This is one of those “fill the hole in my pop culture score card” films. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by the famous blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and starring none of other than Kirk Douglas, who recently just turned a round one years old, Spartacus is cinema classic and a throwback to an era where historical epics could still be considered to be, well, epic. By it’s very nature this is an ambitious film, for it attempts to fit the entire Third Servile War into roughly three hours of running time, while simultaneously trying to also be a straight character biopic of Spartacus, the leader of the slave rebellion army in the aforementioned war. As you might guess with the scale of that size, the result can feel a bit rushed at places. Especially if you have seen all four seasons of Starz’s TV adaptation of the life of Spartacus, and were accustomed to seeing much more in-depth, nuanced and slow paced approach to telling the same story, like I have.
This is not to say the film is any way bad. Quite the opposite, it’s pretty darn entertaining. The storytelling in the film is very well executed, there’s just a lot of time jumping involved in order to cover the entire war, and very few characters beyond Spartacus himself get any proper focus and time to develop. So if you were more used to the type of pacing and long term plotting that a TV series can do, the film inevitably feels like it just races through most of the key events and doesn’t offer many well rounded characters.
Oddly enough, for such a long film it’s strangely long drawn and slow at places, going as far as almost meandering at times. This is most obvious whenever the film decides that it has to take a five minute pause to show a semblance of a generic love story between Spartacus and a female slave he meets at the gladiator school. I’m a bit split here because while the romance between the two isn’t particularly compelling one, there is no denying that some of the scenes, especially the early interactions where their love is strictly forbidden, are actually pretty compelling because there’s subtlety and clear danger involved. Later, once they are free, it becomes considerably weaker because the passion isn’t really there anymore and it’s just another bland and non-offensive Hollywood pairing.
There’s also plenty of time to dedicated to showing the Romans tangling in their internal power struggles and politics, which certainly contributes to give the war more context and explain why the slave rebellion was not squashed sooner, but it also slow the story down quite a bit and they never really seem to properly sell the gravity of the war to the viewer in a satisfying way. After all, the continuing existence of the rebellious slave army actively is undermining the military might of the entire Roman Empire, but the urgency and threat to Rome never seems to feel real.
The film of course originated the now quite famous “The Love Theme from Spartacus” which has since become a very popular Jazz standard. I personally first came in contact with the sing through Japanese DJ and record producer Nujabes’ 2003 album Metaphorical Music, where he had sampled Yusef Lateef’s version of the theme song on the track “The Final View.” As I was writing this I was a bit astonished to realize that I hadn’t actually ever heard the original version of the song until watching the film. I had only heard several later Jazz reinterpretations of it. So in more ways than one it was rather fascinating to experience the original composition for the very first time. While it doesn’t overwhelm you in the film, it’s still catchy and there’s just something ageless about it. It’s no wonder that it has since inspired so many different Jazz artists through the years, from Bill Evans to Ramsey Lewis to more contemporary ensembles like Soil&Pimp Sessions to do their version of it.
For a 1960 film, Spartacus features some rather surprising elements, such as hints of homoeroticism shared by Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier, when the latter is taking a bath and attempts to seduce his new slave, played by the former. Surprisingly bold, considering the era, but as it turns out after some research, it was a scene cut from the original release of the film and was only shown to the public decades later, when the film went through a restoration process and was re-released in 1991. The film also holds some particularly striking and strong violent imagery, thanks to the superb cinematography of Russell Metty. The bloody aftermath of the the defeated rebellion, where the camera slowly moves through the seemingly endless piles of bodies laying on the ground is simply breath taking. It’s not overtly graphic, but the stillness and number of the dead is so disturbing and picturesque that it’s almost like looking at a painting. It’s an image so vivid that it seems to stretch for miles, a horrifying testament of the overwhelming force that the combined Roman legions represented.
Though I am a fan of history, I’ve strangely never been a particularly big fan of historical epics as a movie genre. Watching Spartacus didn’t really make me change my stance on that, but it was unquestionably a fun film to watch, enough at least to make me a bit more curious to see the original 1959 version of Ben-Hur. They say that chariot scene is amazing. It’s also always quite impressive from the technical and logistical point of view when you have as many real extras staging large fight scenes that are choreographed and make it look so authentic and real. It really helps to make this type of historical movies feel truly greater than life.