Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov
Spoilers Within: Yes
Originally posted 24th April 2016 on Letterboxd.
Crossing off my antepenultimate Stanley Kubrick feature (I’m waiting for the right time to watch Lolita and Fear & Desire),Spartacus has proven to me that there was no genre that this man wasn’t capable of directing with precision and perfection, even when the film in question has the least ‘Kubrickian’ style of all.
The ‘least’ here is his absence of artistic control following the replacement of original director Anthony Mann; he was denied permission to alter the script, and compromised on filming locations and equipment use, but there’s still something slightly stylistic in the story that perhaps wouldn’t have been as evident without the return of Paths of Glory‘s A-list Kirk Douglas. It’s also noticeably the least ‘Kubrickian’ simply because there are characters within that are likeable as opposed to the primarily deplorable characters that command every one of his post-60s features. Imagine here if Spartacus was as nihilistic as Dr. William Harford; as schizophrenic as Alex and his droogs; or as insurgent as Barry Lyndon. Thankfully, we get a character that is the amiable bedrock of the story that doesn’t entirely rely on the typical cut-and-paste themes of morality that were so endemic of mid-century Hollywood epics.
The casting here is terrific, Douglas is expectedly skilled in carrying the grand story, but it was my first introduction to Peter Ustinov as the bumbling, brilliant Batiatus who stole the entirety of 200+ minutes and was a character that I was pleased saw it through to its resolution. There was more expert casting in Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton, but aside from the aforementioned Ustinov, it was Jean Simmons’ who brought out the best of some of the characters in her portrayal as ‘love interest’ Varinia. Calling her a love interest is perhaps a bit of an invalidation of her role as it makes it seem as though she’s simply there, but it’s in her relationship with Spartacus that the film has some of its most humane scenes, most notably their very first nervous, laughter-filled encounter. It’s a wonderful scene and makes the no-nonsense ending have more of a heart-wrenching sting to it, even in the face of its implication of a better future.
There are many other epics that would have resolved with a familial reunion (I’m looking at you, Ben Hur), and whilst that is slightly true here as well, it’s the silent moment of unspoken sadness that brings the film full circle in an unexpected way: Spartacus’ newborn son starting a life free of slavery that his father so doggedly fought for.