MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #81. Spartacus (1960)

 “The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Don’t give them the pleasure of a contest. Lower your guard, I’ll kill you on the first rush.”

I’m not a big Stanley Kubrick fan (get used to reading that as I make my way through this this AFI list).  I know movie nerds aren’t supposed to think that, but I just can’t see what all the fuss is about.  I love Dr Strangelove and really like Full Metal Jacket.  But I think A Clockwork Orange is way too impressed with itself, I think The Shining is low rent horror dressed up to look like something more important, and I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is a boring mess.  But for some reason, I had always assumed I’d like Spartacus.  I just needed this AFI countdown  to finally make me watch it.

According to the opening narration, “In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very center of the civilized world.” Working on a salt mine (goin’ down, down), Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) attacks a guard and is put in chains. But it’s that kind of spirit that captures the attention of Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a slave trader who trains and sells gladiators. Soon, Spartacus is at Batiatus’ academy where he quickly proves himself to be a promising warrior.

As a reward one night, Spartacus is treated to a night with one of Batiatus’ female slaves, Jean Simmons as Varinia. And, of course, they fall in love. When Roman senator Marcus Licinus Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives, he demands some gladiatorial entertainment and decides to also buy Varinia. After being forced to fight men who have become his friends, Spartacus vows to escape. Soon, he has the support of his fellow enslaved gladiators (including Tony Curtis as Antonius) and is destined to lead an army much bigger.

I thought I’d like Spartacus, and I was right.  I think, from a Kubrick angle, I like it because it’s pretty straight forward and simple film making.  Obviously it’s big and elaborate in its epic scope, but it’s told in a very normal way.  No tricks, cheap gimmicks, or pseudo intellectual wankery, which are the things that turn me off movies like A Clockwork Orange and 2001.

It also doesn’t hurt that Kirk Douglas is one of Hollywood’s greatest badasses.  Like Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum, Douglas comes from a time when manliness and masculinity meant something different than they do today.  Sure, those bygone definitions included a little too much sexism and misogyny, but it’s a kind of masculinity that you need to pull off in a movie like Spartacus.  There’s no forced emotional motivation like killing Rusty Crowe’s family in the monumentally shit Gladiator.  The only motivation Spartacus needs is his pride.  He’s a man, and he’s not gonna eat Roman shit anymore.  Simple.

The story goes that Kubrick clashed a lot with Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter of Spartacus.  Because of that unpleasantness, Kubrick demanded complete control on every movie he made after this.  All that says to me is, Kubrick worked best when he was under at least some restraint.  If Stanley Kubrick left completely to his own devices means Barry Lyndon, or Eyes Wide Shut, I’ll take the hamstrung Kubrick of Spartacus any day.  Which means I also have to assume that Dr Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket were just lucky flukes.

Directed By – Stanley Kubrick
Written By – Dalton Trumbo

Academy Awards
Best Supporting Actor – Ustinov
Best Art Direction
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design

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