Film Review: Spartacus (1960)

Also known as: Spartacus: Rebel Against Rome (US poster title)
Release Date: October 6th, 1960 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Dalton Trumbo
Based on: Spartacus by Howard Fast
Music by: Alex North
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis

Bryna Productions, Universal International, 197 Minutes

Review:

“If you looked into a magic crystal, you saw your army destroyed and yourself dead. If you saw that in the future, as I’m sure you’re seeing it now, would you continue to fight?” – Tigranes Levantus, “Yes.” – Spartacus, “Knowing that you must lose?” – Tigranes Levantus, “Knowing we can. All men lose when they die and all men die. But a slave and a free man lose different things.” – Spartacus, “They both lose life.” – Tigranes Levantus, “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 is another one of those classic epic films that I had seen in segments, dozens of times, on television at my granmum’s house as a kid. I don’t think that I had ever seen it in its entirety from beginning to end and with that, it’s the only Stanley Kubrick feature film that I hadn’t watched properly.

As a kid, this and Lawrence of Arabia were very similar to me. I also found this to be similar to the old sword and sandal movies of the same era, mainly the Hercules ones. However, Lawrence of Arabia takes place in a very different time and those Hercules movies can’t compete with Spartacus‘ greatness.

To start, this is directed by Stanley Kubrick, a real auteur who is on my Mount Rushmore of film directors. However, this was the one film where he wasn’t fully in control of the production and had to work within the big studio system, as he was brought in to replace a fired director. Kubrick was brought in at the request of his friend Kirk Douglas, who had worked with him previously on Paths of Glory.

Kubrick still utilized his skill set to great effect, however. While I don’t find this movie to be as stylistic as his other work, some of the shots in this are simply spectacular. For instance, watching the soldiers move into position on the battlefield is incredibly impressive and almost otherworldly while also slowly building up a real sense of dread just before the first attack.

The action in general is fantastic in this from the war scenes to the personal gladiatorial battles and every other skirmish in-between.

Beyond just Kubrick’s incredible artistic abilities, the film is loaded with some of the best acting talent that the motion picture industry has ever seen between Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. Not to mention Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis. And to be honest, this is some of the best work all these actors have done individually.

I guess it also helps that the director and his actors had a great script to work with from the legendary Dalton Trumbo, who did a stupendous job in adapting Howard Fast’s Spartacus novel, which I read in middle school and loved.

This is a movie that is pretty close to perfect for being what it is, which is a historical war drama with high stakes, a massive battle, action, romance and a good balance of humor and camaraderie between its stars.

Rating: 9.5/10