Spartacus (1960): What it Means to be Free

Spartacus

“When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” -Spartacus

“Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick is the Academy Award winning film about the slave who lead one of the largest rebellions against Rome, Spartacus.” The story goes into the politics of the senate and the life of the slaves while tying it into the current events going on at the time.

The current events I speak of are the Red Scare and the Blacklisting of supposed communist sympathizers. The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted as was the author of the novel “Spartacus,” Howard Fast. These themes were worked into the novel as well as the screenplay (http://comptalk.fiu.edu/blacklist.htm).

Here is my assessment of the film:

The Pros: The cinematography – Is beautiful. Kubrick is able to capture the large scale movements of troops and also the small scale conversations between individuals or groups while keeping the scene active.

The Music – Is epic and reminded me very much of John Williams. Everything is big and though there are some off music moments (some strange violin pieces during love scenes) the rest achieves the scale and tone it needs.

The actors – Laurence Olivier is fantastic as Crassus and Kirk Douglas nails it as Spartacus. The rest of the supporting cast is good too and adds depth to their characters…from Gavin as Ceaser to Laughton as Gracchus. The actors are able to keep weaker scenes interesting.

The Theme – The theme of freedom as something worth dying for and what is worth living is the point of the story. Spartacus goes against enslaving the masters and so much of the problems and and corruption we see in the film is from ignoring this fact. Those in power wishing to dominate others and how it is an ongoing struggle. It is masterfully executed through the eyes of “Spartacus” and the corruption in Rome.

The story – It is fiction based off historical events but emphasis on fiction. The story of how Spartacus leads the slave rebellion begins when an African Slave in the arena attacks the masters present…which later leads to Sparatacus leading his own revolt in the arena and uniting the slaves and stopping their enslavement of the masters. It goes on to his love story with one of the slaves and their having a child as politics unfold in Rome and his slave rebellion is used as a tool for Gracchus versus Crassus for control of Rome and the senate with Ceaser as the deciding man.

The politics – There are lots of politics at play…from the pirates working with Crassus after getting paid off to turn against Sparatacus, from Gracchus getting Crassus’s man out of Rome to take on Spartacus, and Ceaser turning against Gracchus in order to unite Rome and joining forces with Crassus (and Crassus becoming Consul) and in the end to Gracchus freeing Sparatacus’s wife.

The characters – Are intriguing and three dimensional. Completely wrong morally in many cases (all the slave holders), but all are complicated and human. You see why Ceaser joins with Crassus, you get why Gracchus wants to take Crassus’s power and you get what drives Spartacus and why he doesn’t want to become like the masters. It is brilliantly written and the characters are all three dimensional…when they could have easily just become ideals and caricatures.

The time period: I find Roman History fascinating and love when artists (Directors, Studios, etc.) try to capture it on film. The characters and politics are such rich stories that are still relevant today and can teach us about ourselves.

Okay: The length – It doesn’t feel like it all the time but sometimes it does (I can see why they had an intermission in the film). “Spartacus” is over 3 hours long. In some ways this helps since the characters have time to be explored, but other times it feels like it takes too long to get the action started (the beginning is 5 minutes long at least of music, this before the movie even begins). I think shortening up in some areas like the battles and the introduction would have served the story better.

This is a film I would highly recommend. It isn’t Kubrick’s best film and I do think, “The Shining,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “The Killing” are better films, but this film is still great and worth a watch. It being considered one of the great classics is a well deserved title for this historical fiction that takes inspiration from the present  it was created in and can still be relevant today.

I give this film a 9 / 10.

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