Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus is the most un-Kubricky Kubrick film I have seen thus far. While I’ve never been as confident as some to claim that I could tell if Kubrick directed a film without knowing that previously and never having seen before, I can generally see the similarities. In this film, I basically drew a complete blank on that front. I had heard that this was due to heavy studio interference during the making of the picture, and it definitely shows. Now, this doesn’t make it a bad film, it just makes it an un-Kubricky one. This is somewhat of a disappointment to someone who is a fan, such as myself.

The plot is pretty conventional. Guy grows up a slave, and eventually rises up to lead other slaves against their oppressors. It doesn’t go completely conventional though because this is based on a true story, and in history, the slaves lost. The film keeps this ending, and according to the wikipedia research I did (I know, major scholar over here), it stays pretty close though it condenses for time. It also erases any and all conflict within the slave troops, but I’ll get more into that later. It’s not as blind-blowing a plot as 2001, and it’s not as creepy as Lolita, but you can kind of see where Kubrick is coming from. His previous film was Paths of Glory, also starring Douglas, and even though that film is about ten times the film that this one is, they carry the same hatred of authority.


Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is the Greek slave under Roman control. He is a mere worker for most of his life, until one day Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) buys him and takes him to his gladiator school. There, he trains for a while and starts to fall in love with Varinia (Jean Simmons). Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a Roman senator, comes to the school to buy some gladiators, and makes them fight to the death even though it is against the school’s policy (they don’t want to cut into their profits by damaging their own product). When Spartacus and an African are chosen to fight against each other, the African spares his life and attacks Crassus and his family. He is quickly killed but provides inspiration to Spartacus and the other slaves, who take over the school after Crassus leaves. They continue to gather in strength and numbers, gathering slaves from all across Rome. Spartacus’s plan is not to directly attack Rome and dismantle the Empire. He just wants all the slaves to be free and to return home to live in peace. His plan is to make his way south and have some pirate transport all of the former slaves to their homes. However, the government in Rome sees the revolt as an opportunity to gain political power. Crassus buys off the pirates, forcing the slaves to turn and attack Rome in a kamikaze strike. It fails, and  SPOILER ALERT they all die in battle, or are crucified after the fact.

As I mentioned above, the slave army is almost devoid of all conflict. This is not only historical inaccurate, but unbelievable in the context of the film. It’s easy to see why they did it; they wanted to create a contrast between the good side of the slaves and the evil side of the Romans. The Romans are stabbing each others backs at every turn, while the slaves are all happy to follow Spartacus, train for the army, and sing songs around the campfire (or say songs if they’re Tony Curtis). Whenever a problem crops up, Spartacus solves it the space of about two seconds and everybody listens to him. Not only is it entirely implausible that the slaves wouldn’t have any problems within their ranks whatsoever, but it’s boring. Spartacus doesn’t have any problems with his army, he doesn’t have any problems with his second in command, and he doesn’t have any problems with his girlfriend; he only has problems with Rome. Rome however, has problems coming out of its ears and therefore is a lot more interesting. When the film is focused on the slave army, it’s nice to see the contentment in their camp for about five minutes and then after that it just becomes boring.


So to Rome. Crassus is involved in some sort of feud with the current ruler of Rome, Gracchus (Charles Laughton). This is pretty amusing, as Gracchus takes to stealing Crassus’ slaves just to make him mad.  Batiatus joins Gracchus’ scheming because Crassus cost him a lot of money by indirectly starting the slave revolt. Crassus is the most interesting of all however, as he becomes more and more afraid of everyone around him as he continues to amass control over Rome. Olivier (and I never thought I would say this folks) gives the best performance out of the pack as the cold and distant, yet powerful and fearful Crassus. It helps that his character is written as the most nuanced as well; he is given more emotions to juggle than the rest of the cast put together.

Spartacus is an epic on the level of Ben-Hur, and probably almost as good as that film. However, in a strange way, it suffers from having Kubrick’s name at the front, because it has people expecting something more, and most certainly something different. Despite this, it’s still an enjoyable and informative film. I’m a sucker for this type of movie so that might have something to do with it, and it’s one of those where I seem to know all of the actors which always makes me happy, so the only big complaint I have with it was how the represented the slave army, and of course, that it doesn’t really feel too much like Kubrick.


“I’m Spartacus!”

Long story short: 3/4

For Further Reading:

The Best Picture Project review

6 responses to “Spartacus

    • Yeah, it’s definitely worth your time. It’s a pretty interesting movie, especially if you like ancient Rome. I liked it quite a bit, and if you going in knowing about the studio interference Kubrick faced, you won’t be let down too much is my guess.

  1. You are so right on this! So un-Kubrick, and it is because of his name that this film is mostly disregarded. They wanted more…different…better. This is very good, but it isn’t Kubrick and because of that it doesn’t really work.

    But Douglas is far better than Heston was in Ben-Hur, so there is that!

    • Yup. That’s really the biggest problem with the film, and it has more to do with what the film isn’t rather than what the film is.
      Oh I don’t know. I thought Kirk Douglas was adequate here, but pretty boring overall. He got upstaged by Olivier in my opinion, plus he was five million times better in Paths of Glory (but then again, so was pretty much everything). And I kind of like Chuck Heston in Ben-Hur. Technically you might be right but all I know is I like Heston better.

  2. I think you’ve nailed it in your review. It’s the only movie Kubrick wasn’t a direct part in its inception and it doesn’t quite have his feel. It’s very good but I’d say it’s one of his weakest movies.

    • Yup. I have it almost at the bottom. Lolita is at the bottom for me not because it’s bad just because it’s unenjoyable, and Spartacus and The Killing are basically tied for the next two bottom spots. The Killing is definitely more Kubricky, but I gotta say I liked Spartacus just a bit more for some reason.

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