July 5: #21, Spartacus
“In Rome, dignity shortens life even more surely than disease.”
At 197 minutes long, Spartacus is not for the feint of heart. I wasn't exactly pumped to spend two movies' worth of time watching one film that I didn't expect to have aged well when I'm already far behind pace in my goal to watch 150 movies in 90 days, but I set out to watch every Stanley Kubrick film and to do so, I had to watch Kirk Douglas chew scenery for three-plus hours.
Spartacus is every bit a predecessor to later epics like Braveheart and Gladiator, where one brave man who just happens to have a chiseled jaw and movie-star looks rises above the other thousands of people who share the exact plight to lead an epic struggle for justice and/or freedom.
It also is a strange film for Kubrick to helm, looking back now. At the time, Kubrick had done Paths of Glory and seemed well-suited for the task, but after seeing his work in the 70s and 80s, having him film the 1960 equivalent of a summer blockbuster seems very strange.
Kubrick wasn't allowed to have the control over this film that he always enjoyed having with his other productions, and it shows. While Kubrick takes advantage of the setting to display some nice cinematography in the early slave scenes, much of the film is pretty paint-by-numbers. This film lacks the biting satire and thought-provoking themes of his other work, although the story of slaves revolting against their former owners and Rome itself fits well within Kubrick's other work that criticizes authority figures for treating the “little people” with disregard.
If you didn't like Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory, you'll despise him in Spartacus, as he really cranks up the grandstanding in this one. Although Douglas can veer towards insufferable in the big moments where he seems to be reaching for an Oscar nomination, he succeeds when provided with moments of levity and to a lesser extent when forced to build a romance from scratch with fellow slave Varinia, played by Jean Simmons, who is pretty but also a blank slate here.
|Oh, and you also get to see Kirk Douglas look like a sunburned, leathery version of Marv from Sin City|
There's a lot to love about Spartacus, though. There's some really witty writing, such as when the delightfully slimy Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) orders a slave to serve “the second best wine...no, the best, but small goblets!” for the arrival of Crassus. Sure, the slaves become expert fighters by alternatively jumping over and ducking under logs, but we can forgive that, because Kubrick's shots of thousands of slave soldiers migrating through Rome are wonderfully done, particularly when considering that something so epic as those moments or the huge battle later on would be largely done with CGI now.
Kubrick manages to break out of his constraints long enough to make some nifty directorial choices, too. The best moment that comes to mind is when corresponding army leaders Spartacus and Crassus make their speeches to their soldiers, with the speeches being interspersed with one another to contrast the styles and motivations of the two men. An eerie trip through the field of bodies left in the wake of the battle also makes an impression.
Spartacus is far from perfect, but it does tell a great story that affects the viewer, even after all this time. It's a long trip, but it's a worthy one.