Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis
Director: Stanley Kubrick
How hilarious is Hollywood, especially in hindsight? Spartacus, for instance, that 1960 mega sword and sandal feast directed by Stanley Kubrick takes as its basis the slave revolt in Republican Rome and turns it into an oiled-up romp with only passing regard to the time and place in which the story is set. Not that one could ever be sure of the authenticity of any recreation of the period but you can rest assured that the pastoral scenes between the rebellious slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas, who also Executive Produced) and his chosen slave girl Varinia (Jean Simmons) never have happened like this. The pair roll, lip locked across the meadow floor to an overblown romantic score by Alex North and their love theme wafts in and out of the soundtrack with regaling regularity. At times you feel like you’re watching The Man From Snowy River as Kirk and Jean canter in silhouette against a blazing red sky with rousing instrumental accompaniment.
It’s the music more than anything else that dates this film. The set studio pieces with their chocolate box colours and art directed artificiality follow hot on its heels. And then there’s the dialogue! The only credible performances come from the Brits whose rich voices and non-declamatory acting styles make this ancient material intermittently believable. The mighty Laurence Olivier lays on the power trips as Crassus providing one legendary homo-erotic moment in the Roman baths when he tells Antoninus (Tony Curtis): ‘My taste includes both oysters and snails’. Peter Ustinov also lends his substantial weight to the piece as the slave dealer, Batiatus – a role that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And the formidable Charles Laughton is wonderfully nuanced as the senator Gracchus.
There are pale shades of Gladiator in this Super Techirama film. Obviously Ridley Scott had a whole lot more technology at his disposal than Kubrick did, which makes the final battle sequence all the more remarkable. Using no less than 10,000 extras it demonstrates the strategic manoeuvres of the Roman garrison in preparation for their attack on the slave army. Kubrick might have disowned Spartacus, being a then slave himself of the Universal studio system but he created a classic that set a benchmark for excess and now for pure kitsch.