After a two week vacation in Ireland followed immediately upon my return by the wedding celebration of friends, I think it’s a fair argument to say that I was maybe not quite full of the necessary energy or sobriety needed to consume an almost three and a half hour long Roman epic directed by Stanley Kubrick. I was certain I knew what I was in for — maybe 30 minutes of iconic, mind-blowing footage intercut with hours upon hours of slow, cryptic, infuriating bullshit. From what I’ve seen of his work*, that’s Kubrick’s M.O. and, if Spartacus was made in 1960, I figured it had to have started somewhere. Still, Spartacus was next on the list and skipping Battles won’t win me the war, so I trudged through each and every one its 198 minutes. At least concerning my expectations, I wasn’t disappointed.
The movie Spartacus is based on the novel Spartacus about a real guy named Spartacus who was a Thracian slave working in Libyan mines under Roman rule. After chewing through a guard’s hamstring with his bare teeth, he’s purchased by foppish Roman specializing in the gladiator trade. Still a slave, he at least now gets decent meals, weapons training and, with good behavior, the occasional company of a random woman of the guards’ choosing, apparently. Spartacus ultimately falls in love with one of these women, though they’re not even technically allowed to speak to one another as slaves. When she’s sold to a visiting Roman dignitary for whom Spartacus was made to fight another prisoner to the death, he starts a riot that ultimately leads to a complete escape from and takeover of the prison by the inmates. As the dust of the violence settles, Spartacus discovers the former slaves forcing Roman captives to fight to the death and convinces them through impassioned speech that they are better than the Romans. They are so much better than the Romans, in fact, that they could start their own Army, march to the sea, and hire boats to take them all back to the nations from which a conquering Rome originally stole them. So they do. They give Rome a good, solid run for their money, too. Still, as history tells us they almost always must, Rome’s politics and steel ultimately crushed the rebellion. Yet, even in defeat, Spartacus’ followers are still devoted. When the Roman army offers not crucifixion to any slave who will turn in Spartacus, the slave army en masse claims his identity and fate instead. So, they all get crucified anyway, Spartacus included, but not before he can have the satisfaction of seeing his infant son carried off into the freedomy sunset by the love of his life.
If the above paragraph sounds like a pretty decent plot to you, you’re not wrong. Unfortunately, plot alone does not a timeless movie make. You need someone skilled in the art of storytelling to truly make it stand up to 50 years of scrutiny. What I’m about to say is something that will get me in a lot of trouble with pretentious film snobs, but it’s something that someone needs to finally have the courage to say: Stanley Kubrick has a crippling issue with pacing. From my incomplete but not necessarily limited knowledge of Kubrick movies, I’ve learned that if the film has a runtime of more than 2 hours, you should probably be prepared to think the movie is about to end at least 25 minutes before it’s actually over. Spartacus only further supports my theory. Throughout the film, Kubrick intercuts countless and extended shots of men on horses or children eating and laughing or gladiators training. All of these details serve to create a richer environment, but I don’t need them to account for nearly half of the screen time at any given setting. If you’re going to show me 3 minutes of gladiator slaves training poorly and getting beat up by wooden swords, then it’s not necessary to directly show me another 3 minutes of Spartacus kicking their asses. Pick one or the other, place your emphasis firmly, then continue briskly towards your point that Spartacus is smarter, faster, and stronger than the average bear.
Spartacus has also been recognized as having one of the greatest ensemble casts possible for the time. This recognition is also deserved, from Kirk Douglas’s mesmerizingly manly and cavernous chin dimple (chimple?) to Laurence Olivier’s cruel and calculating Senator to Peter Ustinov’s opportunistic slave trader to … Tony Curtis’s Bronx accent? How the hell did that get in there? Usually, I really like Tony Curtis. Slap him and Jack Lemmon in dresses next to Marilyn Monroe and you have an instant classic. But as the sort of adopted son figure to Spartacus? As the self-proclaimed Singer of Songs who doesn’t actually sing, but does pronounce his G sounds like he has a permanent head cold? This is where you lose me. To be fair to Mr. Curtis, his performance wasn’t bad. But in a movie so heavily focused on the natural accents of its performers that British actors were cast as the Romans and American actors the slaves, how did no one notice that a kid who sounds like he should be screaming at someone to go get his shinebox might be a bit distracting to the audience?
Overall, Spartacus isn’t exactly unwatchable, I guess. If epic period dramas involving dudes in togas are your thing, then Spartacus should probably be on your watchlist. They’re obviously the AFI’s thing, since at least 3 made it to the list. Unfortunately, they’re just really not mine, and I think I finally figured out why. Films of this nature from this era are nothing more than that generation’s Die Hards or Lethal Weapons. They’re action movies, plain and simple, with the same child-like level of overt storytelling and character development. However, they’re wrapped in the pompous and grandiose packaging of epic social commentary that deserves to be preserved for the ages. For my money, I don’t want my action stars to be pretentious and haughty, intent on giving me some some higher message to contemplate when the story is done. I want my action stars to be cowboys who just went out to the coast to have some laughs and accidentally had to save the world from German terrorists in the process. Call me crazy. — KSmith