Sunday, May 30, 2010

Revisting "Spartacus"

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus," and I took in a recent viewing, the first time I'd seen the film in about twenty years. Despite the familiarity of many of the images, it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I had blocked most of the non-action sequences, and confused quite a lot of the particulars with the 1959 "Ben-Hur," so many of the plot's developments were unexpected. And now I could also recognize and appreciate the appearance of Lawrence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, and Tony Curtis.

"Spartacus" is the story of a slave rebellion during the age of the Roman empire. The title character, played by Kirk Douglas, is a gladiator-in-training who sparks the initial uprising and successfully leads a growing army of his fellow slaves against the Roman armies. One of the most famous "swords and sandals" epics of the time period, with an all-star cast, a three hour running length, and a prestigious director running the works, I was surprised at how often dark and unconventional it was. I expect that most of this was due to the involvement of Stanley Kubrick, who was coming off of the success of "Paths of Glory." The heroes lose bitterly to the Romans, yet gain memorable moral and spiritual victories that transcend their unhappy fates.

Otherwise, it doesn't feel much like a Kubrick picture. The strong visuals of the battle and action sequences don't match up to the style of the smaller, more intimate scenes. "Spartacus" has the same sort of washed-out colorization and bland lighting scheme that was typical of most American films of the early 60s, which tend to keep me from fully enjoying titles like "Rio Bravo" and "Vertigo." The scripting, by Dalton Trumbo is excellent, but there's a distinct lack of any sort of sharper edge to the material, that Kubrick brought to "Paths of Glory" and "The Killing." Unconventional as the story may be, it's told in a fairly straightforward, simple style and the audience is not left to grapple with any moral conundrums or difficult themes.

In the end, the film is really the same kind of feel-good historical fiction we got from most of the Biblical epics of the day, where good maintains and evil's triumph is only temporary. "Spartacus" has better performances and better battle scenes than most, but I'm struggling to think of anything else that really distinguishes it. The scope of the film, despite the length and the setting, actually felt smaller than I was expecting. The cast of major characters was relatively limited and there were no ostentatiously large sets or particularly panoramic vistas to marvel over. This helped to keep distractions from the story to a minimum, but it also lessened a bit of the impact. I think "Spartacus" was a good film, but not a good Kubrick film.

Out of everything, I enjoyed the cast the most. There isn't a bad performance from any of the principle actors. Douglas does an exceptional job as Spartacus, providing all the requisite charisma, physical presence, and emotional heft of the icon freedom fighter. Jean Simmons as Varinia, Spartacus's strong-willed beloved, is one of the best female performances I've ever seen from one of these costume epics, right up there with Anne Baxter's poisonous Nefertiri from "Ten Commandments." The love story is surprisingly strong and emotional. When the two end up literally rolling around in a field, I realized what George Lucas had been trying to do in "Attack of the Clones."

The villains were fun, with Laurence Olivier wisely refraining from chewing too much scenery as the Roman senator Crassus, Spartacus's major antagonist. Crassus is Olivier at his most coolly odious and arrogant, and acts as a great counterbalance to Kirk Douglas. Charles Laughton as the unscrupulous, lovable Gracchus had some great scenes, as does Peter Ustinov as the machinating Batiatus, the slave dealer who initially singles out Spartacus for gladiator training. Tony Curtis as Spartacus's supporter Antoninus did a decent job with his role, but I kept being distracted by his very obvious American accent, which stood out from the largely British cast.

As much as I liked "Spartacus," it doesn't live up to its potential, and I don't think it matches either "Ben Hur" or "The Ten Commandments," films which are usually mentioned in the same breath. However, I couldn't help thinking that it's prime material for a modern director to revisit. Spartacus is a fascinating historical figure, and the film version took certain liberties to make his story more palatable to audiences of the 1960s that would no longer be necessary today. Maybe I've seen too many of the grittier, more realistic historical action films that Hollywood has turned out lately, but the anachronisms of "Spartacus" seriously detracted from my viewing experience and I can't help but wonder how the story would fare in other hands.

There's been a recent Starz miniseries, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand, that purports to be more historically accurate. I think I'll give it a look.

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