The rebellious Thracian Spartacus, born and raised a slave, is sold to Gladiator trainer Batiatus. After weeks of being trained to kill for the arena, Spartacus turns on his owners and leads the other slaves in rebellion. As the rebels move from town to town, their numbers swell as escaped slaves join their ranks. Under the leadership of Spartacus, they make their way to southern Italy, where they will cross the sea and return to their homes.
The sword and sandal epic that has everything.
Spartacus is the Thracian slave who refused to be a Roman plaything, breaking out of their clutches he led the slave revolt that panicked the Roman Rebublic in circa BC 73, this film is based on that period in history.
Spartacus got off to a troubled start, original director Anthony Mann was fired by leading man Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) after a falling out, some of Mann's work does remain in the final picture, though, notably some of the early scenes in the desert are thought to be at Mann's direction. In came then director for hire Stanley Kubrick, who along with Douglas crafted arguably the greatest sword and sandal epic to have ever been made. One that holds up today as the one any prospective new viewers to the genre should seek out. Adapted by Dalton Trumbo from Howard Fast's novel (whilst also tapping from Arthur Koestler's novel, The Gladiators), Spartacus is a stirring experience highlighting the power of unity when faced in opposition to a tyrannical force. It's also boasting a number of intelligent and firmly engaging strands that are a credit to the excellent writing from the once blacklisted Trumbo. Politics figure prominently, whilst the story has a pulsing romantic heart beating amongst the blood and power struggles that are unfolding. Brotherhood bonds within the slave army are firmly established, and the love story axis between Spartacus and Varinia is very fully formed. We are in short set up perfectly for when the film shifts the emphasis in the second half.
So many great sequences are in this picture, the gladiator training school as Spartacus and his fellow slaves find that they have dignity within themselves - forced through a tough regime designed to set them up for blood sport entertainment to the watching republic hierarchy. The break out itself is tremendous for its potency, but even that is playing second fiddle to the main battle sequence that Kubrick excellently puts together. The Roman legions forming in military precision is memorable in the extreme (this before CGI, with Kubrick's directing of all those extras being worthy of extra praise from us). Then with the battle itself raging one can only say it's breath taking and definitely a genre high point. Then of course there is the sentimental aspects of Spartacus. Kubrick of course was never known for his warmness, but with the aid of Douglas they get it right and manage to pull the heart strings whilst simultaneously stirring the blood via the action, right up to the incredibly poignant and classical ending that stands the test of time as being cinematic gold. The cast are wonderfully put together, Douglas is fabulous as Spartacus, big, lean and brooding with emotion, very much a career highlight as far as I'm concerned. Laurence Olivier takes up chief bad guy villainy duties as Marcus Crassus, just about the right amount of sneering camp required for such a dislikable character. Peter Ustinov (Best Supporting Actor Winner) is in his pomp as Batiatus, Jean Simmons (perfectly bone structured face) plays off Douglas expertly as Varinia, with Tony Curtis (Antoninus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar) and Charles Laughton (Graccus) adding impetus to this wonderful picture.
Spartacus also won Academy Awards for Best Colour Cinematography, Best Art and Set Direction and Best Costume Design, with nominations rightly going to Alex North for his score and Robert Lawrence for his editing. It's a special film is Spartacus, excellently put together and thematically dynamite. Which while also being technically adroit, it's ultimately with the story itself that it truly wins out. Even allowing for some standard Hollywood additions to the real story (Spartacus most certainly didn't meet his maker the way the film says), it's emotionally charged and as inspiring as it is as sadly tragic. 10/10
Universal International Pictures, Bryna Productions by Stanley Kubrick, Dalton Trumbo, Howard Fast, Peter Ustinov, Calder Willingham, Plutarch.
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton.
Genres: Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, War
Keywords: gladiator roman empire gladiator fight slavery insurgence ancient rome epic torture ancient world slave escaped slave julius caesar 1st century
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