Spartacus – Art 3/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5
Confusion. The Kirk Douglas film Spartacus is an exemplar of deep confusion from head to toe, reel to reel. It is an artwork of philosophical leftist agitprop, yet made into the largest commercial endeavor Hollywood had financed up til then. It is an anti-war film that repudiates the concept of hero traditional to “pagan tyranny” in Greco-Roman society, yet lionizes a messianic perfect hero and liberator with fewer complications than Achilles (that is to say: none). It purports to be a film against the evils of slavery, but says that it wouldn’t die for 2,000 years after the plot (roughly the time Spartacus was written in the 1950s, nearly a century after the American Civil War), indicating its actual expected target: bourgeois control of capital. It is a socialist text, yet leans on Christianity for moral force despite Christianity doing nothing to end the evils of slavery and classism that it rails against, and quite the contrary, Christianity justified and invigorated them to newer heights.
But what nobody can be confused about was how enormous Spartacus was in film history, and history in general. Spartacus is, at heart, a dramatic framing of an etiological myth for slave morality, where the tragic extinguishing of a rebellion against the injustice of society would dovetail nicely into the cross and church guilting society into more correct behavior (the final scene has Spartacus crucified like a Christ figure). The highly successful film plucks the heart strings of freedom and justice-minded people everywhere, anticipating later Oscar winning epics like Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Spartacus also effected the beginning of the end for McCarthyism’s lasting impact on Hollywood through the blacklisting of Communist screenwriters, thanks to Kirk Douglas’ heroic decision to give screenwriter Dalton Trumbo his name back after working under aliases for a decade. Even John F. Kennedy crossed lines of anti-communist protestors to see the movie.
Written by Howard Fast while he was imprisoned for Contempt of Congress after refusing to name the contributors to a charity helping the families of Spanish Civil War veterans (amongst whom could be counted former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt), the original book differs heavily from the final screen product. Fast’s unfamiliarity with screenwriting caused actor-producer (and thus overlord of the film) Kirk Douglas, who had invested a large sum of his own money to secure the rights of Fast’s self-published book for adaptation (making Fast bourgeois scum too?), to bring in Dalton Trumbo, a fellow blacklistee and former Communist. After only serving on the production for the early scenes in the Libyan slave mines, director Anthony Mann either quit or was fired, not entirely sure whether he appreciated the scope. Young director Stanley Kubrick was brought in to finish the film. Kubrick would later say this was the only film of his that he did not have absolute control, and it shows.
Trumbo, though a much hailed screenwriter, had a sordid personal-political history that makes the themes of this film quite the more interesting. After authoring Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel that targeted heroism in all its folly, about a World War I veteran laying motionless in a hospital bed, he suddenly decided to cease publication when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, because a case for heroism fell to him much like the Mormon Church received prophesy that Blacks weren’t devils when it became socially unacceptable. Quite ironically for a blacklisted writer, when some isolationists wrote him asking for copies of the book, he reported them to the FBI. He was also a stringent opponent of anti-totalitarian Arthur Koestler, and successfully blocked a Trotskist biography of Joseph Stalin being made in Hollywood. Trumbo called Stalin one of the world’s greatest proponents for democracy. Opponents of Trumbo’s useful idiocy and his fellow travelers, he said, were to be opposed by all means at hand. It’s all the more fitting that the subject of this film is the man Karl Marx saw as the only person fit to be called a hero in antiquity (though as a classicist, Marx was still deeply appreciative of Aeschylus, Democritus, and Epicurus, amongst others, as should you be). In a way, one could view the Cold War as a philosophical battle between a civilization inspired by Spartacus, another by Cato the Younger.
The film begins with some very genius still photographs: one of a hand of a laborer; another of the bust of a classical hero’s face, crumbling. The Latin word for hand is manus, as in manumission, the act of freeing a slave. The crumbling visage is the visual accomplishment of the story’s main theme of tearing down the master morality of antiquity, replacing it with the story of the one man true to our modern nature. Most of the artistry that follows is tiddlywinks compared to the opening stills. The narrator’s opening monologue brazenly condemns Roman society and its “pagan tyranny” that had yet to be civilized by glorious Christianity (yawn). The narrator also condemns the crippling error of slavery within Roman civilization. In truth, slavery did play an enormous role in the death of the Roman Republic, because it effectively drove up unemployment for laboring proletarians and Plebeians, and made them dependent on the slave-holding class of Patricians (or Bourgeoisie, if you prefer), including the attachment of one’s self and fortune to the adventures of generals who commanded the total and long-term loyalty of their soldiers. Imagine robots taking over most of the service industry. Imagine the dispossessed hordes fanatically following the populist politicians promising them free shit, or better yet, the private mercenary organizations like Blackwater doing so.
A Thracian slave (Thrace was a semi-barbarous nation located just on the periphery of Greek culture and history, located today in modern Bulgaria), Spartacus is first seen toiling away in a quarry in Libya, where he is condemned to death for fighting back against his slave drivers. He is rescued by slave trader Lentulus Batiatus (played by Peter Ustinov, who’d win an Oscar for his role), an apathetic and apolitical scoundrel with a heart of fake gold, who brings Spartacus back with him to Capua to be trained as a gladiator by freedman Marcellus (a character that subtly anticipates R. Lee Ermey’s Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and similarly is killed by his instructees). Visiting Batiatus’ compound, Marcus Licinius Crassus (played expertly by the legendary Laurence Olivier), future Triumvir with Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus, comes to watch some Gladiators fight it out to the death for his entertainment. Instead of killing Spartacus, the black gladiator Draba (Woody Strode) chooses to launch his trident at the rich fucks up in the galley, before getting a javelin in his back right at Crassus’ feet (the only one not to flee), who cuts him a final time.
Here we see the ultimate contrast in the film: Crassus vs. Spartacus; villain vs. hero; bourgeois scum vs. warrior for the proletariat; homosexual pagan vs. straight crypto-Christian. Soon after this, Spartacus fights back against Marcellus’ beatings, and spontaneously, the rest join him and thus begins the Third Servile War. The rest of the film is an interesting split. Interesting because of its interplay with Roman history, and the philosophical implications that follow the plot decisions of Fast and Trumbo. Spartacus’ noble decision to flee Italy, and send everyone back to their homes, as Plutarch states, was disrupted by the more rowdy element in his midst such as slave leader Crixus, who saw burning shit down and raping bitches to be more fun than simply going home in freedom. In the film, Crixus simply states legions block the paths through the Alps, and Spartacus is quick to admonish his fellow gladiators for committing captured Romans to an ironic switch of being forced into the arena, thus giving a moral advantage to the slave revolt. This uncomplex good vs. evil crap that simplifies history and politics is easily blamed on the totalitarian intellectuals writing the film, who have a lot invested in the moral clarity of their hero.
The scenes involving Spartacus that were under total command of Kirk Douglas in the film, and his character, through both the writing of the leftist authors, and Douglas’ vanity, makes him come across as the perfect Christian knight of righteous, equitable and sober spirit. The absence of anything remotely resembling a flaw in his character, placing far below the heroic Achilles or especially Odysseus this narrative intends to demonize, is ironic in its lack of Thersitism. Thersites was the loud mouth asshole who allowed Homer and epic writers to voice the contradictions of a story without fully undermining it. Achilles finally punches Thersites to death after he mocks him, but what is said is said, and the audience loves it enough to endure the insanity of the Trojan War. Philosophers in the Germanic tradition, especially Hegel and Marx, took great note of the role of Thersitism, and the role of undermining the egotistical “heroes” of the day. Thersites has no place in Spartacus, however, because it was written by totalitarian blockheads and produced by an egotistical movie star who wouldn’t himself hear any cat calls against his work.
This hagiography made Stanley Kubrick roll his eyes in sardonic disgust, but there was next to nothing he could do about it. Kubrick was given more leeway in the scenes at Rome that followed the cloak and dagger machinations by the ahistorical “Gracchus” (hinting at the crypto-commie Senators Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus who began the Roman Revolution by winning power against the Senate through land distribution to the dispossessed common people). Meanwhile, in notable contrast to the Marxian and Douglasian unblemished hero Spartacus, Olivier’s Crassus is far more complex, and closer to the morally upright but Mitt Romney-esque politically flexibile loan shark described by Plutarch. More notable is how the historic Crassus came to be the wealthiest man in antiquity (and possibly all time): he seized the estates (including slaves) of nobility condemned by conservative tyrant Sulla, and then used his troupe of slaves to purchase estates on fire at rock bottom prices. Broader meaning: it’s okay to capture slaves, but slaves cannot uncapture themselves!
The ultimate irony of antiquity is that most thoughtful philosophers condemned the concept of “might makes right”, in that victory on the battlefield meant the victor owns those that submit, but horrified Greek and Roman society saw slaves revolting, and therefore winning back their freedom, as a police/militia matter that needed to be stamped out. You lose one battle and you’re cleaning, cooking, and sucking cock for life, but you win a revolt and that just means you’ve offended the order of the household and therefore Zeus/Jupiter. But from Alexander the Great’s sack of Thebes to Crassus’ taking advantage of Rome in Sulla’s Civil War, it was more the rule than the exception, and this especially included the institution of slavery (Alexander put all surviving Thebans into slavery, as did most Greek conquerors to the conquered). Plato and Aristotle accept that there are stronger and more noble people in relation to the slobbermouths at the bottom (Aristotle going so far as to say some people are in ‘natural slavery’), but they dismiss the idea that someone is someone else’s property for having lost in combat. Furthermore, Saint Augustine (of enlightened Christianity fame) says that those who lose in combat and pressed into slavery have it done to them by the will of god, therefore the slaves should obey god. Pagan tyranny, indeed.
Nevertheless, the institution of slavery persisted, and whatever deal or compromise on the institution of slavery that might have been met in the Third Servile War was precluded by the fact Crassus had to compete with other adventurous men for honor and glory, because the control of Rome was at stake. In the film, Olivier’s Crassus explains that he wants to return Rome to its former constitution (of an aristocratic character resembling the constitution prior to the historic Gracchi, and the fictional Gracchus opposing him in the Senate). This sets him as somewhat more noble than Pompey and Caesar, both of whom Karl Marx loathed. Marx actually comes to praise Crassus as the more capable general than Pompey, who stole the glory from Crassus in the final pitched battle against Spartacus, and was thereafter an inept buffoon in opposition to Caesar, whereas Marx esteems Crassus (who suffered humiliating death and defeat against the Persians) fully capable of following through on Pompey’s empty promises of stamping out Caesar. The script by Trumbo is not unaware of a need to hold Crassus as the villain, yet a villain of superior guile to his bourgeois brethren. Without Olivier, however, there is little life to be had in this construct.
Kubrick’s role in the film is minimized from his other films, but you can especially appreciate it in a few scenes. Though much of the film follows the nature of Mann’s scenes in the Libyan quarry, Kubrick’s imprimatur can be found throughout. The framing of scenes is reminiscent of Kubrick’s filmic architecture, heavily favorable to distant shots and cleanliness and meaningful purpose for each image. When Spartacus is waiting for his turn to fight in the arena, as the out-of-sight action is heard to the solemn horror of Draba, we get a whiff of the closed intimate interior shots with explosive exteriors found in everything from 2001 to Eyes Wide Shut. A tracking shot after the slave rebels capture and set fire to the camp of Glabrus is also very Kubrickesque. Kubrick insisted on shooting the film outside Madrid, and it makes me curious if he did so to cheekishly bring the film in debt to fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s troops, who acted as the Roman soldiers (oh, the irony!). Older cinematographer Russell Metty fought the upstart director tooth and nail over the film, but Kubrick got his way, and Metty got an Oscar for following Kubrick’s orders. Indeed, the only Oscar Kubrick won.
The overall project of shedding light on the barbarous and utterly ancient nature of Roman society was most definitely not a bad one. The film had many of the rougher edges of the Stalinist intellectual authors, and the condescending Christian triumphalism of the previous spear and sandal epic Ben Hur shorn from its final product. The acting of Kirk Douglas, as far as star power goes, is pretty remarkable considering this was still very much a pre-Brando era. Olivier is doing Shakespeare and therefore doing Plutarch, and he’s doing it very well. Jean Simmons is given the role of an orderly waifish housewife ideal, and it’s not that she doesn’t perform it well, it’s that performing it well doesn’t mean a whole lot. The film is, for the most part, rip rollicking good clean fun in the classical epic genre.
One chief failure in Spartacus, however, is the hypocrisy of heroism exhibited by the writers, who essentially condemn heroism for nation or tribe (the film posits the evil Roman against the international band of slaves under their rule), or for glory, or for capital gain, and promote a flawless moral victor in whosoever triumphs for the lower class against the upper class, sans the comic relief of a Thersites. This is binary philistinism, plain and simple, and cannot be taken seriously by any person not inhabiting the 1st Century BCE. The structural and moral failures of Rome were deep and profound, and slavery was indeed the crux of the issue, but what’s apparently missing from the film Spartacus is that he wasn’t intending to free the slaves and begin a new order of the ages. The brotherhood of slaves was more the convenience and easy recruitment. If they hadn’t been cheated by the Cilician pirates promising them escape from Italy, they would have gone and “liberated” more slaves to join their merry band of brigands, until Pompey eventually stamped out the Cilician pirates, and them, one and the same.
The Roman Empire went to all corners of the world, leaving nowhere for free people to breathe freely. They “made a desolation and called it peace”. There was obvious injustice in their mere way of life. But the critique here, like I said earlier, is not about slavery, but about the inequality in men that the useful idiots penning the book and screenplay upbraid in our own society. Fast and Trumbo consider free men engaging in contractual agreements to each other’s benefit to be “slavery” as much as African-Americans subjected to the cruelty of southern cotton picking. The massive gaping hole in their history is that Spartacus, a truly noble fellow justly admired as being the most ideally free thinking and Greek-like of his age, was not turned from a higher purpose of achieving quiet freedom by legions blocking the Alps, but by the unruly nature of the anarchic system he created in his quasi-communitarian band of brigands. They wanted the sensual life of killing, fucking, burning, and destroying. Those base impulses of the common people, it appears, were also mostly shorn from the final product in this film. Film going audiences don’t want to be told that they, as the captains of democracy, are idiots who bend the state to their lowly whims, especially if they are precisely that. If things get too complicated, they hand it over to a hero, a tyrant “of the people”, like a Caesar, a Napoleon, a Lenin, or a Stalin, whose name was etched on the prize the Soviet Union gave to writer Howard Fast.
Despite the context of questioning the elitism of interbellum British nobility, this scene in The Remains of the Day might just serve as a competent repudiation of Fast’s and Trumbo’s Spartacus: