Another in the series of classics at the AMC Theaters. This one appears to finish off several weeks of gladiator based type films. I went and saw “The Ten Commandments” and “Gladiator” but I missed “Ben Hur”, I think it was playing on Easter Sunday and we had family plans. As I’ve said before, movies are best in a theater and “Spartacus” is no exception. Interestingly enough, this is not the first, second or even third time I’ve seen it on the big screen. Much like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Jaws” I will always make an effort to see “Spartacus” on a theater screen. In college, I went to a screening at a revival theater. When the movie was restored in 1991, I saw it a couple of times. Four or five years ago, there was a one night festival at the Hollywood Arclight theater. They had a different classic movie playing in each theater, just the one time, all screening at the same time. They did that program at least twice and I had to make some tough choices. You see all of the screenings were hosted by someone affiliated with the movie. I skipped George Lucas and “Star Wars” and Warren Beatty and “Reds”, because in the Dome, “Spartacus” was being introduced by Kirk Douglas himself. At nearly ninety and having had a stroke several years earlier, he was still a great story teller and a wonderful host. The ten minutes he spent talking with us was one of the best memories I have of my movie going life.
Mr. Douglas did not make an appearance today, at least not in person. We expected some friends of my wife but they never showed up. For a few minutes it looked like we would be the only people in the theater. Three other groups finally came in just as the movie was starting with an “Overture”. The house lights went down and we settled in for the kind of epic that does not get made much anymore. The three and a half hours do have quite a bit of action and there are some big battle scenes near the end, but this is really an intimate story of a man struggling against slavery and fashioned by the circumstances he finds himself in. I was impressed with how well it hold the attention even though there is not a bunch of quick cutting, CGI grandeur or plot twists that surprise at the end. It is a solid drama with a passionate and surprisingly tender love story to go along with it.
Famously written by blacklisted screen author Dalton Trumbo, who got a screen credit because producer Douglas was having none of that blacklist stuff stop him, makes the character of Spartacus come alive. The story is based on a real uprising of gladiator slaves in the century before Christ. Events are not clear and almost certainly large liberties were taken in the personal story that was told in the film, but historically, the movie seems to get a lot of things right. This is the one film that Stanley Kubrick directed that he did not have total control over. He did however make spectacular use of the widescreen process and managed to get the cinematographer an Academy Award for his work on the movie. There are a couple of very effective choices that Kubrick made when shooting the film. My favorite was his decision to focus on Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode as they awaited their turn in the arena. Instead of highlighting the combat that was taking place before they were to fight, we see only glimpses of Rex Harrison and his opponent through small openings in the paddock that the gladiators waited in. The tension and resignation on the two faces tells a completely different story and the more important one. It becomes clear why the victor would not kill his opponent and why the revolt started.
The other choiceI admired is a combination of the script and the director. They postpone the romance through an interlude where Spartacus is mocked for not mounting and taking the woman provided to him. The love story between the slave girl played by Jean Simmons, who is used as a sexual reward by the trainers of the gladiators, and the reluctant Spartacus, is amazingly sweet given the conditions that the two of them find themselves in. When they ultimately come together as human beings rather than animals being mated, it is a victory for humanity and restraint.
The cast of the film is amazing. It includes Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in a subtlety sexual moment. The scene in the bath, where Olivier discusses oysters and snails with Curtis, had been cut and when the restoration was done, the dialogue was re-looped by Anthony Hopkins filling in for Lord Olivier. It is much clearer why Antonitus runs off in the middle of the speech Crassus is making about submitting to Rome. It is only clear after hearing the bath conversation that Antonitus was about to be violated by Crassus. This and a dozen other moments in the movie make the story work so effectively. When Tony Curtis entertains the gladiator rebels with magic and a poem (song), it is a quiet moment that sets up another romantic clinch between Douglas and Simmons. The movie just gets each of this moments right, and it does so at a pace that is slow but correct for the story.
The movie will be playing two more times on Wednesday at a variety of AMC theaters. Look around and see if you can find one in your area that is playing this wonderful film. You will be happy to see some terrific actors doing great work on a noble film that will enthrall you with a story not just visual effects.