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An Analysis of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 Spartacus
Gerald Mast (2006) notes that "as with Renoir, Kubrick's social evils are human evils; the problem is human nature," (p. 542) and such can easily be applied to Kubrick's 1960 Spartacus -- despite the fact that the film cannot really be said to be his. Spartacus is more Kirk Douglas' vehicle than anything. Bought by Douglas, the story was meant to be his answer to Heston's Ben-Hur -- the same sweeping scope, the same Romanic epic. (Douglas, in fact, fired several members of the crew -- including the director, which is how Kubrick, then only 30, got the job). Nonetheless, the Spartacus narrative does not shy away from the kind of lore that Kubrick would go on to make infamous. Douglas turns his Spartacus into a kind of Christ-figure (dying, of course, not for man's sins but for freedom -- liberation, after all, was on everyone's mind in the 60s). Spartacus is as much a film about revolution as it is about the actual historical slave revolt leader who challenged the Roman Empire and lost. This paper will examine Kubrick's Spartacus from a historical standpoint and discuss where it stands and where it falls.
John Fitzgerald (2009) is none too kind when he states that "this academy award winning film…was based on the life of an escaped slave in the Roman Republic who led a massive slave revolt in 73 BC. That's about where historical accuracy ends." Fitzgerald cannot be blamed for his bluntness -- film critics cannot afford to be too partial. All the same, Fitzgerald diffuses any interest any self-respecting historian might have in the romance epic when he goes on to say:
We don't really know much about the personal life of Spartacus, and what historical evidence we do have about the slave revolt is at times vague and contradictory. That didn't stop both Kubrick…Dalton Trumbo the screenwriter from adapting Howard Fast's bogus historical novel about Spartacus into an entertaining farce of reality.
Ebert (1991) has kinder words for Spartacus, though his criticisms are much the same. While Ebert praises the battles and the performances, one historical aspect of the film falls under his sword:
All historical films share the danger that their costumes and hairstyles will age badly. Spartacus stands at a divide between earlier epics, where the female characters tended to look like models for hairdressing salons, and later epics that placed more emphasis on historical accuracy. But the hairstyles of the visiting Roman women at the gladiatorial school are laughable, and even Jean Simmons looks too made up and coiffed at times.
Douglas' Spartacus, Ebert observes, is portrayed as the kind of "dreamer" that the 1960s would have been proud of (echoes of Martin Luther King could not be louder), pining for the end of slavery. Such a motif in conjunction with the martyr/Christ reference, and Spartacus can easily be seen in the light in which Fitzgerald describes it: choking on a sense of its own self-worth. Ebert notes the "moral fiber of the slaves" as evidence of the kind of class moralizing that had more to do with the twentieth century than the first century BC.
John Woggon likewise concurs. "Historically correct in the overall story, all the major characters are real, but the presentation of their characters is fictional." Barbara McManus gives a more historical approach to the slave revolt that made Spartacus such Hollywood fodder for the 60s. Her narrative, in fact, makes Kubrick's look kitsch: "The story of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus really begins a lifetime earlier, in 146 B.C. Rome had finally and conclusively defeated its primary rival in the western Mediterranean, Carthage. For the next century Rome would follow a haphazard expansionist policy that saw more and more territory added to their control. Plunder and slaves poured into Rome. The social balance was fundamentally upset."
The Film and the History
Kubrick's Spartacus begins on a mountain in Libya (a plot point for which there is no historical evidence that suggests the Thracian was ever even there). The historical reasons for Rome's subjugation of Carthage are left unexplored. Instead, romance is highlighted.
The Gracchi, referenced in film, but used out of context (the grandsons of the legendary Scipio Africanus actually fought as "champions of the poor" (Haaren 2000, p. 143) in the second century BC -- well before Spartacus was leading any revolt). What the Gracchi did do in reality, however, was set the oppositional stage for two political parties. The wars between Sulla and Marius did not help things, nor did the way in which they slaughtered one another's allies, drenching Rome in Roman blood.
Sulla outlived Marius, of course, strengthened the Senate, "weakened the power of the tribunes," (McManus) and wrote the new law that would make Julius Caesar famous for crossing the Rubicon. Crassus and Pompey were next in line to receive the focus of history -- and now so was Spartacus.
Unlike the Douglas' Spartacus (born into slavery), the actual Spartacus was free-born and from the hills of Thrace in Greece. Likely taken into bondage after deserting the Roman army, he was -- as the film shows -- purchased by "Lentulus Batiatus and trained at his gladiatorial school in Capua" (McManus). In 73 BC, the 70 gladiators escaped, made their camp at Vesuvius, taking over the region with the assistance of neighboring slaves. The Roman army of 3000 that was sent to put down the rebellion was routed by Spartacus and his men. Within the year, his group of 70 had expanded into a force of 70,000.
The film, however, is wanting when it comes to finer details of the actual Spartacus' exploits. More allusions to the nobility of the (working class) slaves is made with Antoninus, who joins up with Spartacus, offering his services as poet and magician and all around entertainer -- seeing his duty as first and foremost, of course, as soldierly in the fight for "freedom."
The film also plays up the angle that Crassus wished to become dictator. The slaves in the revolt thus become a kind of political ploy, with Gracchus attempting to thwart Crassus' chances for takeover by helping the slaves. Caesar, who for some reason is not off on one of the long campaigns (like in Spain or England) expanding the Roman Empire, turns against Gracchus, and the evil-mastermind Crassus is free to pursue his own ends.
Of course, all of this is pure drivel. In reality, the power play was between Caesar and Pompey, not Gracchus and Crassus. It was Caesar, after all, who said in a poor village in the mountains of Spain, "I would rather be first here than second in Rome!" (Haaren, 1904, p. 183). Nonetheless, Spartacus does not exactly set out to be a history lesson, despite the fact that it is one of only a handful of films that attempts to "cover the transition of Rome from Republic to Empire" (Woggon).
Spartacus concentrates much of its time on brewing up class warfare, with Crassus on the side of the patricians and Gracchus on the side of the plebeians. Such plotting only serves to date the film as an obvious example of 60s ideology. (It does not help that Trumbo, the screenwriter, was blacklisted by Hollywood for suspected of being a Communist). Not that Spartacus is the only film to come out of Hollywood with such ideology -- most of the great ones do, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Casablanca. All the same, the actual story of Spartacus has more to it than mere class conflict.
McManus states that as Spartacus' numbers grew, the Senate determined to send two legions into the mountains to root them out. In this battle in 72 BC, Spartacus' friend Crixus fell; meanwhile, Spartacus fought and won against the two consuls sent to lead the legions. "To avenge Crixus, Spartacus had 300 prisoners from these battles fight in pairs to the death," says McManus -- hardly a reassuring sign that Spartacus was the noble poet/dreamer who could bear the thought of slaves fighting against their wills of Hollywood imagination.
From there, Spartacus moved toward central Italy. Spartacus might have made his way across the Alps at this time, but the Gauls now with him had more desire to stay in Italy, so the group headed south "perhaps intending to take ships to Sicily" (McManus). By the fall of that year, Spartacus' group numbered over one hundred thousand. In view of this, the Senate gave to Crassus the title of Imperium, which essentially made him commander over all Rome's armies.
Crassus' command was enough to keep Spartacus at bay. Spartacus was forced to retreat and "tried to cross the straits into Sicily, but the Cilician pirates betrayed him" (McManus). At the same time, Pompey was being requested by the Senate -- which meant that his return from Spain was imminent. Here, is where the real power play began. Then "Marcus Licinius Lucullus landed in…[continue]
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Strangelove, put him over the top" (p. 61). The learning curve was clearly sharp for Kubrick, and he took what he had learned in these earlier efforts and put this to good use during a period in American history when everyone was already ready to "duck and cover": "The film's icy, documentary-style aspect served not only to give the movie its realistic edge that juxtaposed nicely with its broad