Movie Lovers Reviews: Spartacus (1960) - Best Battle Scenes

Friday, October 26, 2012

Spartacus (1960) - Best Battle Scenes

Kirk Douglas Spartacus (1960)
"Spartacus" (1960).

"Spartacus" (1960) is the story of a real historical figure who, until this film was made by Bryna Productions, was no more than a footnote in historical texts known only to scholars. Fortunately, Spartacus now has a much higher profile. As just about everybody knows because of the influence of "Spartacus," he was a Thracian (Greek) slave in pre-Imperial Rome who led an uprising that spread across Roman Italy. After amazing success, defeating several armies sent against him, Spartacus faced a final showdown with the remaining armies of the Roman Senate led by Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). "Spartacus" attempts to be truthful to the real-life Spartacus, with only the barest of Hollywood embellishments, unlike the soft-core entertainment peddled on cable TV such as "Spartacus: Blood and Sand."

Kirk Douglas faces death in Spartacus (1960)
Kirk Douglas as Spartacus facing certain death - or is he?

Kirk Douglas, who also was Executive Producer, plays the title role in manly fashion. His best moments, though, are when he is conferring with his associates or interacting with Jean Simmons. Kirk Douglas delivers a nuanced performance that crests at the right moments, then backs off to keep the role from becoming a caricature. Perhaps the best aspect of the Spartacus character is the love shown for Spartacus by his men, as exemplified in the famous "I am Spartacus" scene towards the end of "Spartacus."

The main cast assembled together in Spartacus (1960)
The assembled leads of "Spartacus."

Olivier is surprisingly effective as Spartacus' ultimate nemesis, Crassus. I say "surprisingly" because, while Olivier's reputation as an actor is beyond reproach, he seldom took roles in action-adventure films like this outside of Shakespeare. Olivier plays the devious political General about as well as the role could be played, giving enough ambiguity to certain aspects of Crassus' personality to keep you guessing until the end about his real strength of character.

Jean Simmons as Lavinia in Spartacus (1960)
Jean Simmons makes for a fine Lavinia in "Spartacus."

Jean Simmons ended her long run of outstanding roles that began with "Great Expectations" and "Black Narcissus" with her turn as Lavinia. Simmons is a delight as the slave who becomes Spartacus' girlfriend - and it is her sale to Crassus (via slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, a role that earned Peter Ustinov an Academy Award) that sets the plot in motion. Jean Simmons is outstanding, especially at the end when she has a few last moments with Spartacus. Why Hollywood abandoned her after this is a deep, dark mystery. She is, perhaps, showing her age a bit as Lavinia (although only around 30, she seems more weathered than in her previous roles). Her mature demeanor, though, is perfect for the part she plays.

Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in the notorious bath scene in Spartacus (1960)
The famous restored bathing scene with Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier. This was first show in a 1992 revival of "Spartacus," with Anthony Hopkins providing the voice of Olivier because the original soundtrack was lost.

Tony Curtis also is present as a sort of court-jester figure, and Curtis is both the best and the worst things about "Spartacus." He acts at times as Spartacus' conscience, and has a famous bathing scene with Olivier that has obvious homosexual overtones. It was struck from the film until restored in the 1990s (and the dialogue from that scene was apparently lost forever, so the part of Crassus had to be re-dubbed by Anthony Hopkins). Some criticize Curtis' accent, hairstyle and manner as having nothing to do with ancient Rome, but Curtis helps keep the film from sinking into tedium during the long middle section (i.e., between battles).

Slave revolt in Spartacus (1960)
"I hold you personally responsible."

The real high points of the film, though, are the battle scenes. If you liked "Braveheart" with Mel Gibson, well, you can see where he got the ideas for some of those battle scenes. In one of the most impressive camera shots of all time, we stand, unmoving, on a hill looking down while the Roman Legions assemble in precise formation on the plain below. It is an astounding tribute to director Stanley Kubrick that he made simple troop movements look like high art. Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick had many differences during the extremely long filming, which made Kubrick demand total control from that point onward for every film he directed. The results of their collaboration here are undeniably brilliant. Douglas had fired director Anthony Mann, who created the extremely realistic sets, and replaced him with Kubrick. Douglas came to regret the move, and later worked with Mann again ("The Heroes of Telemark") but refused to work again with Kubrick. Among other issues that Douglas had with Kubrick, he fiercely resented Kubrick's stillborn attempt to take credit for the screenplay in place of the true screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (adapting Howard Fast's book). Trumbo at that time was still subject to the Hollywood blacklist for communist affiliations, and Kubrick felt he was doing everyone a favor by putting his name forward as screenwriter. Ultimately, Douglas insisted that Trumbo be identified as the screenwriter by his true name, thereby breaking the Hollywood blacklist for good. Trumbo's family and Howard Fast, incidentally, dispute that Douglas was as noble in the affair as later accounts suggest.

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus Spartacus (1960)
Kirk must battle Woody Strode in "Spartacus"

"Spartacus" is a great film. Some might decry the wordy political scenes, but they are integral to the plot and engrossing for those willing to pay attention. Trumbo couldn't resist inserting a scene, toward the end, where Crassus shows his Senatorial antagonist Sempronius Gracchus (played by Charles Laughton of all people!) that he is on "the list" of people to be dealt with. "And where is my name on this list," asks Gracchus. "At the top," Crassus replies. It is a terrific scene that almost removes the so-called "fourth wall" for those who know Trumbo's personal story. Kirk Douglas and Trumbo later collaborated on the excellent "Lonely are the Brave," which raises many of the same themes of individualism and personal freedom that flow through "Spartacus."

Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in Spartacus 1960
A thoughtful moment in "Spartacus."

The score by Alex North is stirring, as you would expect for this rousing tale, and it rightfully was nominated for an Academy Award. The the conclusion of "Spartacus" is unmatched in its unflinching depiction of the brutal reality of the times. The final scenes may come as a shock if you don't know the history of the real Spartacus, but it is the lack of a cop-out ending that sends "Spartacus" over the top as one of the top films ever made. Who survives, who dies, and who ultimately prospers show that real life is random, winners are not always the most valiant, and that the good often die young.

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus 1960
Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.

In sum, "Spartacus" is not all blood and guts and sex and violence. It also is love and thoughtfulness and strategy and human comedy. The score by Alex North is brilliant and timeless. You can watch the sleazy current cable TV show if all that is necessary to satisfy you is sex and violence. This "Spartacus" is introspective, thoughtful, philosophical, and also full of enough violence and romance for any film. All of these qualities make "Spartacus" a damn fine action/adventure film.

Poster for Spartacus (1960)
"Spartacus" (1960).

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