It took $12 million, two years of intensive planning and 8,000 Spanish extras to complete this epic costume drama starring (and produced by) Kirk Douglas.
The end results justified the enormous expense, and the movie was widely praised for its ambitious battle sequences – although if you look closely you can see Roman soldiers wearing wristwatches and tennis shoes.
Less than two weeks after shooting began in Death Valley, California, Kirk Douglas fired Anthony Mann as director – although some early scenes he shot in the desert remain in the final film – and replaced him with Stanley Kubrick, who had directed Douglas in the brilliant anti-war movie Paths Of Glory (1957).
Directing a cast of heavyweight names such as Laurence Olivier (as the sadistic patrician general Crassus), Jean Simmons (as slave girl Varinia), Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, Stanley Kubrick (then aged only 31) brought as much visual sweep and dramatic emphasis to his epic subject as the Technorama 70 screen could comfortably contain, as well as some excessively violent scenes which it could not – such as Crassus’ callous puncturing of a gladiator’s neck and the severing of a warrior’s arm in a battle between Roman legions and slaves.
For most of its fairly extensive running time, however, Kubrick wisely concentrated on the development of the personal relationships described in both the novel and in Dalton Trumbo’s literate screenplay.
However, the director was forced to make so many artistic compromises on Spartacus that he later disowned it.
Spartacus tells the (embellished) real-life story of a slave from Thrace (a vast tribal region comprising parts of modern-day Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) who, in the first century BC led a motley army of rebels – mostly escaped slaves – against the mighty Roman Republic.
While the revolt failed, Spartacus entered legend as the unlikeliest of heroes: a man who rose from bondage to battle tyranny, and failed – but ignited a dream of liberty in his followers’ hearts.
“Are you afraid to die?” slave Antoninus (Curtis) asks Spartacus at one stage in the film. “No more than I was to be born”, replies the slave leader. Hopefully, this made his subsequent crucifixion easier to bear.
Spartacus was filmed partially on location outside Madrid (where Spanish soldiers doubled as Roman legionnaires) and in Hollywood.
The film netted a massive $14,600,000 and has been exalted, imitated, honoured, derided, dissected and parodied – but after all these years it still achieves what three-hour-long big-budget movies rarely get right. It’s entertaining as all hell.
Marcus Licinius Crassus
Caius Julius Caesar
Marcus Publius Glabrus
Harold J. Stone
Captain of the Guard
Robert J. Wilke