Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Starring Kirk Douglas in a most fitting role as the eponymous Spartacus, Kubrick’s adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel presents him not as the sharp, detached artist he came to be but as the studio auteur he once was. With Russell Metty as his Director of Photography and Dalton Trumbo co-writing the script, the film comes from the Golden Age of Hollywood more so than it comes from Stanley Kubrick, yet certain elements of Kubrick’s unique style can be found in Spartacus.
A three hour epic composed mostly of medium-long shots and medium-long takes, Spartacus conveys the sense of detached, omniscient observer which Kubrick would come to be cited for.
A three hour epic composed mostly of medium-long shots and medium-long takes, Spartacus conveys the sense of detached, omniscient observer which Kubrick would come to be cited for. While his signature “coldness” is usurped by the emotive score which takes the film from beginning to end, Kubrick’s gaze into human behaviour is as strong as ever. Nonetheless, it is obvious from the soundtrack to the generic romance to the voice-over to the lack of nudity that Kubrick sacrificed some of his self in order to meet studio demands, and this is really a shame. While the film was made during a high point of Hollywood cinema, there’s no doubt that an unsupervised Kubrick would have wrought out a true masterpiece.
Spartacus is a film about human slavery, rebellion, and war, but even more so than this it is an examination of human behaviour with a focus on two opposing characters, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Crassus (Laurence Olivier). Crassus has ambitions to take Rome back to its traditional forms with himself as its leader. His desire is to be loved, and to become a God amongst men. His greatest fear comes to be when Spartacus, a lowly slave, takes his place in the book of legends. His jealousy is what sparks the war and what ultimately leads to his fears coming true. Spartacus, now a martyr, will hold his place in the history books, while Crassus will surely be forgotten.
Varinia (Jean Simmons) is pivotal character in the story. A female slave described as “a woman who would surrender herself to the right man”, Varinia gives herself to Spartacus, and only him. In his jealousy of Spartacus, Crassus wants Varinia’s love, not stolen from her but given by her. She does no such thing. As a dual character study of Crassus and Spartacus, the ongoing battle for Rome serves as an allegory with the ongoings personified through Varinia, our veritable ‘Helen of Troy‘.
While Stanley Kubrick’s films tend to be very haunting due to both content and stylistic nuance, Spartacus doesn’t have quite the same lasting impact that his later films would come to have.
Throughout the film, a moving camera conveys the dense story in simple takes. Russell Metty, known for the wonderful long take opening shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil displays his expertise as his unobtrusive camera often creates brief sequence shots wherein not only the setting develops but so does the narrative. In line with Kubrick’s tendency to observe the human condition, the film’s pacing shores up a grand painting that never feels over saturated. In the three hour plus runtime, Spartacus never feels excessive.
Using visual metaphor as language, Kubrick subtly but surely empowers his film via poetic means. When Spartacus is a slave, he is seen through a window in the ground. He is underground, revealing at once his status in this hierarchy. When the four men are taken to fight to the death, they are literally kept in a cage like animals, dogs in a kennel. Through his use of visual metaphor, the film becomes much more effective at rendering its themes. Human slavery, entrapment, torture, rebellion, freedom, these themes are not just spoken of, they are shown.
While Stanley Kubrick’s films tend to be very haunting due to both content and stylistic nuance, Spartacus doesn’t have quite the same lasting impact that his later films would come to have. While Spartacus has the content and moral character of his films, it doesn’t nearly have the stylistic resonance of films such as A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut. That said, it does incorporate what is today one of the most iconic scenes in film history. “I am Spartacus!”.
While the film was made during a high point of Hollywood cinema, there’s no doubt that an unsupervised Kubrick would have wrought out a true masterpiece.