Wednesday, 2 April 2014
Perhaps it makes me a film philistine (Filmistine?) but I'm not a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick. His films are gorgeously shot, it's true, but there's more to being a great director than a keen eye for visual composition. Spartacus is a film Kubrick himself disowned and refused to consider part of his canon, because he did not have complete control of the production. Given my generally ambivalent feelings about Kubrick's projects, this lack of control may be a contributing factor to why I like it.
Kubrick's attitude toward the film is ironic given that it not only established his career as a 'big picture' director, but because he was reportedly eager to claim the screenwriting credit for it. The film was actually written by Dalton Trumbo, a communist who was blacklisted by Hollywood after refusing to give evidence against other possible socialists in the film industry. When discussion turned to who should be credited for the script, Kubrick suggested himself. Star Kirk Douglas found Kubrick's enthusiasm for taking the credit distasteful and instead insisted that Trumbo get the credit in his own name. The move prompted anti-communist picket lines at some cinemas, a protest that collapsed only when the newly elected John F Kennedy crossed one such picket line to see the film. It would subsequently emerge that Trumbo had won an Oscar while blacklisted, under the pseudonym 'Richard Rich'.
I think it's worthwhile knowing about Trumbo's politics, the 11 months he spent in jail and the 13 years he spent having to ply his trade in secret, when watching Spartacus. The film's most famous scene ("I'm Spartacus!") has strong resonance when you consider that Trumbo was blacklisted for refusing to name names. You might even be tempted to draw parallels between the whole concept of a slave rebellion and that of a worker's revolution.
Putting the off-screen drama aside, how's the movie? Well, it's long, and has rather a lot less action than I remember from seeing it as a young 'un, but it lives up to its epic ambitions. The battle scene in particular, when it finally does happen, is very well done. Cast-wise, Douglas is good as the stoic Spartacus, and he's surrounded by talented actors at all levels, though Peter Ustinov outshines them all as Batiatus, owner of the gladiatorial school where Spartacus's uprising begins. My only real complaint is that it is sometimes a little obvious when the 'outdoor' scenes are actually being filmed on a soundstage, but that's a pretty minor quibble.
Renowned films can often be a disappointment, but this one was not. Well worth a look.