Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick (USA, 1960, 196 min.). Spartacus is one of the panoramic historical epics that drew much attention from the mid-20th century movie audiences. It was conceived as a vehicle for actor Kirk Douglas, whose company produced the film. With an illustrious cast that includes Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Jean Simmons, Spartacus recounts events from the Third Servile War. The story centers on a failed slave uprising in the ancient Roman Republic and on Spartacus, the gladiator who was one of its leaders. Stoically fighting against daunting odds and a brutal, vengeful system, Spartacus and the rebel slaves struggle for freedom in a narrative that reveals themes of heroism, honor, love, and courage along the way.
Though the film’s story is based on real events in the ancient past, in many ways Spartacus raises issues that were very much in the air in 1960, when the film was released. In one pivotal scene, for example, rebel slaves are threatened with death if they fail to identify which of them is their leader, Spartacus. This horrific choice, between death and betrayal, surely resonated with the film’s original audiences. Indeed, this type of coercion has eerie parallels, albeit on a lesser scale, to the tactics used in the hunt for communists during the height of the so-called “Red Scare” a few years before Spartacus was released. In hearings a few years before Kubrick’s film, the House Un-American Activities Committee had demanded witnesses to identify who among them were communists. Failure to cooperate led to legal penalties and career suicide. Coincidentally, one of those caught up in such hearings was the Spartacus scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted as one the “Hollywood Ten” when he failed to cooperate. Unable to work openly in the industry after that, Trumbo wrote the script for Spartacus in secret. His identity was not revealed until later.
Although viewers today may be unaware of this political milieu, at the time these themes were much discussed by philosophers and other intellectuals. Mid-Century philosopher Hannah Arendt, for example, once wrote about the implications of totalitarian regimes and about the “apparatus of coercion” as a “means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within” that is a common feature of them. Writing in the wake of World War II and in the midst of the anxious political climate of the Cold War, she candidly looked at the dehumanizing oppression, whether emanating from the far right or the far left. In so doing, she drew attention on the moral complexity of human action in difficult situations. All these issues, in the guise of fictionalized Roman history, are present in Kubrick’s film, which is very much an enlightening product of its time.
When it first appeared in theaters, the New York Times’ film critic called Spartacus a “a vast, panoramic display” that was “bursting with patriotic fervor” and “bloody tragedy.” Kubrick was pulled in many directions while making the film and saddled the responsibilities that come with a lavish budget and outsized expectations. Yet, working within the form of a traditional Hollywood spectacle, he crafted not only a work of narrative and visual interest; he also made a film that raised philosophical questions that are as relevant today as ever.
Gordon Arnold, PhD
Professor of Film and Social Science
Montserrat College of Art