Spartacus (1960)

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Universal International (Bryna Productions)

One of the most intelligent and exciting historical epics to have come out of Hollywood, “Spartacus,” inspired by the true story of slave rebellion in Ancient Rome, features Kirk Douglas in one of his most famous starring roles.
 
Deservedly sweeping the technical Oscars in 1960, “Spartacus” won the Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design Awards (see below) and was nominated in other categories.
 
“Spartacus” is the only Stanley Kubrick's pictures over which the director, who previously made the 1957 war movie “Paths of Glory” (also with Douglas), did not exercise complete artistic control. He was a replacement director, when star-exec producer Kirk Douglas to fired the estimable Anthony Mann after one week of shooting.
 
Clearly the driving force behind this massive project, Kirk Douglas’ company, Bryna, raised the large budget of $12 million, allocating no less than 167 days of principal photography. The efforts paid off, for the movie was one of the year’s top-grossers and was often shown in revival houses and on TV (it also received several theatrical re-releases in the late 1960s and 1970s).
 
The literate, passionate script is penned by Dalton Trumbo after a long period of blacklisting (he was one of the Hollywood Ten), based on the novel by Howard Fast, who was also known for his communist tendencies.
 
Set circa 73 BC, the saga is not entirely faithful to the known historical facts. For starters, Spartacus was killed in battle and was not crucified, as depicted in the movie.
 
When the tale begins, Spartacus (Douglas), a rebellious, strong-willed Thracian slave, is purchased by Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), the proprietor of a school for gladiators. Like his fellow trainees, he is trained in fighting skills in order to be profitably peddled to Roman coliseum owners.
 
Spartacus leads a revolt by organizing a band of 78 slaves, who escaped fro the gladiators school at Capua, 130 miles south of Rome. The goal was to liberate the oppressed and subjugated men from the tyrannical rule of the patricians, specifically Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier).
 
Charles Laughton plays Gracchus, the senator who engaged in a political power struggle with Crassus. Jean Simmons is Varinia, the beautiful slave and wife of Spartacus whom Crassus previously arranged to purchase. John Gavin is the young Julius Caesar (John Gavin), a student of Gracchus who later allies himself with Crassus.
 
Well cast, Douglas brings his customary muscular physicality and emotional intensity to the lead role.
 
The film is dominated by the acting of some of Britain’s best performers, who elevated the prestige of the production. Peter Ustinov won the first of his two Supporting Oscars for playing
 
More visually restrained in style than Kubrick’s other films), “Spartacus,” shot by ace lenser Russell Metty, pays attention to detail in most respects, including the violence involved in the gladiators’ work and in the climactic battle scene, in which the Romans devastate the rebel army. 
 
Technically, the climax, the preparation for the massive final battle, is impressive, perhaps it was shot on location (sort of), in Spain, rather than in the studio back lot, where most of the picture was filmed. Made in an age that didn’t have F/X, the battle scene employs over 8,000 Spanish soldiers
 
Remarkably, “Spartacus” doesn’t rely on the usual elements of this genre, such as chariot races (“Ben-Hur,” made the year before) or food orgies.
 
End Note
 
Severely cut for its 1967 re-release, the film was restored in 1991, inserting footage that was considered too risqe in 1960, including a scene that depicts seduction of the handsome Tony Curtis by Laurence Olivier. The soundtrack of this sequence had been lost and, and after Olivier’s death, Anthony Hopkins redubbed his text.
 
Oscar Nominations: 6
 
Supporting Actor: Peter Ustinov
Cinematography (color): Russell Metty
Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): Alexander Golitzen and Eric Orbom; Russell A. Gausman and Julia Heron
Costume Design (color): Valles and Bill Thomas
Scoring of Dramatic or Comedy: Alex North
Film Editing: Robert Lawrence
 
Oscar Awards: 4
 
Supporting Actor
Cinematography
Art Direction-Set Decoration
Costume Design
 
Oscar Context:
 
Ernest Gold won the Scoring Oscar for Preminger's "Exodus," and Daniel Mandell the Editing Oscar for Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," which also won Best Picture and Best Director.
 
Cast
 
Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)
Crassus (Laurence Olivier)
Antoninus (Tony Curtis)
Gracchus (Charles Laughton)
Batiatus (Peter Ustinov)
Julius Caesar (John Gavin)
Helena (Nina Foch)
Tigranes (Herbert Lom)
Crixus (John Ireland0
Glabrus (John Dall)
Marcellus (Charles McGraw)
Claudia (Joanna Barnes)
David (Harold J. Stone)
Draba (Woody Strode)
Ramon (Peter Brocco)
Gannicus (Paul Lambert)