Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Most Kubrick fans tend to look down on Spartacus. This is for a variety of reasons, but the main one is that it's the only film Kubrick made as a hired gun – he certainly didn't have full creative control. Well, hired gun or not, I think Spartacus is a fine film. It's one of the best epics ever made.

The most enjoyable part of Spartacus is undoubtedly the first third – the section dealing with the training of the gladiators. It's kind of like a Roman Full Metal Jacket – we get to see a bunch of 'recruits' get trained and abused by a loudmouth bully. But unlike Full Metal Jacket, we not only get mind games, we get proper sexual humiliation, too. For instance, there's a scene where the gladiators, as a reward, get the company of a woman. Spartacus gets Varinia (Jean Simmons), but he says he's never had a woman before (as good as he is in the film, I still find it hard to buy the horny Kirk Douglas, he of the rocking trailer, as a virgin). And then immediately afterwards, Marcellus (the trainer) and Batiatus (the establishment's owner, played by Peter Ustinov) appear at a hole in the ceiling and laugh at him. It's a wonderfully cruel scene.

Another fantastic little moment is when, a little while after his first encounter with her, Varinia is taken to Spartacus' room/cell. The door is opened for her, but before she can walk in, Marcellus says that she's going to go to the Spaniard instead. It's a superb piece of mental torture – see the woman you've fallen in love with and then hear her get nailed by another one of the gladiators.

Yet another excellent scene is when a group of Romans, led by Crassus (Laurence Olivier), visit Batiatus' training school. For their own amusement they want to see matched pairs fight to the death. But the women in the group not only want to see the men fight and die, they want them to do it in as little clothing as possible. Only enough for modesty, one of them says. And there's also a great bit when one of the women drools over a big black gladiator – these men were obviously a sexual fantasy for a lot of Roman women.

And the fights themselves are superb. The first is filmed through the slats of a door that Spartacus is looking through, and the second, which features Spartacus himself, sees him battle Woody Strode. But what makes the second fight so enjoyable are the little details. For example, the women are really into it, but the men are bored – they talk amongst themselves as the gladiators fight to the death; this entertainment is ordinary and rather mundane. Another great detail is how bloodthirsty the women are. They're the ones who call for the loser to be killed and they're the ones who are most outraged when Strode won't do what he's supposed to.

After this, though, things take a slight turn for the worse. We start to get some heavy handed moralising and we get all the inevitable talk about freedom. But unlike some, the romance between Spartacus and Varinia never bothers me. Sure the otherwise excellent score gets a bit too cloying in their romantic scenes, but Douglas and Simmons have superb chemistry and they lend the film a lot of warmth. Much worse for me are the small moments that litter the film – a couple burying their baby, an old lady squirting milk in a child's face and everyone gazing lovingly at Spartacus like he's a dimpled slave Jesus as he wanders the camp at night. These moments are obviously meant to add colour and to pull our heartstrings, but they're far too blatant – they have all the subtlety of a hammer blow between the eyes.

Much more successful are the senate scenes, especially the exchanges between Laughton and Olivier. You really can tell they don't like one another, and their attempts to outdo each other add to the characters and the film. I also like the brief moments between Curtis and Olivier, but perhaps in a rather sniggering sort of way. There's just something rather amusing about Sir Larry ordering a Bronx-born slave Curtis to be his 'body servant' – ooh er, missus. And the 'snails and oysters' scene is well done, too, and exceedingly homoerotic as well (Spartacus is one of the few sword and sandals epics to include homoeroticism on purpose, rather than have it occur as a natural by-product of beefy men wandering about in their pants).

But although the film sags in its middle section, it picks up again at the end. One of the best scenes is the final battle – the chopped limb and the sword through the neck are attention grabbers, but the best bit is in the pre-battle; the way the Roman formations change. It's a magnificently visual way of contrasting the two armies – the mass of slaves, standing as one, and their organised opponents using strategy and cunning.

And even though it's been parodied to death, the "I'm Spartacus" scene is still great. As is the final scene where Simmons confronts Spartacus as he hangs on the cross. In the wrong hands it could have been maudlin in the extreme, but it actually comes across as rather hopeless – Douglas, when looking down on his newborn son, doesn't appear to be full of joy and love. Instead he almost looks angry – he's lost and he knows it, and even though his wife and son are free, everyone else is no better off than when he started. Indeed they might even be worse off. And it's this final defeat that ultimately makes Spartacus stand out – it doesn't provide us with miracles; every victory is hard earned.

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