To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Spartacus, we look back on the epic that kickstarted legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s career and proved to be a defining moment for actor Kirk Douglas.
Released October 6th, 1960, Spartacus remains one of the most influential epic films ever made. After missing the leading role in 1959’s Ben-Hur, Kirk Douglas wanted to star and produce another epic. Declined by Howard Fast, Douglas turned to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt the novel, Spartacus, into a screenplay. Trumbo had been blacklisted from Hollywood for at least a decade at this point for possible links to the communists and his refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and had to write under pseudonyms.
The idea of Trumbo writing under a false identity didn’t sit well with Kirk Douglas, so Douglas allowed Trumbo to write the script under his real name and step foot onto a Hollywood set for the first time in 10 years. This was the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist. The addition of Trumbo to the production team attracted numerous stars including Sir Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov.
However, after going through numerous creative conflicts with director Anthony Mann, Kirk Douglas fired Mann and hired the 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick to take over. Kubrick and Douglas had just collaborated on one of the greatest war movies of all time, Paths of Glory (1957). However, to a young filmmaker like Kubrik, Spartacus was a challenging and daunting project. The film had a budget of over $12 million (which would equal $105 million today) and took almost two years to make. Nevertheless, Spartacus was a critical and commercial success and won four Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design) and was nominated for another two (Best Original Score, Best Editing). The film would further fuel Kubrick’s career as he went on to direct masterpieces such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Dr. Strangelove.
Spartacus tells the true story of a young Thracian slave named Spartacus (Douglas) who is purchased by Lentulus Batitus (Ustinov) for his gladiator school. In the school, Spartacus begins a revolt with the other gladiators and escapes to the Roman countryside. Spartacus continues to rally more slaves along his journey in hope of leading them out of Italy and back to their homes. As Spartacus amasses his legion of slaves, he befriends a young slave entertainer named Antoninus (Tony Curtis) and falls in love with a fellow slave named Varinia (Jean Simmons). In the meantime, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Olivier) attempts to block his political rival, Gracchus (Laughton), from using this crisis to take control of the Roman army. To counter Gracchus, Crassus gives immense power to a young Julius Caesar (John Gavin). The forces collide into an epic battle that changed the course of history forever.
As a fan of Kubrick’s work, I put Spartacus on my watchlist a while ago to see the work that fueled his career. I had just come off of watching several other influential long films such as Seven Samurai (1954), Ben-Hur, Amadeus (1984), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), and thought I would give Spartacus a shot. My father, a huge lover of Roman history, also recommended the film.
I was amazed by the scope and spectacle portrayed throughout the film. Although I do not believe that Spartacus is one of Kubrick’s best films, I still view it as an incredible film. Even though Spartacus feels like the one film Kubrik was given the least creative control over, it still allowed him to deliver a powerful story.
Although I cannot recommend Spartacus to everyone because it is over 3 hours long, I can recommend it to aspiring filmmakers and history fans. Witness the true story of Spartacus will satisfy any lover of classical history. Film fans will also love Spartacus due to its impressive scope as well as the terrific performances from talented actors like Douglas, Ustinov, and Laughton. You can rent the film from Amazon Prime and YouTube for $3.99.