Playful in exchange and clinical in execution, Spartacus profits from its pairing of strange bedfellows, generating suspense through the crackle of Dalton Trumbo’s eloquent banter and the unflinching ferocity of Stanley Kubrick’s direction. The richness of performance and context flourish in riveting vignettes, keeping the action compact and diverse, despite the film’s marathon length and the immensity of the production. This episodic nature provides an uncommon intimacy, one capable of fleshing-out complex characters without overshadowing the bombast of a grand saga. It’s a unique approach that works in fits, ultimately lagging under the restriction of its genre and the demands of a director uninspired by pre-packaged studio product.
Zeroing in on the carnality of the Classical Age, Spartacus investigates the bond between violence and sexuality, uncovering the master-slave relationship that prevails by virtue of these forms of human expression. Our eponymous hero (Kirk Douglas), an illiterate drudge and captive combatant, comprehends the system of punishment and reward through the cruelty of his masters, uncovering the hierarchy of power upon receiving the gift of a concubine as “payment” for his gladiatorial exploits.
The non-physical relationship that develops between Spartacus and the brazen Varinia (Jean Simmons) evolves through fervent glances and seething passion, but acts only as an extension of their bondage, each intimate exchange met with a forbidding whisper or possessive sentiment. Their only common ground aside from lust is a shared confinement, further magnified by the restraints of gender and eventual collapse of their servant rebellion.
Exploiting male bisexuality as an extension of societal misogyny, Spartacus capitalizes on the homoeroticism of a phallocentric Rome, painting gay culture as an ornament of upper class opulence. Treating same-sex couplings as an exotic vestige of a polytheistic civilization, Kubrick presents unctuous male flesh and marble soaking pools behind gauzy drapery and the echo of ambient chimes, characterizing the behavior as foreign and anomalous.
A veiled discussion of desire between Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis), key figures on opposing sides of Spartacus’ radicalized army, is harder to decipher than the decor, dealing in double entendre and polite metaphor. Propositioning the naive poet Antoninus, Crassus, the most duplicitous of politicians, asks his subject’s opinion on “oysters and snails,” comparing a varied diet to an omnisexual appetite. The argument for diversity is sound, but the mouthpiece is unreliable, lending Dalton Trumbo’s saucy dialogue an air of homophobia, particularly in relation to Antoninus’ desertion of his post and devotion to Spartacus’ slave brigade. The matter becomes even more confounding when the lyricist’s allegiance to Spartacus develops an erotic bent in the closing passages, potentially conveying Trumbo’s preference of a warrior’s libido over a senator’s hissed insinuations.
The fluidity of Trumbo’s prose masks the allusions to forbidden pleasures, but Stanley Kubrick’s directorial eye evokes the displeasure of pain, replacing the bravado of battle with the horror of human degradation. Violence is the focal point of Kubrick’s visual subtext, cutting directly from brutality to an alarming reaction shot, illustrating the fear on Spartacus’ face as he’s branded and the desperate, clawing fists of Marcellus (Charles McGraw), the gladiator trainer, as he’s submerged in a cauldron of blistering soup.
Physical torment becomes its own form of slavery and Kubrick paints the sand of his training facility with sweat and spurts of crimson blood. Uncommonly cruel for the era and the plausible inspiration for Salò’s closing exhibition, the gymnasium serves a dual purpose of training mechanism and gallows pole, binding sparrers between wooden rods and employing oscillating blades as hurdles. Observing these men as they struggle places us in the role of voyeur, paralleling the viciousness of the coliseum's audience as they salivate over the prospect of fresh carrion.
Kubrick incorporates this queasiness into a towering closing battle, choreographing a barrage of swinging swords and whirling bodies, depicting the progression from vitality to fatality as a surrealistic waltz. It’s a testament to his brilliance as a filmmaker that he managed to impart skepticism and ambiguity onto the glories of war and the wide-eyed certainty of the tragic hero, transforming Spartacus from pious martyr to tight-lipped insurgent. The ideological triumph is admirable, but the change in ingredients has upset the recipe, allowing the connective tissue, comprised of perfunctory montages and rallying cries, to weigh down the midsection and telegraph the extraneous runtime. By allowing the pageantry of his aesthetic to overshadow the prerequisites of the form, Stanley Kubrick reduced the splendor of the cinematic epic to an asymmetrical character study.
Spartacus (Universal Pictures, 1960)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Howard Fast (novel) and Dalton Trumbo (screenplay)
Photographed by Russell Metty