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 historical spectacle, filled with a long list of stars and an army of extras. Despite the grandness on display, it is also one of director Stanley Kubrick's most straightforward movies. His future efforts would focus a lot more on the unhinging of society and lot less on straightforward cries for freedom and basic human dignity.

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

As a result, Spartacus has surprisingly few all-out action scenes, as Kubrick attempts to keep the focus on characters and politics. The extras are mostly deployed in grand canvasses portraying the epic journey of the slave army to the Italian shore seeking a naval passage to freedom, and there is only one elaborate battle sequence between the slaves and the Roman legions.

The romance between Spartacus and the slave girl Varinia (an earnest Jean Simmons) also gets plenty of screen time, and helps to humanize the otherwise larger than life character of Spartacus.

Two less powerful but more memorable characters steal several scenes in the movie: 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 seduction scene, with master Crassus in the bath leading his slave Antoninus towards a homosexual relationship 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.

With star actors in fine form, visually appealing elaborate sets, and the sweep of history, Spartacus overcomes it's more wooden moments and provides a frequently enthralling experience.

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