Picks and Pans Review: Spartacus
Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier
This is what movies need more of these days: lots of guys running around in short skirts, drinking wine out of flagons, bonking each other over the head and making literate quips about the political system in their spare time.
Spartacus, originally released in 1960, is certainly plenty of movie for the money. For one thing, it was directed by Stanley Kubrick. At 31, he already knew how to keep a movie screen filled with fascinating images. For another, it has two plots.
One involves a revolt by slaves against the Roman Empire. Their leader, Douglas, is training to fight in Rome's games-to-the-death when he arouses his fellow rookie gladiators to try for freedom.
From his first scene, Douglas acts with such tooth-gritting intensity that it looks as if his dimple will implode. He is a convincing hero, though, and has some idyllic love scenes with fellow slave Jean Simmons.
The other plot involves Roman politics, with the ambitious senator-general Olivier constantly sparring with populist senator Charles Laughton. The film was written by Dalton Trumbo. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, he was something less than reverent toward politicians. "Politics is a practical profession," Laughton says at one point during his sublime performance. "If a criminal has what you want, you do business with him."
(Later, Peter Ustinov, in his rascally turn as a kind of Roman wheeler-dealer, is running off with a small fortune and asks Laughton if he wouldn't like to come along to make sure the money isn't misused. "Don't be ridiculous," Laughton says dryly. "I'm a senator.")
The plots converge when Olivier's army and Douglas's rebels meet in a pitched battle that Kubrick filmed with the sort of flash and brimstone rarely seen since, except for a few Super Bowl halftime shows.
Given (1) the film's stature, (2) the fact that it is grandiose in ways few modern movies even attempt, and (3) its still substantial entertainment value, this rerelease is more than justified. Recut and refurbished, Spartacus now includes such originally trimmed scenes as graphic violence and Olivier's attempt to seduce his body slave, Tony Curtis. In the big picture, every little spectacle helps. (PG-13)
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