A Couple on Kubrick: Spartacus (1960) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Couple on Kubrick: Spartacus (1960)

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Kubruary triumphantly moves forward with the epic, Spartacus.  I feel I know this movie due to cultural impact (from one scene included in Clueless to The Critic’s Dukes of Hazzard mash-up), yet I have never actually watched it.  Now that I actually have seen the movie, I have mixed feelings about the movie.

Spartacus does not feel or look (at times) like a Kubrick movie and I think that has to do with the type of movie Spartacus is, which is a grand historical epic in the styling of Cecil B. Demille (e.g. Ten Commandments).  Kubrick did not take the genre to another level, but even when he stays within the genre’s limits, he manages to bring his usual level of visual mastery.  It can be something little, like the fluid vertical tracking shots in the beginning of the movie, to the superb ending battle scene complete with tumbling pillars of fire and limb dismemberment.

Sounds like a great movie, right?  Well, not the whole movie.  The movie is pretty uneven.  After the commanding beginning scenes of Spartacus as a slave and then leading a revolt, the audience is subjected to a slow and tedious middle filled with moony lovesick looks, political babble, and battles that are spoken of but never seen (except for one village that was burned down).

The movie picks up again leading up to the final battle scene (which is not the end of movie), but it is a pain to slough through the middle.  I want to appreciate giving Spartacus some character development and seeing the start and growth of a slave rebellion, but its portrayal in the movie leaves something to be desired (that being my desire to care).  Maybe it’s my ADHD-riddled modern brain that can’t take the slower pace.

Though if there is something my ADHD-riddled modern brain can handle, it would be the acting. Kirk Douglas is engaging as Spartacus, the strong and heroic slave who refuses to let this injustice against humanity stand for one more day.  Lawrence Olivier plays Crassus and a powerful but arrogant man who cannot imagine a lowly slave doing anything Spartacus did (he speculates that Spartacus must be a god).  Some of the supporting cast is better than others, but all in all, the acting was enjoyable.

Speaking of the things Spartacus does, a rebellion army led by Spartacus that attacks unsuspecting villages and towns that lead up to looting and burning the villages to the ground does not sound like the actions of a hero.  It sounds like the rebellious army was a bunch of terrorists.  Think about it.  One man defies a government by gathering a group of people and attacking towns and villages filled with innocent citizens that have no influence over the existence of slavery within the empire.

Many innocent people died in these attacks.  The audience is supposed to think of these attacks as a means to an end since Spartacus is fighting for a good cause, but the movie does not address this moral ambiguity until one particular scene.  Spartacus is giving a rousing speech to his army while Crassus is doing the same thing to his army.  Both men are presented equally powerful and moral, which is a subtle and clever way for Kubrick to comment on the moral relativity of the situation while still keeping within the confines of the genre.

Well, I think this diatribe has gone on long enough.  There are more things I could comment on, but they would only be amusing little moments in the movie.  What do you think about the movie, Andrew?

I think I watched this film for the first time in the sixth grade and have about as much to say about it today as I did then.  This isn't to demean the films attempt at subtlety where it comes to homosexual rights and slavery, but I was already sensitive to subtext and can only elaborate on it better now.  Even with that subtext in place, Spartacus is 25% engaging and 75% boring.  Those aren't the metrics I like when looking at films, especially Kubrick films, but here we are.

You covered most of why I don't enjoy watching Spartacus.  So much time is given to the war epic status of the film.  Seemingly endless scenes of planning, plotting, and posturing go on and on without any interesting subtext or comment.  Spartacus stands in front of a map and gives orders, Crassus stands in front of the Senate and gives orders, and it's all as riveting as the description.

Yes, there is an interesting background going on to both stories.  This is especially prevalent in Crassus' storyline as he is trying to assume control of Rome over the bodies of the slaves and fellow rulers.  But the subterfuge isn't really subtle, or well-told, just delivered with enthusiasm by the performers.  I admire an age where backstabbing could be done in the gut, but all this directness about who is plotting against who is just a road map for people who aren't following the film closely enough.

Despite the straighforward delivery, there are still a few wonderful moments that, even if they don't feel like Kubrick, are intriguing.  Foremost is the scene between Crassus and his slave.  He bathes his willing servant and have a discussion about clams and snails, whose subtext can be determined in the broadest possible comparison, but whose effect is that of an unwilling good dream.  Crassus is clearly gay, but doesn't enjoy as much freedom with it as his Greek predecessors did.

More cloudy is Spartacus' sexuality.  He does father a child and is incited to rebellion because his lady love was sent away, but the close relationship he keeps with Antoninus (Tony Curtis), does bear some examination.  They're very close throughout the entire film, with Spartacus showing clear affection and Antoninus reciprocating.  It's especially telling at the end when Spartacus penetrates Antoninus with his sword, and Antoninus responds by saying "I love you Spartacus."  It's easy to make fun of, but stands out as a subtextually rich moment against an otherwise bland film.

Also strange is that Peter Ustinov received the only Oscar for a performance in a Kubrick film.  It's not that there are a lack of great performances (as we'll see in Dr. Strangelove and have seen in Paths of Glory), but that he doesn't really do anything special with it.  More compelling is Charles Laughton as the flamboyant Gracchus.  He has an outsize personality hiding secret pains and troubles, and goes through the most interesting metamorphosis as opposed to the stringent development of Crassus and Spartacus.  It's not that Ustinov's performance is bad, I just hardly notice it throughout the film and not in a "what subtle acting" fashion.

This film does present an interesting dilemma in analyzing it as a Kubrick film.  The successful western director Anthony Mann was originally attached to direct the film but he was released by Kirk Douglas after only a week of shooting.  Considering how much Kubrick loved control over his films, he was hired to come into a project where he did not have input on the story during its genesis.  This leaves us with only the fleeting impression of his involvement and mordant humor, leaving too many of those long self-consciously epic stretches that Amanda described.

Spartacus is not bad, but it's far from great, and not the worst way to spend a bored afternoon.  If that description doesn't exactly wow you into picking it up - don't start with Kubrick here, just about anywhere else will do.

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We make no promises for easy jokes next week when we watch Lolita.

Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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