Julius Caesar to heed the power of the common man. Trumbo wrote a sequence in which Gracchus tours the Roman slums, and while it was never filmed, the DVD provides the text. In it, we learn that Gracchus was born in poverty and rose to become the powerful man he is, and that the bulk of his power lies in representing these poor masses. He is cynical but generous, outspoken but scheming, jovial but inwardly broken. His final scene is a succinct piece of comic tragedy: choosing between two daggers for his suicide, he justifies his choice by the single word "prettier." For critics and many fans, the constant back and forth between Gracchus and Crassus is the heart of the movie. And while we tend to remember the fight scenes and Douglas’ formidable screen presence, it is the wordplay between these esteemed British actors that keeps us watching.

As the senators fight, Spartacus sets his ever growing army of freed slaves on a course towards the Roman capital. Trumbo’s script alternates between the two worlds of slaves and senators, so that while we the audience can observe each of them, they are a complete mystery to each other. The sense of distance between slave and senator is a real achievement in screenwriting. Each deals with the other in the abstract, relying on hearsay and questionable information. In a sense, the movie has no central conflict. Spartacus is fighting a faceless Roman empire while Crassus must contend with a slave he’s never seen but whose name haunts him constantly. The movie builds oblique tension as the opposing armies draw nearer. The ultimate battle scene brings together these opposites: the enormous and coldly perfect Roman army marching in perfect unison versus the slave army, consisting of men, women and children, a mass of dirty faces and hungry bodies.

In the audio commentary, Trumbo acknowledges the movie’s fundamental schism and explains how the character of Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) was intended to bridge the two worlds. It is Batiatus who first recruits Spartacus into his gladiatorial school, and it is he who acts as an agent to Gracchus and Crassus, securing the eventual capture of Spartacus and arranging for Varinia’s ultimate escape. Ustinov, who won an Oscar for his performance, provides a separate audio commentary as well as a half-hour interview, in which he explains how he re-wrote much of his own dialogue as well as all his scenes with Laughton. Possessing acerbic wit and a gift for anecdote, Ustinov is the perfect commentator, inserting humor as well as serious analysis. His presence here, as with his performance in the movie, is a welcome infusion of comic realism.

Trumbo, however, was less than pleased with Ustinov’s contributions to the script, which he regarded as self-serving and distracting from the hero. In fact, Trumbo was displeased with most of the rewrites that occurred, which some estimates have put in the thousands of pages. A highly regarded novelist and screenwriter, Trumbo was a blacklisted writer when Douglas hired him to adapt the Fast novel, which is structured as a series of flashbacks by various Roman politicians and generals, each of whom tells the story with varying degrees of subjectivity. Trumbo straightened out the timeline, invented many new scenes, and condensed much of the intricate politicking. The result was a screenplay which pleased Douglas but which necessarily fell into the hands of studio executives who demanded this and that and who handed the script over to a committee of studio hired writers. Trumbo’s commentary (read by Michael McConnohie) is excerpted from his written reactions to an early test screening. His anger at certain alterations is understandable, though at times his nit-picking becomes tedious. Still, it’s an insightful look into a writer’s mind and we get to see how his original intentions ultimately arrived on screen, often in a vastly altered form.

Oddly enough, Trumbo preferred the "big Spartacus" over the "small Spartacus", i.e., the heroic, speech-making, larger than life leader over the conflicted, tormented ex-slave. His reasons for this probably have something to do with Spartacus’ thinly veiled attack of McCarthy-ism, an era that put personal liberty in jeopardy. We can see Trumbo in a short documentary about the "Hollywood Ten" – ten screenwriters who went to jail for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo’s overwhelming presence on this DVD release is perhaps misleading. His was just one voice that went into the final product. Additional commentary is provided by Kirk Douglas, producer Ed Lewis, visual designer Saul Bass, author Howard Fast (who was originally commissioned to adapt his own novel) and restoration engineer Robert Harris. Though not as insightful as Trumbo’s , their commentary more fully illuminates the sometimes antagonistic forces that ultimately shaped the movie.

Kubrick’s influence on the project is a subject of much debate. Hired by Douglas (who also served as executive producer) after firing Anthony Mann, Kubrick was a young director looking for a break. He disliked Trumbo’s script but agreed to direct even though principal photography had already begun (the first twenty minutes or so of the movie were directed by Mann). Without the power of final cut, Kubrick was little more than a hired hand. He eventually disowned the movie and years later still refused to talk about the experience. Yet his vision was so crucial in creating the look and feel of the movie, particularly its fight scenes, that without his input, we cannot know the entire story behind the movie.

Spartacus has suffered all sorts of cuts and alterations since its original release (there are five known versions of the movie). The famous scene in which Olivier’s Crassus makes sexual advances towards his body servant (Tony Curtis) was reinstated for the movie’s 1991 re-release and is presented in its entirety here as well. The movie's final scene, showing the crucifixion of Spartacus, was deemed too harsh by the Legion of Decency which demanded that all shots of Douglas on the cross be edited out. But, now, finally, we have it all in one package: movie, commentary, documentaries, interviews, and deleted scenes. This version runs 196 minutes and includes an overture and intermission. Spartacus may be an imperfect movie but its influence has spawned numerous sword-and-sandal epics, most recently Gladiator, and many of its scenes have lodged in our collective conscience. Watching this entire DVD set may leave you a bit worn out, but you will come away feeling that you’ve witnessed the making of a real piece of movie history.


Spartacus is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. This double-disc set includes a new widescreen transfer of the 1991 restored Super Technirama version (which has been enhanced for 16x9 TVs). The discs include audio commentaries by producer-actor Kirk Douglas, actor Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass. Special features include scene-by-scene analysis by Dalton Trumbo; additional Alex North score compositions; rare deleted scenes; 1960 promotional interviews with Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov; 1992 video interview with Peter Ustinov; behind-the-scenes "gladiatorial school" footage; original storyboards by Saul Bass; hundreds of production stills, lobby cards, posters, print ads, and a comic book; sketches by director Stanley Kubrick; and the original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $49.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.