Sometimes the most interesting thing about a film is not the end-product itself, but the Hollywood backstory that created it. My fave Apocalypse Now breaks this mold in that the finished product equals the project's history, but Spartacus had everything but the lead actor having a heart attack.
I was drawn to the film because the direction is attributed to Stanley Kubrick, one of our best American auteurs, whose films I'm screening, but in researching Spartacus, I found out that the vision of the film was not necessarily Kubrick's. Because there were four gigantor-egoed actors on the project (Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov (who won the supporting actor Oscar for his role)), director Anthony Mann pulled out of the project on the second day of shooting. Incidentally, all four of the actors had also directed their own pictures or plays, as well as had written their own original material.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Spartacus is imaging how these four actors rewrote their parts and lobbied the director and writer (Dalton Trumbo) for the changes. Imagine how turgid the film could have ended up. The film is turgid nonetheless, but in a good way.
Another essential element of the film's backstory: in 1960, the Hollywood blacklist had not yet been broken. Although McCarthyism and the blacklist got its start with 1950's "Red Channels" pamphlet, it took ten years for a blacklisted writer to get an actual screen credit, although many had written without credit during the interregnum. Dalton Trumbo was the first to get the screen credit.
Another contextual fact: as television became more popular, Hollywood responded with film productions on the scale that television could not touch, and a prime example is our epic, Spartacus (another example: Lawrence of Arabia). That's a lot to cover before even commenting on the quality of the production.
Spartacus is definitely not a "Kubrick" film, but in making it, the director proved that he could orchestrate mega-productions. The film is overlong and the narrative loses momentum at multiple times in the 198-minute 1991 restoration -- impossible for a film of its length and ambition, arguably. The film is as much a Kirk Douglas creation (he was executive producer) as Kubrick's.
But the film is so vast that one forgets the weaknesses. The historical accuracy and depiction of Roman life just before the birth of Christ is outstanding. Witness desolate moutain vistas where slaves are worked to death, Rome and its architecture, the weapons and clothing of the age, and even the food, hairstyles, and roads are researched, planned, and realized. Witness the manuevers of a slave army taking on Roman legions. The sets and costumes might be worth the price of admission.
The film is a sort of pre-CGI 300 war story, but with military strategy, politcal strategems, and a love story in addition to fight scenes. Oh, and how can I forget: two more backstory facts: a homoerotic scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis (yet another star) was removed by censors, as were many gory action moments, like a Roman soldier's arm getting hacked off. Many of these are included in the restoration -- how could they have taken out the fantastic Olivier/Curtis scene?
One weakness of the film is that in the separation between the Spartacus-led slave revolt and the Roman political intrigue storylines, the latter is more fully realized and more interesting. Female lead Jean Simmons seems miscast as Varinia, and both her and Kirk Douglas' acting styles seem terribly one-dimensional next to serious actors Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov. The latter is delightful, and -- another backstory element -- the scenes between Laughton and Olivier are actually improved by their mutual dislike of each other. (Another mutual dislike: apparently Kubrick and Douglas had a falling out after Spartacus.)
Who better to understand the Romans than Americans, though? Spartacus shows us an empire-republic based on citizenship, freedom, business, and mechanisization, but also injustice, slavery, war, and decadence. As I watched the film, I felt the world-historical predicament -- one that our nation is no doubt repeating. You will root for the slaves, but history tells us they cannot win. But win they did, in sowing the seeds of the disunion within Rome -- an empire "bought down by its internal contradictions," as someone in the commentary track says.
The pleasure from Spartacus is not in viewing its three-plus-hours, but the production combined with the DW Griffith-esque scope of the ideas and production, as well as the warring-egos backstory. Spartacus is an imperfect film, too large to fit anything, like Walt Whitman says in "Song of Myself":
I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times...
Yes, Spartacus is as big and turgid as that. Now that's what I call Hollywood -- and this place we call America.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)