Spartacus is a 1960 film that stars Kirk Douglas as the leader of the ancient Roman slave rebellion. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, which was based on a novel by Howard Fast. Trumbo had been blacklisted during the early fifties. (Trumbo and Fast were both former members of the Communist Party.) At Douglas’s insistence, Trumbo was given an on-screen credit, in violation of the black-list. Spartacus is widely credited with helping to end the black-list in Hollywood.
Because Trumbo was black-listed, many people tend to interpret Spartacus as being about the Red Scare. (I have a deep reluctance to use the liberal term, “McCarthyism”. I will have to discuss that at some other time.) This does seem to apply to the famous “I am Spartacus” scene. There is, however, another way of looking at this film, that is more relevant to our current situation. A large part of the story details how the Roman general, Crassus (Laurence Olivier), uses the uprising to persuade the Roman Senate to give him dictatorial powers, in much the same way the Bush and Obama have used the threat of Al Qaida to persuade Congress to give them virtually dictatorial powers. Some things never change.
Spartacus has some powerful moments. The battle scenes are well done. The final battle between Spartacus’s army and Crassus’s is impressive to watch. And it’s fun to watch Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov as a couple of scheming Roman politicians. I can’t, however, call Spartacus a great movie. It drags in some places and it is sentimental in others. A fight scene between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis towards the end of the film is contrived and unconvincing. And Alex North’s music score is repetitive and sentimental in places. Kubrick did not have complete artistic control over this film, which seems a shame to me. This could have been a truly great film.