A fabulous and inspiring adventure, Spartacus is a visually stunning epic starring Kirk Douglas as the heroic slave who fights to lead his people to freedom from Roman oppression.
When I was still an under grad at San Francisco State a couple of classmates of mine dragged me to see Spartacus. It was screening at the Kabuki as a part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. I think it was a new print or something, but my two male friends were very excited to see it and they insisted that I too had to see this film because it was one of Kubrick’s best, and there is no better way to see it than on the big screen of an actual movie theater. Of course they were absolutely right and I thank them and this film for being one of the catalysts for my love of classic cinema.
Upon the first images in the title sequence you’re immediately taken by the sumptuous nature of the cinematography. It’s brilliantly shot with deep shadows and saturated gem tones. The rest of the film lives up to this introduction providing vast landscapes so vivid you feel as if the scenery surrounds you, and the more intimate scenes simply drip with authentic atmosphere. The Director of Photography, Russell Metty, and the department heads for Art Direction received Oscars for this, the best work of their lives.
The faultless cast matches the quality of the scenery. In a career that includes so many great and distinctive performances this may well be Douglas at his very best, and Jean Simmons, and Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov and many others too. Douglas’ natural persona of a man of both physical and inner strength serves him well as the individual charismatic enough to lead a nation of slaves. Simmons natural beauty exudes a fine loveliness admired by Spartacus and desired by their enemy the dictatorial Olivier. Regarding his touching scenes with Simmons I believe he is the only actor who could have managed to elicit sympathy for such a despicable character. It’s a wonder he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, but then co-star Ustinov was and completely stole the award for Best Supporting Actor as the droll and witty owner of the camp where Gladiators are trained.
Although the film is a clear departure from director Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre (that’s right, this is a Kubrick film!), Spartacus is an all time classic helmed by a director with a precise vision who is equally capable of crafting colossal spectacle (2001: A Space Odyssey), tense tête-à-têtes (Paths of Glory), and tender moments between lovers (Lolita). Kubrick was a filmmaker of international importance, and one of the only directors to work within the Studio System while maintaining full artistic control over his films from scripting through post-production, much like a young Orson Welles.
If you haven’t seen Spartacus yet, then I urge you to do so, but if at all possible see it for the first time on the big screen. Like my friends said so many years ago, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you see it any other way. By the way, one of those friends who took me to the Kabuki was named Jeff. He is now the well-known and highly respected Jeffrey M. Anderson, San Francisco film critic and creator of Combustible Celluloid. I guess he knew what he was talking about even back then.