Thanks to my parents I watched my fair share of epic films growing up. The big three that we would watch at least once a year were Ben-Hur (1959), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Spartacus (1960). The latter is set out as a (very loose) retelling of the story of Spartacus (a real person by the way), who led a slave revolt in Capua that became known to history as the Third Servile War.
I used to have very mixed feelings about Spartacus. When I was little, the first half of this film used to bore me to tears because it was a lot of talking about things I didn’t understand while the “fun part” (all the fighting) didn’t happen until later. Now that I’m older, of course, I can appreciate the politics and intrigue that take up a big chunk of Spartacus. I particularly appreciate the political wrangling that takes place between Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and Crassus (Laurence Olivier). It’s especially amusing to watch them fight over the loyalty of Julius Caesar, as if both of them seem to realize how important the man will become in the future (keep in mind, at THIS point in history Caesar isn’t all that important just yet).
The story of Spartacus himself is always one of my favorite parts to watch. Watching him get trained to be a gladiator, it’s clear early on that something is going to give eventually, since Spartacus is singled out for particularly abusive treatment. And when the last straw is finally reached, everything explodes in epic fashion. If you’ve been paying attention, you feel like cheering when Spartacus’ primary tormentor gets what is coming to him. And after that, watching Spartacus organize the rebels into a pretty efficient army is fun to watch also. In fact, things go so well that (if you didn’t know your history) you’d be forgiven for thinking this story has a happy ending for the slaves, because they come within a whisker of reaching freedom forever. But…history went differently and when the climactic battle sequence comes, Stanley Kubrick did not shy away from showing the awful aftermath.
Seriously, the ending when all of the surviving slaves are crucified is difficult to watch. And yes, for the record, that really happened. The real Crassus, wanting to set an example for any other slaves who might be getting ideas, had all of the survivors crucified along the Appian Way and the crosses stood by the side of the road for YEARS afterward. Despite the horrifically dark ending, there is one bright spot in the form of Varinia (Jean Simmons) slipping away to Aquitania with the newborn son of Spartacus. What’s more, Spartacus gets to see his son (who will grow up free) just for a moment before he dies, which is one of the things he wanted most in the world. At least he can go to his grave knowing his son and the woman he loves will live their lives in freedom.
I should mention the version of the film I saw is the most recently restored version released on blu-ray and 4K. This means that this film includes a scene restored in the early 1990s, where Crassus talks to Antoninus (Tony Curtis) about “oysters and snails” which is apparently a metaphor for sexual preferences, though for my part the analogy went over my head for years until someone explained it to me. The thing is, when they reinserted that scene, the audio track had been lost and Laurence Olivier had died in 1989. So….for that scene only, the voice of Crassus is provided by Anthony Hopkins, as Olivier’s widow remembered that Hopkins had once done a dead-on impression of her husband. That being said, if you listen close, you can hear the difference. It’s a good impression, but it’s not quite the same. Still, I can appreciate that it allowed an important scene to be restored to the film.
It doesn’t even bother me that the film gets a number of historical details wrong. For instance, that whole thing about Crassus becoming First Consul of Rome? Nah, it didn’t happen like that. Gracchus (one of my favorite characters) wasn’t even a real person, he was an amalgamation of several people that lived DECADES before the Third Servile War ever happened. And of course, the famous “I’m Spartacus” scene didn’t happen either, as it happens the body of the real Spartacus was never found. However, as I’ve said, I’ve never let these issues bother me because the storytelling is so good I’m more than willing to just enjoy myself.
Spartacus is definitely one of those films you must see before you die, and that remains true over 60 years later.
Let me know what you think about Spartacus in the comments below and have a great day!
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