The one-two punch of breaking the Commie-Conspiracy/Hollywood blacklist with a proper screen credit for scripter Dalton Trumbo, and the latter-day esteem of co-megger Stanley Kubrick has helped earn this pet Kirk Douglas project a rep as the ‘thinking man’s’ Sword & Sandal pic. It’s certainly an entertaining package, but, now more than ever, the sum looks to be less than the parts. The biggest problem is a simple one of balance, the Brits (that is the Brits playing the noble Romans), wipe the screen from the hapless Hollywood thesps. (Although John Gavin, of all people, is remarkably good as a young Julius Caesar.) So, while the film tries to inspire us with the doomed, but heroic revolt of Spartacus & his army of freed slaves, the first half is taken whole by Peter Ustinov, stupendously funny & eventually touching as the gladiatorial entrepreneur. Part Two is, if anything, even less of a contest, with Laurence Olivier working at full throttle as Crassus, First Consul of Rome. And it’s a sight to behold! (Especially with the noble Roman profile he worked up on the bridge of his nose.) And then there’s that sly pussy-cat, Charles Laughton, nabbing everything that’s left as savvy populist Senator Gracchus. These three also trampled all over Trumbo’s script. Olivier tweaked his part mercilessly (to fabulous result) while Ustinov got hired (off the books) to rewrite his scenes with Laughton. (His own stuff, too, to judge by the sound of things.) The flat, earnest voice of the real Trumbo can be heard everywhere else, as in the deadly love scenes between Kirk and his slavey mate, lovely Jean Simmons who seems to have dropped in from Mayfair, Britannia. And who was responsible for dressing those sound-stage exteriors where these two bill & coo? Or for the night-before-the-battle evening stroll as Spartacus makes like HENRY V with Trumbo & Kubrick lifting a ‘touch of Harry in the night’ from Olivier’s famous 1944 film. (Naughty, naughty, boys.) But then, most of the estates & locations positively smell of California. Even the impressively organized battles are over before they begin. Kubrick, who came in after Anthony Mann had shot enough for about four reels, always kept this one off his C.V. And it wasn’t out of a false sense of modesty.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Was Peter Ustinov the greatest of all movie raconteurs? Most DVD editions of SPARTACUS come with his pricelessly funny 1992 interview on the film, peppered with hilarious impersonations of Laughton (those lips!); Olivier (the hauteur!); dimwit American visitors; and even a touch of sentiment & pride. Endearing stuff.
CONTEST: Alex North’s score opens in brilliant fashion, using a dissonant mode that perfectly fits Saul Bass’s stunning credit sequence. And, of course, there’s the big love theme everyone knows. But in between, a disheartening amount of repetitious ‘filler’ and whole reels where he barely seems to be taking in the action at all. Then again, if you’re really in need of a big slurpy Spartacus theme, you must try out Khachaturian’s Lenin Prize winning ballet version from ‘54. So slurpy was this Spartacus love theme, it got repurposed for another fatalistic period romance shot in the ‘60s. And with no Romans in sight. Name the film to win a DVD Write-Up of your choice. As always, no Googling, please.