Spartacus is a 1960 American epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Dalton Trumbo, and based on the 1951 novel of the same title by Howard Fast.
It is inspired by the life story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity, and the events of the Third Servile War.
It stars Kirk Douglas in the title role, Laurence Olivier as Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus, Peter Ustinov, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, as slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, John Gavin as Julius Caesar, Jean Simmons as Varinia, Charles Laughton as Sempronius Gracchus, and Tony Curtis as Antoninus.
In the 1st century BC, the Roman Republic has slid into corruption, its menial work done by armies of slaves. One of these, a proud and gifted Thracian named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), is so uncooperative in his position in a mining pit that he is sentenced to death by starvation. By chance, he is displayed to unctuous Roman businessman Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who – impressed by his ferocity – purchases Spartacus for his gladiatorial school, where he instructs trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw) to not overdo his indoctrination because he thinks “he has quality”. Amid the abuse, Spartacus forms a quiet relationship with a serving woman named Varinia (Jean Simmons), whom he refuses to rape when she is sent to “entertain” him in his cell. Spartacus and Varinia are subsequently forced to endure numerous humiliations for defying the conditions of servitude.
Batiatus receives a visit from the immensely wealthy Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who aims to become dictator of the stagnant republic. Crassus buys Varinia on a whim, and for the amusement of his companions arranges for Spartacus and three others to fight in pairs. When Spartacus is disarmed, his opponent, an African named Draba (Woody Strode), spares his life in a burst of defiance and attacks the Roman audience, but is killed by an arena guard and Crassus. The next day, with the ludus’ atmosphere still tense over this episode, Batiatus takes Varinia away to Crassus’s house in Rome. Spartacus kills Marcellus, who was taunting him over his affections, and their fight escalates into a riot. The gladiators overwhelm their guards and escape into the Italian countryside.
Spartacus is elected chief of the fugitives and decides to lead them out of Italy and back to their homes. They plunder Roman country estates as they go, collecting enough money to buy sea transport from Rome’s foes, the pirates of Cilicia. Countless other slaves join the group, making it as large as an army. One of the new arrivals is Varinia, who escaped while being delivered to Crassus. Another is a slave entertainer named Antoninus (Tony Curtis), who also fled Crassus’s service. Privately, Spartacus feels mentally inadequate because of his lack of education during years of servitude. However, he proves an excellent leader and organises his diverse followers into a tough and self-sufficient community. Varinia, now his informal wife, becomes pregnant by him, and he also comes to regard the spirited Antoninus as a sort of son.
The Roman Senate becomes increasingly alarmed as Spartacus defeats the multiple armies it sends against him. Crassus’s populist opponent Gracchus (Charles Laughton) knows that his rival will try to use the crisis as a justification for seizing control of the Roman army. To try and prevent this, Gracchus channels as much military power as possible into the hands of his own protege, a young senator named Julius Caesar (John Gavin). Although Caesar lacks Crassus’s contempt for the lower classes of Rome, he mistakes the man’s rigid outlook for nobility. Thus, when Gracchus reveals that he has bribed the Cilicians to get Spartacus out of Italy and rid Rome of the slave army, Caesar regards such tactics as beneath him and goes over to Crassus.
Crassus uses a bribe of his own to make the pirates abandon Spartacus and has the Roman army secretly force the rebels away from the coastline towards Rome. Amid panic that Spartacus means to sack the city, the Senate gives Crassus absolute power. Now surrounded by Romans, Spartacus convinces his men to die fighting. Just by rebelling and proving themselves human, he says that they have struck a blow against slavery. In the ensuing battle, after initially breaking the ranks of Crassus’s legions, the slave army ends up trapped between Crassus and two other forces advancing from behind, and most of them are massacred. Afterwards, the Romans try to locate the rebel leader for special punishment by offering a pardon (and return to enslavement) if the men will identify Spartacus, living or dead. Every surviving man responds by shouting “I’m Spartacus!”. As a result, Crassus has them all sentenced to death by crucifixion along the Via Appia between Rome and Capua, where the revolt began.
Meanwhile, Crassus has found Varinia and Spartacus’s newborn son and has taken them prisoner. He is disturbed by the idea that Spartacus can command more love and loyalty than he can and hopes to compensate by making Varinia as devoted to him as she was to her former husband. When she rejects him, he furiously seeks out Spartacus (whom he recognises from having watched him at Batiatus’ school) and forces him to fight Antoninus to the death. The survivor is to be crucified, along with all the other men captured after the great battle. Spartacus kills Antoninus to spare him this terrible fate. The incident leaves Crassus worried about Spartacus’s potential to live in legend as a martyr. In other matters, he is also worried about Caesar, whom he senses will someday eclipse him.
Gracchus, having seen Rome fall into tyranny, commits suicide. Before doing so, he bribes his friend Batiatus to rescue Spartacus’s family from Crassus and carry them away to freedom. On the way out of Rome, the group passes under Spartacus’s cross. Varinia is able to comfort him in his dying moments by showing him his little son, who will grow up free and knowing who his father was.
- Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.
- Laurence Olivier as Crassus.
- Jean Simmons as Varinia.
- Charles Laughton as Gracchus.
- Peter Ustinov as Batiatus.
- Tony Curtis as Antoninus.
- John Gavin as Julius Caesar.
- John Dall as Marcus Glabrus.
- Nina Foch as Helena Glabrus.
- John Ireland as Crixus.
- Herbert Lom as Tigranes Levantus (pirate envoy).
- Charles McGraw as Marcellus.
- Joanna Barnes as Claudia Marius.
- Harold J. Stone as David.
- Woody Strode as Draba.
- Peter Brocco as Ramon.
- Paul Lambert as Gannicus.
- Robert J. Wilke as Guard Captain.
- Nicholas Dennis as Dionysius.
- John Hoyt as Caius.
- Frederic Worlock as Laelius.
- Gil Perkins as Slave Leader (uncredited).
- Cliff Lyons as Soldier (uncredited).
The development of Spartacus was partly instigated by Kirk Douglas’s failure to win the title role in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Douglas had worked with Wyler before on Detective Story, and was disappointed when Wyler chose Charlton Heston instead. Shortly after, Edward (Eddie) Lewis, a vice president in Douglas’s film company, Bryna Productions (named after Douglas’s mother), had Douglas read Howard Fast’s novel, Spartacus, which had a related theme – an individual who challenges the might of the Roman Empire – and Douglas was impressed enough to purchase an option on the book from Fast with his own financing. Universal Studios eventually agreed to finance the film after Douglas persuaded Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov to act in it. Lewis became the producer of the film, with Douglas taking executive producer credit. Lewis subsequently produced other films for Douglas.
At the same time Yul Brynner was planning his own Spartacus film for United Artists with Douglas’s agent Lew Wasserman suggesting he try having his film produced for Universal Studios. With Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay being completed in two weeks, Universal and Douglas won the “Spartacus” race.
Howard Fast was originally hired to adapt his own novel as a screenplay, but he had difficulty working in the format. He was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, and intended to use the pseudonym “Sam Jackson”.
Kirk Douglas insisted that Trumbo be given screen credit for his work, which helped to break the blacklist. Trumbo had been jailed for contempt of Congress in 1950, after which he had survived by writing screenplays under assumed names. Douglas’s intervention on his behalf was praised as an act of courage.
In his autobiography, Douglas states that this decision was motivated by a meeting that he, Edward Lewis, and Stanley Kubrick had regarding whose names to put against the screenplay in the film credits, given Trumbo’s shaky position with Hollywood executives. One idea was to credit Lewis as co-writer or sole writer, but Lewis vetoed both suggestions. Kubrick then suggested that his own name be used. Douglas and Lewis found Kubrick’s eagerness to take credit for Trumbo’s work revolting, and the next day, Douglas called the gate at Universal saying, “I’d like to leave a pass for Dalton Trumbo.” Douglas writes, “For the first time in ten years, [Trumbo] walked on to a studio lot. He said, ‘Thanks, Kirk, for giving me back my name.'”
Blacklisting effectively ended in 1960 when it lost credibility. Trumbo was publicly given credit for two major films. Otto Preminger made public that Trumbo wrote the screenplay for his film Exodus, and Kirk Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus. Further, President John F. Kennedy publicly ignored a demonstration organised by the American Legion and went to see the film.
After David Lean turned down an offer to direct, Spartacus was to be directed by Anthony Mann, then best known for his Westerns such as Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur. Douglas fired Mann at the end of the first week of shooting, in which the opening sequence in the quarry had been filmed. “He seemed scared of the scope of the picture,” wrote Douglas in his autobiography; yet a year later Mann would embark on another epic of similar size, El Cid. The dismissal (or resignation) of Mann is mysterious since the opening sequences, filmed at Death Valley, California, set the style for the rest of the film. Large parts of the film were shot at Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks, California. Parts were also filmed at nearby California Lutheran University, where an army can be seen storming off Mount Clef Ridge.
Thirty-year-old Stanley Kubrick was hired to take over. He had already directed four feature films (including Paths of Glory, also starring Douglas). Spartacus was a bigger project by far, with a budget of $12 million (equivalent to approximately $105 million in today’s money (2019)) and a cast of 10,500, a daunting project for such a young director. Paths of Glory, his previous film, had only been budgeted at $935,000.
Spartacus was filmed using the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format and then blown up to 70 mm film. This was a change for Kubrick, who preferred using the standard spherical format. This process allowed him to achieve ultra-high definition and to capture large panoramic scenes. Kubrick had wanted to shoot the picture in Rome with cheap extras and resources, but Edward Muhl, president of Universal Pictures, wanted to make an example of the film and prove that a successful epic could be made in Hollywood itself and “stem the flood of ‘runaway’ producers heading for Europe”. A compromise was reached by filming the intimate scenes in Hollywood, and the battle scenes, at Kubrick’s request, in Spain. Kubrick found working outdoors or in real locations to be distracting; he believed the actors would benefit more from working on a sound stage, where they could fully concentrate. To create the illusion of the large crowds that play such an essential role in the film, Kubrick’s crew used three-channel sound equipment to record 76,000 spectators at a Michigan State – Notre Dame college football game shouting “Hail, Crassus!” and “I’m Spartacus!”
The battle scenes were filmed on a vast plain outside Madrid. Eight thousand trained soldiers from the Spanish infantry were used to double as the Roman army. Kubrick directed the armies from the top of specially constructed towers. However, he eventually had to cut all but one of the gory battle scenes, due to negative audience reactions at test screenings. So precise was Kubrick, that even in arranging the bodies of the slaughtered slaves he had each “corpse” assigned with a number and instructions.
Disputes broke out during the filming. Cinematographer Russell Metty, a veteran with experience working in big pictures such as Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958) and Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), complained about Kubrick’s unusually precise and detailed instructions for the film’s camerawork and disagreed with Kubrick’s use of light. On one occasion he threatened to quit to Ed Muhl, to which Kubrick told him: “You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.” Metty later muted his criticisms after winning the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Kubrick wanted to shoot at a slow pace of two camera set-ups a day, but the studio insisted that he do 32; a compromise of eight had to be made. Kubrick and Trumbo fought constantly over the screenplay. Kubrick complained that the character of Spartacus had no faults or quirks.
Despite the film being a huge box office success, gaining four Oscars, and being considered to rank among the very best of historical epics, Kubrick later distanced himself from it. Although his personal mark is a distinct part of the final picture, his contract did not give him complete control over the filming, the only occasion he did not exercise such control over one of his films.
The original score for Spartacus was composed and conducted by six-time Academy Award nominee Alex North. It was nominated by the American Film Institute for their list of greatest film scores. It is a textbook example of how modernist compositional styles can be adapted to the Hollywood leitmotif technique. North’s score is epic, as befits the scale of the film. After extensive research of music of that period, North gathered a collection of antique instruments that, while not authentically Roman, provided a strong dramatic effect. These instruments included a sarrusophone, Israeli recorder, Chinese oboe, lute, mandolin, Yugoslav flute, kythara, dulcimer, and bagpipes. North’s prize instrument was the ondioline, similar to an earlier version of the electronic synthesiser, which had never been used in film before. Much of the music is written without a tonal center, or flirts with tonality in ways that most film composers would not risk. One theme is used to represent both slavery and freedom, but is given different values in different scenes, so that it sounds like different themes. The love theme for Spartacus and Varinia is the most accessible theme in the film, and there is a harsh trumpet figure for Crassus.
The soundtrack album runs less than forty-five minutes and is not very representative of the score. There were plans to re-record a significant amount of the music with North’s friend and fellow film composer Jerry Goldsmith, but the project kept getting delayed. Goldsmith died in 2004.
In 2010, the soundtrack was re-released as part of a set, featuring 6 CDs, 1 DVD, and a 168-page booklet. This is a limited edition of 5,000 copies.
The film opened to the public on 06 October 1960 at the DeMille Theatre in New York City after four days of invitational previews.
The film was re-released in 1967, without 23 minutes that had been in the original release. For the 1991 release, the same 23 minutes were restored by Robert A. Harris, as were another 14 minutes that had been cut from the film before its original release.
The idea for the film’s restoration came about after the American Cinematheque asked Universal Pictures for a print of Spartacus following their then-recent tribute to Kirk Douglas. They were later informed that the original negatives had been cut twice and the colours were badly faded. Steven Spielberg gave his backing to the restoration effort and recommended that Stanley Kubrick be informed of the project. Kubrick, who had disowned the film, gave his approval to the effort and participated by providing detailed instructions through long-distance communication via phone and fax machine from London. Kubrick’s print of the film, which was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, could not be used for the restoration because it was considered archival. The original studio black-and-white separation prints, used as a backup in 1960, were used, though the processing lab had to develop a new lens capable of printing the Technirama frame without losing fidelity. The restoration cost about $1 million.
A team of 30 archivists restored several violent battle sequences that had been left out because of the negative reaction of preview audiences. Among the deleted footage was a bath scene in which the Roman patrician and general Crassus attempts to seduce his slave Antoninus, speaking about the analogy of “eating oysters” and “eating snails” to express his opinion that sexual preference is a matter of taste rather than morality. The four-minute scene had been removed following an objection by the National Legion of Decency. When the film was restored (two years after Olivier’s death), the original dialogue recording of this scene was missing; it had to be re-dubbed. Tony Curtis, by then 66, was able to re-record his part, but Crassus’s voice was an impersonation of Olivier by Anthony Hopkins, who had been suggested by Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright. A talented mimic, Hopkins had been a protégé of Olivier during Olivier’s days as the National Theatre’s artistic director, and had portrayed Crassus in the Jeff Wayne musical album. The actors separately recorded their dialogue.
For the 1991 theatrical re-release, Universal Pictures partnered with American Film Institute, in which the restored film premiered at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Los Angeles on 25 April with the proceeds going towards the AFI Preservation Fund and the Film Foundation. The general release began in Los Angeles, New York City, and Toronto on the following day. On 03 May, the release was expanded into an additional 31 cities in the US and Canada.
The film was first released on Blu-ray in 2010 by Universal Pictures. However, this release was panned by critics and fans alike, mainly due to the lackluster picture quality and sound. As a result, this release was highly controversial and did poorly in sales.
In 2015, for its 55th anniversary, the film went through an extensive 4K digital restoration, from a 6K scan of the 1991 reconstruction of the film, in which Robert A. Harris served as consultant. The 2015 restoration is 12 minutes longer and the original, 6-channel audio track was also remixed and remastered in 7.1 surround sound. The film was re-released to Blu-ray Disc on 06 October 2015, featuring a 1080p transfer of the 2015 restoration in 2.20:1 aspect ratio and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound. Special features include a featurette on the 2015 restoration, a 2015 interview with Kirk Douglas, and several features from the Criterion Collection DVD.
On 21 July 2020, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released a 4K Blu-ray disc of the film.
The 2015 restoration had originally been scheduled to have its theatrical premiere in March 2015 at the TCM Classic Film Festival, but was pulled from the festival, and from a July 2015 engagement in Chicago, because the restoration had not been completed in time. The DCP version of the restoration played at Film Forum in New York City, 04-12 November 2015.
During its initial theatrical run, Spartacus earned $14 million in North American distributor rentals.
In the climactic scene, recaptured slaves are asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency; instead, each slave proclaims himself to be Spartacus, thus sharing his fate. The documentary Trumbo suggests that this scene was meant to dramatise the solidarity of those accused of being Communist sympathisers during the McCarthy Era who refused to implicate others, and thus were blacklisted.
This scene is the basis for an in-joke in Kubrick’s next film, Lolita (1962), where Humbert asks Clare Quilty, “Are you Quilty?” to which he replies, “No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or something?” Many subsequent films, television shows and advertisements have referenced or parodied the iconic scene. One of these is the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which reverses the situation by depicting an entire group undergoing crucifixion all claiming to be Brian, who, it has just been announced, is eligible for release (“I’m Brian.” “No, I’m Brian.” “I’m Brian and so’s my wife.”) Further examples have been documented in David Hughes’ The Complete Kubrick and Jon Solomon’s The Ancient World in Cinema.
The audio of the scene was also played at the start of each Roger Waters The Wall Live (2010–13) tour show as an intro to the song “In the Flesh?”.
Comic Book Adaptation
Dell Four Color #1139 (November 1960)
Il Figlio di Spartacus (lit. The Son of Spartacus; English title: The Slave), a 1962 Italian unofficial sequel to the film.
- Douglas, whose company Bryna Productions was producing the film, removed original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting. Kubrick, with whom Douglas had worked before, was brought on board to take over direction.
- It was the only film directed by Kubrick where he did not have complete artistic control.
- Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten.
- Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus, and President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed American Legion picket lines to view the film, helping to end blacklisting; Howard Fast’s book had also been blacklisted and he had to self-publish the original edition.
- The film won four Academy Awards and became the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios’ history, until it was surpassed by Airport (1970).
- In 2017, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Stanley Kubrick.
- Producer(s): Edward Lewis.
- Writer(s): Dalton Trumbo.
- Music: Alex North.
- Cinematography: Russell Metty.
- Editor(s): Robert Lawrence.
- Production: Bryna Productions.
- Distributor(s): Universal International.
- Release Date: 06 October 1960 (DeMille Theatre, New York City).
- Running Time: 197 minutes.
- Rating: PG-13.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.