“Spartacus” (1960)

w- Dalton Trumbo, Peter Ustinov

 from a novel by Howard Fast

d- Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Mann

dp-Russell Metty, A.S.C.

I‘d never seen this picture until this last weekend. The subject matter never particularly appealed to me, although I count the similar “Ben Hur” amongst my favorite pictures of all time. Perhaps one of my 10 favorites.

Now, I have a new one.


Spartacus (played amazingly by Kirk Douglas) was, according to Roman historians, Chief among them Plutarch, a Thracian slave laborer who lived in the last century before the birth of Christ, about 70 B.C. Thrace is now modern day Bulgaria. He was sold into gladiator training in a Roman school near Capua (Naples). He led a revolt of the school, the Gladiators broke out, burned it down, and started a slave uprising that spread all across Italy, shaking the foundations of Roman power and authority . By the time they were defeated two years after the revolt, they numbered an estimated 60,000 rebels.

I was not at all prepared to be so profoundly moved by the devastating conclusion. I didn’t know the story at all, and I was wrecked emotionally by the time the lights came up. It is a tremendous story of struggle, and horrible loss and defeat. This is not a story with a happy ending. Everyone dies horribly. The Noble struggle was doomed before it ever started. The heroes know that this is the only conclusion possible long before it happens. But the struggle and loss is better to them because they know that they they will die free,  and not as slaves, stripped of all dignity and humanity. Spartacus was a man who dreamed of the end of slavery 2000 years before it would finally end in the American south in 1865.


Man, the ending is just devastating. The slave army, consisting of Men, women and children, is finally brought to bay and vanquished by Marcus Licinius Crassus (Lawrence Olivier), the ambitious Roman senator and commander of the Roman legions. He slaugters all but 6000 of the men, who are given a choice by Crassus of either delivering Spartacus to him, living or dead, and being freed -or immediate crucifixion. The scene where Spartacus stands and his “I am Spartacus” is drowned out by every other captive standing and proclaiming himself to be Spartacus is one of the most moving moments in cinema history. 


The last scene, one second before the final fade out.

History records that Crassus had all 6000 men crucified, and their bodies hung on crosses which lined the Appian way, from Naples all the way to the gates of Rome.

Spartacus and Antoninus (Tony Curtis) are spared to be the last to die, where Crassus makes them fight to the death for his pleasure. Antoninus was Crassus’s unwilling boy concubine, and Crassus picks him to die last out of spite for having been rejected.

                                                   ANTONINUS: (quietly)

                                           Are you afraid to die, Spartacus?


                                          No more than I was  to be born

                                            ( 3 beats)  Are you afraid?


                                                  ANTONINUS (softly)


The scene where Antoninus dies in Spartacus’s arms and they declare their love for each other was devastating. As he dies, Spartacus tells him softly to “go to sleep.”


“Go to sleep”

Spartacus is crucified, and at the end, as she is escaping, his wife comes across him, as he’s dying on the cross. She shows him his newborn son, freed along with herself, and the final frames of the film are of her, desperate, crying, begging him to die, to please die quickly. His dying eyes gaze for the one and only time at his son.


The Producer, Edward Lewis relates that the Christianist nutjobs flipped out with the crucifixion scenes. They screamed that it was blasphemous. To his utter incredulity, he came to realize that the morons evidently thought that crucifixion was a death that was exlclusive in history only to one man, Jesus.

 God, they were – and still are- as clueless and dumb as a box of rollerskate wheels.


Sir Laurence Olivier as Crassus, who, as history paints him, could really give Hitler a run for his money as one of the most vicious despot/killers of all time.

Olivier gives an excellent performance. Subtle, nuanced. You can see the wheels turning behind his eyes.


The superb, incandescent Peter Ustinov(Right) as Lentulus  Batiatus, the owner of the Gladiator school where Spartacus and the other insurgent slaves initially revolt. Many of his best lines were improvised by the actor himself, who was also a gifted writer with an amazing ear for dialogue. His scenes with Laughton are as rich and smooth as a fine port wine.

 Charles McGraw gives a chilling, unforgettable performance as Marcellus (left) the sadistic “headmaster” of the school. During the revolt scene, Douglas accidentally broke McGraw’s jaw when he improvised on  the spot to slam McGraw’s head into an iron cauldron of boiling soup. McGraw’s jaw was slammed into the rim of the cauldron. 


The great Charles Laughton plays the Senator Graccus, who is intriguing against Crassus in the Roman senate. He transfixes in every scene he’s in. At left is John Gavin as a young Caius Julius Caesar.


Jean Simmons as the slave woman Virina, who falls in love with and eventually marries Spartacus. Simmons performance was both tender and moving. I loved her.  


Spartacus and Antoninus.


This scene, where Crassus cooly cuts the carotid artery of an attacking gladiator, thus spraying his face with the arterial gush, was censored for 30 odd years and was found and replaced when the film was restored in 1991. It’s amazingly gory.

There are some disturbing parallels between the Rome of that time and our own American empire today. Both were engaged in multiple foreign entanglements which weakened them. Both were corrupt from within, with warring political factions tearing each other apart. Both engendered much resentment from those they oppressed. And both were complacent. We all know what became of Rome. Whither us?


14 responses to ““I AM SPARTACUS!”

  1. Your not the first one to compare Rome to the US and that, like they, were were on the same path. But that the comparison was done by some of youur seemingly favorite people, namely christian reactionary nutjobs, sort of kills most if not all of their credibility.

  2. Nutjobs? i AGREE! To show people being crucified is not, in and of itself, blasphemous. I agree with your take on the US. What is right, is correct, no matter who says it. CB

  3. US Like rome, Hmm Sounds like a clever way of say Dick and Bush Suck Wolf Titty

  4. I haven’t seen that movie in years but I remember seeing it a lot when I was younger as my dad was Dirk Douglas freak! It is certainly seems to be one of those all time greats! I loved all those big productions from years ago. They don’t make me like they used too!!!!

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  11. Ustinov not only improvised a lot of his own dialogue in the film, he completely re-wrote the scenes he shared with Charles Laughton, who was in one of his titanic snits and threatening to walk off of the picture. Dalton Trumbo, who had written the rest of the picture, made some very snide remarks about Ustinov in his script notes, and never mentioned, even after it was public knowledge, any of Ustinov’s contributions to said script.

  12. If only more people could read about this!

  13. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve always been a fan of the film and the book. There’s always a tendency to make a correlation between earlier history and our own, but I think it’s usually an over simplification. The story speaks to us on many levels and it appeals to our sense of justice and social awareness. When Howard Fast wrote it, he was using Spartacus for just such a purpose. In a time when people with his political beliefs were being black listed and jailed, it was a perfect way in which to point out the shortcomings of a government that was coming off the rails. Thanks for posting this.

  14. There is some ignorance to this. If you read your history books correctly, crucifixion was commonly used by the Romans, not just on Jesus’ death.

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