Despite numerous flaws, Spartacus contains many memorable scenes and performances. It does not gloss over its themes of violence, slavery, sex and politics, and approaches these subjects with an intelligence not seen in many films of its ilk.
A movie whose influence on films such as Gladiator and Troy is self evident, Spartacus is well directed by Stanley Kubrick, but is not a Kubrick film per se, as many of the director’s unique traits are absent, due to the fact that the then young film maker was not given full creative control over the project.
Set during a time when the Roman republic ruled, a rebellious slave named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is sent to gladiator school where he is trained to fight to the death. There he falls in love with Varinia (Jean Simmons) a slave girl who is used to give men pleasure.
Repulsed by the notion of killing his fellow slaves for the entertainment of decadent Romans, Spartacus’ anger erupts when Varinia is sold to republican senator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Killing a guard, which results in a riot, Spartacus escapes with the other gladiators, leading a revolt across the Roman Empire freeing slaves from town to town and creating an army poised to destroy any Roman who stands in their way.
Meanwhile, there is political strife in Rome when a power play develops between Crassus – who wants dictatorship over Rome – and Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) who decides to help the gladiators in spite of Crassus.
In an interesting choice of casting, American and British actors have been separated as slave and Roman respectively, with the British hands down putting on the better performances. Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton are great, while Peter Unistov steals every scene as the greedy, brown nose slave dealer Lentulus Batiatus.
The Americans do not fair as well. Kirk Douglas’ chiseled features suits the title role well, but he comes across a little wooden; Jeans Simmons looks to dolled up to play a convincing slave; and Tony Curtis’ Bronx rhythm’s are a major distraction in his role as Antoninus, Crassus’ servant who latter joins Spartacus.
The set pieces and costumes are great, and what the battle scenes lack in choreography they make up for in size. Alex North’s score - full of percussion and an overblown horn section used in a lot of epics shot during this time – seriously dates the film and ruins many potential scenes under cutting their emotional value.
The film went against many conventional elements found within Hollywood, including a very bleak ending, which was a bold move even when compared to today’s standards.
The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) deleted many scenes before the film was released, with many placed back in the picture thanks to two restored releases. In the latest restored cut, Crassus’ bi-sexuality is addressed in a scene where he is bathed by Antoninus ,and implies his fondness towards both males and females by comparing them to snails and oysters. The original dialogue recording was missing, and with Olivier passing on two years previously, they brought in celebrated actor and Olivier protégée Anthony Hopkins to record Crassus’ dialogue.