Why ‘Spartacus’ is still an important Kubrick film despite its troubled production history

Kubrick on the set of Spartacus
Kubrick on the set of Spartacus

It’s hard to imagine that one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time had to, at one point, go through a similar experience as James Cameron did during the making of Aliens. By saying that, I’m not implying that that Cameron and Kubrick are the same kinds of people. No. I was, in fact, referring to the troubled production history of Kubrick’s fourth film, Spartacus. In many respects, this was the only Kubrick film that didn’t feel like a Kubrick film. Out of this entire filmography, Spartacus is the one film that is the most conventional film. Kubrick cannot be blamed for it because this was the only film on which he didn’t have full creative control. He would later disown the film despite it becoming a big success. Considering the kind of artist Kubrick he is, it’s not hard to imagine why. Many consider this a minor film in his canon but I beg to differ.

Kirk Douglas (left) and Woody Strode (right)

The reason why Kubrick had to take on this project is a phone call from actor Kirk Douglas, with whom Kubrick had previously on his highly successful anti-war masterpiece, Paths of Glory. Douglas wanted to make this film because he was upset with the fact that William Wyler had chosen Charlton Heston to play the title role in Ben-Hur instead of him. As a response, he resolved to make an epic that was much better and bigger. When Douglas called him again, many thought this was the beginning of another fruitful actor-director collaboration just like Japan’s Mifune and Kurosawa. Alas, this was not meant to be. After the torturous experience on the film, Kubrick vowed never to work with Douglas again. This, is hard to imagine, considering the wonderful and path-breaking work they had done together on Paths of Glory. But I see this as a blessing in disguise as I don’t think Kubrick would’ve enjoyed the status he has today among his fans if he had continued to work within the confines of Hollywood.

Tony Curtis (left) and Kirk Douglas (right)
Tony Curtis (left) and Kirk Douglas (right)

It was this experience which prompted Kubrick to go “rogue” and from then on, he never worked on a film if he didn’t have complete artistic freedom. When Kubrick worked on this film, he was 31  and unlike today, someone that young wasn’t given the reins of a major Hollywood “swords-and-sandals” epic back then. Douglas was the producer of this film and he initially wanted someone like David Lean to direct it. But when Lean rejected him, he had to bring in another experienced director called Anthony Mann. Douglas had to fire Mann in the middle of filming because he had a specific vision of his own, which was not in accordance with Mann’s. So Douglas rang Kubrick to salvage this film. It didn’t matter whether Kubrick was young because he had the support of a major Hollywood star.

Peter Ustinov (on the right) as Lentulus Batiatus
Peter Ustinov (on the right) as Lentulus Batiatus

But did Kubrick feel comfortable working on this film? Never! He had differences of opinion not just with the entire crew but with Douglas as well. To begin with, Kubrick was not satisfied with the screenplay, which was written by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Douglas was adamant in his refusal to alter the original script and did not give Kubrick permission to alter it. Moreover, Kubrick was not impressed with cinematographer Russell Metty’s work and so he decided to do this duty himself. However, Metty was still credited and he would even win the Best Cinematography Oscar, which should’ve gone to Kubrick instead. Some of the actors did not get along either. It was a well-known fact that Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier couldn’t stand each other and the animosity that you see on screen is actually real. Talk about taking method acting to another level. If Douglas hadn’t intervened, things would’ve actually gotten a lot worse.

Laurence Olivier as Marcus Crassus

Speaking of the plot summary, Douglas plays the famous historical figure named Spartacus, a slave who is bought by a Roman named Lentulus Batiatus (played by Peter Ustinov). Batiatus is not only a buyer and seller of slaves but also trains them in his gladiatorial school. Olivier plays Marcus Licinius Crassus, a Roman general for whom Batiatus arranges a gladiatorial match, for his and his friends’ amusement. After two of the gladiators taking part in the match are killed brutally by Crassus when they defy him, Spartacus uses this as an opportunity to initiate a revolt and free the other slaves. Laughton plays Sempronius Gracchus, a senator who is Crassus’ political rival. Spartacus finds himself caught between the political ambitions of the cunningly powerful men on both sides. The film has the distinction of featuring a great scene, which by now has become ingrained in the minds of everyone who has seen it. This scene has Crassus implying his sexuality to his slave Antoninus (played by Tony Curtis) by saying that he “likes both snails and oysters”.

Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in the "snails and oysters" scene
Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in the “snails and oysters” scene

This is actually one of the lost scenes that were restored in 1991 for a re-release. As the audio track was missing and considering the fact that Olivier had passed away, Anthony Hopkins was brought in to say his lines. I didn’t know this when I saw the film for the first time and was quite surprised when I found out about this. Hopkins has imitated Olivier so well that it’s hard to tell the difference. I also didn’t know that Howard Fast, the author of the book it was based, had somehow found a way to accommodate a certain scene that was supposed to reflect his experiences with the HUAC hearings. The film is not without its flaws. The most notable flaw comes in the form of the scenes between Douglas and Jean Simmons, who plays his wife. Their love scenes are some of the most cringe-worthy scenes I’ve ever seen. If there’s, at least, one thing that Kubrick should be blamed for, it’s for them. Kubrick took out some of the dialogues in these scenes and as a result, they fail to elicit the desired emotional response in the viewer. But they are overshadowed by the impact of the rest of the film and seem relatively trivial.

Charles Laughton as Sempronius Gracchus
Charles Laughton as Sempronius Gracchus

If you look at the film now and consider all these facts, it doesn’t look that bad. In fact, it looks really good and should be regarded as an important Kubrick film because it still demonstrates his mastery over the medium and his ability to compose and stage sequences in a way that no other director at the time did. And let’s not forget the fact that no one extracts extraordinary performances from actors the way Kubrick does. Aside from some of the film’s jaw-dropping imagery and extremely violent (for its time) battle sequences, we get to see actors like Oliver, Laughton and Peter Ustinov delivering some of their career best performances. Ustinov was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his magnificent turn as performance  as Batiatus. I see it as a much superior and smarter film than all the swords-and-sandals epics of that time, including Ben-Hur. I also view it as a much better film made about gladiators than Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which, to me, felt like a rip-off of Kubrick’s film.




  1. Nicely put together. It’s funny how I don’t think of it as a great Kubrick film. But I do consider Spartacus a great film and one that is a credit to Kirk’s career. In the end it’s still another title on the list of Kubrick classics.

    Liked by 1 person

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