Kirk Douglas prepares for battle as the titular gladiator in Spartacus.
It's been written by many that Spartacus was more Kirk Douglas' baby than Stanley Kubrick's, and whether that's true or not, it's easy to see why such an opinion still persists decades later. Despite featuring many touches that can only be described as Kubrickian, the film is formulaic to a fault. If you've seen one sword-and-sandals epic, you've seen them all, as far as I'm concerned, and despite being directed by one of cinema's great innovators, Spartacus doesn't feature much that's new and different.
However, that doesn't mean it's not a quality film. The production values are top-notch, it contains a handful of rousing action sequences, and the aforementioned Kubrickian touches always come as welcome surprises. It just doesn't do a ton to overcome the trappings of a somewhat silly genre. Douglas stars as Spartacus, a slave of the mighty Roman Empire, working in the salt mines of Libya. Early in the film, he is sold to Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a sniveling bureaucrat with a moderate level of wealth and importance, who trains him to become a gladiator. With dozens of other angry gladiators at his side, Spartacus revolts and leads his men into the Roman countryside to recruit other slaves to join their ranks. Meanwhile, in Rome, Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and General Crassus (Laurence Olivier) wage a mostly private war against each other for influence and power, while the rest of the Senate disputes what to do about the Empire's fastest-growing threat—Spartacus.
Spartacus' plan for his men—to move south and meet up with Silesian pirates with whom Spartacus has brokered a deal—follows the historical record, at least as far as it's known. The rest of the story appears to be a mixture of fact and fiction. A man named Spartacus did, in fact, lead one of the biggest slave revolts in Roman history. He was trained at a camp belonging to Batiatus. And Crassus was the general who ultimately led the opposition against him. Much of the rest of the film, it seems, is more based on the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, which was published about a decade before the 1960 release of this film.
It's a very dense story, which leads me to believe the novel is equally dense, the adaptation very literal. It's hard to argue the film doesn't feel a little bloated, with side character after side character getting more than his fair share of development. That's not a bad thing, per se, but when your film is already running at three hours, I don't have any objections with skipping the tenth-billed actor's denoument. But this is the era for big, bombastic historical epics. Douglas reportedly jumped on this project out of anger for being turned down the titular role in Ben-Hur, and with such a heavy involvement in the production, one has to expect he'd want this film to be as epic as possible. Mission accomplished.
Kubrick's tendency toward darker character details isn't lost, thankfully. The film's best scene is one between Crassus and his servant, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), during which Crassus asks his servant about morality and his taste for "oysters". It's a thinly veiled attempt to paint the general as a nervously closeted homosexual, and it was reportedly cut from the original theatrical version of Spartacus—only resurrected for the DVD release years later. Besides being a brilliantly written scene, it also serves as the kind of seemingly inconsequential character detail that just makes you smile. Kubrick is having fun with his film's villain—showing that though he might be the richest man and baddest general around, he's afraid to be himself, even around a lowly slave.
Douglas serves as a great hero. He's not quite working on the same level he did in Paths of Glory, his other Kubrick-directed film. The problem, of course, is that there's no such thing as subtlety in ancient Rome. Still, Douglas gives him a good dose of personality, which makes Spartacus is an easy hero to root for. Among the film's stellar supporting cast, Peter Ustinov stands out as Batiatus, a sort of sniveling ass-kisser who just lurks in the background waiting to pounce where he sees potential for a quick buck.
Spartacus isn't likely to find its way atop many Kubrick lovers' best lists—it certainly won't be on mine—but that shouldn't take away too much from one's enjoyment of the film itself. Despite being super long and a little too "old-fashioned epic" for my taste, there's enough greatness to make this mighty time investment worthwhile.