“I’m Spartacus!” “No, I’m Spartacus!” The climax of Stanley Kubrick’s Roman epic, which is now 60 years old, is one of the most iconic, admired and parodied scenes ever filmed. As the defeated slave army, led by Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus, face mass execution unless they betray their chief, they pull together as one and stirringly resist the entreaties of Laurence Olivier’s imperialistic senator Crassus.
Kirk Douglas et al. standing in front of a crowd: Masterpiece: Spartacus – Getty© Provided by The Telegraph Masterpiece: Spartacus – Getty
As a piece of cinema, it is superb, but this was not the only intention that Douglas, who also produced the film, and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had in mind. Trumbo had been one of the so-called ‘Hollywood Ten’, blacklisted and imprisoned for his communist sympathies and refusal to name names before Congress, and his script for Spartacus took the traditional generic tropes of the sword and sandals epic and gave them fresh and angry life with biting contemporary resonance.
Yet everything about Spartacus is unusual and dynamic. Although it can superficially be compared to such contemporary blockbuster epics as Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur, it is an entirely different film, closer to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in its thoughtful script, moral ambiguity and, in its restored version, provocative sexual content. It occupies a unique place in Kubrick’s distinguished filmography as being his only work that he did not originate himself, and yet its themes and mise-en-scène remain entirely Kubrickian, acting as a precursor to much of the rest of his work.
It features two distinct styles of performance, contrasting English actors working within a theatrical, Shakespearean tradition and American film stars entirely aware of the power of the big screen. And, many years after its initial release, it underwent a painstaking restoration that brought back one of its most famous scenes that had been deleted on initial release for being too racy.
“It was a very internal and intimate seed that sprouted into this huge thing,” the actor Peter Ustinov, who won an Oscar for his performance as the wily slave trader Batiatus, would later say of his involvement in the film. “The executives were rather nervous about the whole thing at the beginning, because of the absence of the Christian element, the Hays Code and the blessings, which would have been invaluable for the publicity department.”
Usually, the big epics of the time had an explicitly religious focus – Ben-Hur even featured Jesus as a character – but the $12 million budgeted Spartacus had no such theme, instead offering an allegorical representation of the contemporary civil rights movement and the communist witch-hunt that was gripping America at the time.
This unease led to the original director Anthony Mann being fired a week into shooting by Douglas in his role as producer; he would later write in his autobiography that Mann “seemed scared at the scope of the picture”. (He would later return to the genre with 1961’s El Cid and 1964’s excellent The Fall of the Roman Empire.)
Douglas then hired Kubrick, with whom he had had a good collaboration on 1957’s WWI drama Paths of Glory, and the filming continued, although the then-30 year old director had a baptism of fire in his adjustment to large-scale filmmaking. Ustinov would later say of him that “he showed none of the vices, or virtues, of youth”. The budget was more than 12 times the size of that of Paths of Glory.
“I enjoyed playing the part [of Batiatus], within the limits imposed by the strange things that happened”. Peter Ustinov’s heroic understatement barely begins to describe the tensions that arose on set, not only between Douglas and Kubrick but between the actors. The great Shakespearean actor Charles Laughton, then approaching the end of his career, had been hired to play the role of the wily senator Gracchus, and Olivier, who had famously played Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for the RSC, was keen to take on the part of another patrician Roman.
They, and Ustinov, were lured onto the project by being given a slightly different script, each of which emphasised their part over the others. When they finally realised that they had been tricked, they each attempted a shameless exercise in scene-stealing, which Kubrick did not bother to check.
Ironically, given that Mann had been fired for being out of his depth, Kubrick seemed overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the project. He responded to it by developing an icily autocratic style that did not allow for disagreement or improvisation, and led to him butting heads with Douglas, who was surprised that his previous collaborator was not docile and amenable: the actor would later describe the director as “a talented s**t”.
At one point, Kubrick told the veteran cinematographer Russell Metty, who was complaining about the director’s meticulous and intrusive instructions, “You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.” As Ustinov later mused, “I don’t know that we ever saw the real Kubrick; he was using this, quite rightly, to hit the big time, and wanted to do films his own way. He lived with the film, but didn’t feel it as profoundly as he later did.”
There were lighter moments, too. Ustinov recounted a memorable story about Kirk Douglas having a weekend break in Palm Springs, not even bothering to change and remaining dressed in his costume as a slave. When his limousine stopped at a petrol station, he hopped out for a moment but his driver, seeing a remaining pile of rags in the back, assumed that Douglas was still in the car and drove on.
This then led to the spectacle of one of the most powerful actors of the day, covered in grime and dressed in a tattered loincloth, desperately trying to convince sceptical passers-by that he was “the Kirk Douglas”.
Spartacus was filmed in both California and Madrid, with the epic battle scenes using eight thousand soldiers from the Spanish infantry, and when completed, Douglas loudly announced his intention of crediting Trumbo as screenwriter and thereby becoming ‘the man who broke the blacklist’.
It has been rumoured that this was not as heroic as it sounded, as the director Otto Preminger, who used Trumbo to write the screenplay of Exodus, similarly credited him, and Kubrick, who had made some relatively minor alterations to the script, blithely announced that he would take a writing credit. This was seen as entirely unacceptable by Douglas, and so, for both idealistic and practical reasons, Trumbo received his first on-screen credit as screenwriter since 1945’s Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.
The film premiered to some controversy, not least protests from the National Legion of Decency, who were offended both by its being written by a communist sympathiser and by its strong violence and sexual content. Many battle scenes were deleted, as was a suggestive bathroom scene between Olivier and Tony Curtis’s slave Antoninus, in which Gracchus reveals his bisexuality to the young man by discussing the metaphor of ‘snails and oysters’.
But the protests and picketing might have proved fatal for the film at the box office, had not Douglas used his considerable influence to persuade the newly elected President John F Kennedy to cross a picket line and watch the film. This symbolic action not only silenced the Legion of Decency, but also saw the once-powerful House Committee on un-American Activities (HUAC), which had persecuted Trumbo and many others, silenced and humiliated.
It was an enormous commercial success upon its initial release, in large part because of the publicity that Douglas had cannily brought about, and it was re-released in 1967, but it had been edited in order to fit in more showings each day. This truncated version was the only one available until 1991, when the film historian Robert A Harris was brought on board to restore the picture. It proved a long and involved job.
As he says, “I worked with the studio in bringing the digital restoration to fruition. In 1989, when we began the work, the original 35mm negative was too faded to use as a source, so we worked totally with black and white protection elements – three low contrast black and white prints called separation masters. These were recomposed optically to a sample frame from each shot in the film. When the film was recut for censorship, some of the original footage made it to the masters, some did not. But since the original camera negative was literally being re-cut while the masters were being produced, some scenes had only two records, and the third needed to be created from one of the surviving two.”
One of the results of this restoration was discovering that some of the audio of previously deleted or lost scenes was now missing, most notably of the ‘snails and oysters’ scene. Its reconstruction offered a unique challenge. Harris says: “‘As far as tech issues with the looping of dialogue, there really were no problems. We had located the surviving music from the sequence, and the Universal sounds dept was able to create the sound effects. Tony Curtis made himself available.
“Since Sir Laurence Olivier had just passed, we felt that before we did anything, we needed a ‘moral’ permission to re-voice his work, and reached out via Lawrence of Arabia editor Anne Coates to her friend, Joan Plowright, who never really gave us permission. Her response was to get Anthony Hopkins, as he used to drive Larry crazy doing a take of his St. Crispin’s Day speech at parties. We reached him via his rep, and he agreed to help. His lines were directed by Stanley Kubrick via fax.”
Belying his reputation for being both aloof and uninterested in his ‘for hire’ film, Kubrick collaborated fully with the restoration, as did Douglas. “Kubrick came on board at the very beginning, along with Kirk Douglas. He was extremely helpful with tech problems, as he immediately understood our problems of the day, and how we intended to solve them. We generally spoke once or twice a week, as necessary. Once we finished business, he always wanted to know how the Yankees were doing. Mr. Douglas wanted everything back that we could find from the pre-censorship cut, and joined us in going through the vaults in search for elements, of which there were thousands of cans.”
Gallery: Kirk Douglas at 103: His life and career in pictures (Photo Service)
Known for his iconic movie roles and charismatic persona, legendary actor Kirk Douglas has been in the spotlight since the 1940s. We take a look at his illustrious life and career that spans over seven decades.
The finished and restored film remains one of the classic epics, a major influence on everything from Gladiator to, of all things, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Harris, who has also restored the likes of My Fair Lady and Lawrence of Arabia, says of it that “I love the film. Along with William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, possibly the greatest of the biblical / Roman era epics. Extraordinary performances – Douglas, Olivier, Curtis, Simmons, Laughton, Ustinov, Foch, Barnes, Strode… peerless. Magnificently photographed by Russell Metty, a great Alex North score, beautifully cut by Robert Lawrence (look for his double slap), with more than a bit of help from Saul Bass. Not bad direction, either…”
And I have my own, fond, association with the film’s legacy. I was once having a haircut in a silent men’s barber in London, and the hairdresser next to me asked his customer what his name was. “I’m Spartacus”, the man replied. Unable to resist, I quickly shouted “No, I’m Spartacus!” Nobody in the barber seemed to get the joke, and we all continued in embarrassed silence until our haircuts were finished.