It took a lot of moolah – U says $12 million – and two years of intensive work to bring Spartacus to the screen. Film justifies the effort. There is solid dramatic substance, purposeful and intriguingly contrasted character portrayals and , let’s come right out with it, sheer pictorial poetry that is sweeping and savage, intimate and lusty, tender and bitter sweet.
Director Stanley Kubrick had a remarkably good screenplay with which to work by Dalton Trumbo, whose name appears on the film for the first time in about a decade since he served a prison sentence for contempt of Congress because he refused to declare whether or not he was a member of the Communist party.
Spartacus is a rousing testament to the spirit and dignity of man, dealing with a revolt by slaves against the pagan Roman Empire [from the novel by Howard Fast]. In terms of spectacle the clash between the slave army led by Kirk Douglas and the Romans commanded by Laurence Olivier is nothing short of flabbergasting.
Douglas is the mainstay of the picture. He is not particularly expressive – not in contrast with the sophisticated Olivier, the conniving parasite of a gladiator ring operator portrayed by Peter Ustinov, or the supple and subtle slave maiden represented by Jean Simmons. But Douglas succeeds admirably in giving an impression of a man who is all afire inside. Tony Curtis as the Italian slave, Antoninus, who serves as houseboy to Olivier before running away to join Spartacus, gives a nicely balanced performance.
Charles Laughton is superbly wily and sophisticated as a Republican senator who is outwitted by Olivier in attempting to gain control of Rome through sponsorship of the young Julius Caesar. John Gavin plays the latter adequately.
Some 8,000 Spanish soldiers became Roman legionaires for the massive battle sequences filmed outside Madrid, but the rest of the picture was made in Hollywood.
[Version reviewed was the complete one, before censor cuts. Initial release version ran for 192 minutes. Complete version was finally released in 1991.]
1960: Best Supp. Actor (Peter Ustinov), Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction, Color Costume Design (Valles, Bill Thomas)
Nominations: Best Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture