Friday, May 21, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Spartacus" (1960)

"Spartacus" should have been a disaster. The original screenwriter, director and cinematographer were all fired off the project -- the latter two a week into filming.

It was more or less a vanity project for Kirk Douglas, who was angry he didn't get the lead in "Ben-Hur" and ordered up his own sword-and-sandals epic. Novelist Howard Fast was in over his head trying to adapt his novel about the Third Servile War of Rome for the screen, so Dalton Trumbo was brought in. Unfortunately, Trumbo was blacklisted at the time, and had to work under a pseudonym.

Douglas bravely insisted that Trumbo receive an onscreen credit, which led to the breakdown of the McCarthy-era blacklist.

But Douglas clashed with director Anthony Mann, and canned him after a few days of shooting. A 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick, who previously directed Douglas in the wonderful "Paths of Glory," was brought in.

Kubrick largely disavowed "Spartacus" later in his career, but mostly, I think, because of entering the project as a hired gun rather as the primary and unquestioned author of the film. The dark genius preferred to work in relative isolation, and to write and shoot his movies himself. (Russell Metty, pushed out by Kubrick, retained his credit for legalistic convenience, and thus won the cinematography Oscar for "Spartacus," even though he only worked on the film a little longer than Mann did.)

Far be it from me to call Stanley Kubrick stupendously wrong, but I think "Spartacus" is one of his finest films, and one of the true giants among the mid-century epics.

I won't belabor talking about the plot, since the story of the man who led a slave revolt against the Roman Empire is well-known.

What most interested me in watching the 50th-anniversary Blu-ray edition -- which is a marvel, with crisp lines and bold colors courtesy of the 1991 film restoration -- is the film's pace. At 3¼ hours, the film is certainly not in a hurry. And yet, it never feels like it's draggy or fat ... just taking its time.

It's amazing to watch simple establishing shots, or montages of marching armies. Or just the slow pan of the camera as it enters a Roman bath. It gives the audience a chance to breathe, soak up all the Oscar-winning sets, and sets the tone for the coming scene.

Nowadays editors would chop these moments by half or more. The movies have sped up in the last few decades, and have not improved in their quickness.

The fight scenes have held up fairly well, both the gladiator matched pairs and the huge battle featuring 10,000 extras. Content-wise, "Spartacus" was quite daring in the waning days of the old Production Code, before the Motion Picture Association of America starting giving out ratings. There's even a brief flash of Spartacus severing an arm, complete with twin arterial blood spurts.

The film was also bold sexually. Jean Simmons, playing Spartacus' slave wife Varinia, appears nude twice, although both times shot with a careful angle to avoid showing her breasts. There's a thrilling moment where they're cavorting in a meadow, and he is tracing her face with a bit of plant, and she opens her mouth to accept it. For 1960, this was pretty yowza stuff.

One of the most famous scenes did not make the cut, however. This was the bath scene where the Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier) asks his new slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) if he prefers oysters or snails, calling it a question of taste rather than morality, and declaring that he eats both oysters and snails.

The barely-concealed reference to same-sex coupling was cut out of the original film, and only later restored. According to one account, the audio track for this scene had been lost. Curtis was still around to re-record his lines, but Olivier was dead by then. So Anthony Hopkins, once Olivier's understudy and a fearsomely good mimic, recorded the dialogue.

The cast is simply a marvel, although some of the smaller supporting performances (including Curtis) are a bit stiff. Peter Ustinov is a delightful scene-stealer as a mercenary slave trader -- he won the Academy Award, the only person to do so for a Kubrick film -- but the performance I keep coming back to is Charles Laughton as Gracchus, a Roman senator and political opponent of Crassus.

In less than perhaps 10 minutes of total screen time, he paints an indelible presence as a figure of integrity buried beneath a mound of corruption. Gracchus is a man of the people, both their virtues and their faults, and represents the last dying voice of democracy against the coming dictatorship of the emperors. Only an actor of Laughton's wit and weight (figurative and otherwise) could pull it off. I love this piece of dialogue in a scene between Laughton and Ustinov:
"You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?"
Douglas of course is great, playing a powerful man of destiny who still seems full to the brim with a distinctive humanity. I love the scenes where Spartacus is at the hands of some evil Roman or another, his limbs in chains and his life on the line, and he stares at them with an impudence that could enrage even an emperor.

4 stars out of four

1 comment:

  1. "In less than perhaps 10 minutes of total screen time, he paints an indelible presence"

    Laughton was always very good about making the best even of the least bit of footage... Take for instance his Nero in The Sign of The Cross, who only appears in a handful of scenes but is easily the character (along with Claudette Colbert's Poppaea) you remember best after watching.

    OK, I dig Charles quite a lot, so I'm biased ;D

    Incidentally, I wrote a piece about his work in Spartacus not long ago: His Gracchus was actually meant to appear in more scenes, but was a victim of backstage politics and cutting-room massacre: