Spartacus (1960): Kubrick’s Epic, Starring Kirk Douglas

Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus was at one point the most expensive film ever made in North America.

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Theatrical release poster

In February 1959, Kubrick received a phone call from Kirk Douglas asking him to direct Spartacus, based on the true life of the historical figure Spartacus and the events of the Third Servile War. Douglas had acquired the rights to the novel by Howard Fast and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo began penning the script.

It was produced by Douglas, who also starred as rebellious slave Spartacus, and cast Laurence Olivier as his foe, the Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Douglas hired Kubrick for a reported fee of $150,000 to take over direction soon after he fired director Anthony Mann.

At 31, Kubrick had already directed four features, and this became his largest by far, with a cast of over 10,000 and a budget of $6 million.

At the time, this was the most expensive film ever made in America, and Kubrick became the youngest director in Hollywood history to make an epic.

It was the first time that Kubrick filmed using the anamorphic 35mm horizontal Super Technirama process to achieve ultra-high definition, which allowed him to capture large panoramic scenes, including one with 8,000 trained soldiers from Spain representing the Roman army.

Disputes broke out during the filming. Kubrick complained about not having full creative control, insisting on improvising extensively during the production.

Kubrick and Douglas were also at odds over the script: Kubrick angered Douglas when he cut all but two of his lines from the opening 30 minutes.

Despite the on-set troubles, Spartacus took $14.6 million at the box office in its first run.

The film established Kubrick as a major director to watch, receiving six Oscar nominations, winning four.

Spartacus also marked the end of the working relationship between Kubrick and Douglas.