Sunday 17 April 2011

Movie Review: Spartacus (1960)

The story of a slave revolt in Italy in the last century before Christ, Spartacus is a grand Hollywood spectacle, filled with a long list of stars and an army of extras. In addition to the grandeur, director Stanley Kubrick creates compelling characters engaging in surreptitious sparring for political dominance.

Strong-willed slave and gladiator-in-training Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) inspires the slaves of Italy to revolt and pursue their dream of freedom. The slaves organize themselves into an army, create a functioning society and march across the country. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes plotting and backstabbing erupts in Rome, as conniving general Crassus (Laurence Olivier), sleazy senator Grachuss (Charles Laughton), emerging military leader Julius Caesar (John Gavin), and naive commander Glabrus (John Dall) use the slave rebellion to try and outmanoeuvre each other in a great power struggle.

A combination of epic thrills and political gamesmanship, Spartacus has surprisingly few all-out action scenes, as Kubrick keeps the focus on characters and motives. Strong men exert authority and influence both in the countryside and the corridors of government in a stirring display of what it takes to shift the course of history, either for the greater good or personal advancement. Extras are deployed in grand canvasses portraying the journey of the slave army to the Italian shore seeking a naval passage to freedom, but also on a collision course with the Roman legions.

Kubrick also provides due attention to the romance between Spartacus and the slave girl Varinia (an earnest Jean Simmons) to humanize the otherwise larger than life protagonist.

Two less powerful but more memorable characters steal several scenes: Peter Ustinov won an Academy Award for his turn as Betiatus, a slave dealer and gladiator trainer who finds himself having to draw on his substantial shrewdness to survive as he is sucked into the political battle in Rome. Tony Curtis wanders into the movie as Antoninus, a slave boy who escapes his master Crassus and joins the rebellion, becoming a trusted advisor to Spartacus. A restored scene, with master Crassus in the bath seducing his slave Antoninus by talking about oysters and snails, is a sneaky attempt at censor evasion.

The narrative eventually narrows down to a battle of wits between Crassus and Spartacus, and with the weight of the Roman Empire's military might on the side of Crassus, the outcome is never in doubt. Spartacus needs to be satisfied with his men's enormous displays of loyalty, culminating in the "I am Spartacus!" classic scene, and a more hopeful future for the next generation.

Both as an intimate portrayal of courage and a sweep-of-history spectacle, Spartacus thunders with conviction.

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