by Jeric Llanes
Drawing inspiration from Howard Fast’s 1951 novel of the same name, Spartacus (1960) is an attempt at bringing this historical legend of a rebellious gladiator to the big screen. The story begins when the slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is sold off to be trained and molded into a warrior for the sole purpose of entertaining Roman audiences through battle showcases. Stripped of freedom and often times being treated like an animal, Spartacus must deal with the oppression brought forth by his wealthy and powerful captors. However, he is not alone in this journey. Joined by an entire school of captured slaves, Spartacus forms an unbreakable bond with his fellow fugitives and wages an ambitious war against slavery, one that shakes the very fabric of Roman society.
Epic. That’s the one word that comes to mind when I think about this film. (Which is expected of a movie detailing events that happened in ancient Rome!) What sticks out initially are the battle sequences, which increase in scale as the drama of the movie progresses. We start off with one-on-one fights that pit the Gladiators up against each other in small spaces, but slowly over time the film moves out to wider locations as more warriors join in on the war. These battle scenes really benefit from the pacing and direction of the film. This isn’t just total, nonstop action. There are times where the focus is more on the characterization and plot of the film, but in doing so the anticipation of the next battle gives this characterization a greater sense of importance. A good deal of time also passes in between scenes, and some of the victories of Spartacus and his army are implied in dialogue as opposed to having a portrayal on screen. In that sense, the fight scenes we actually see hold a greater weight. Battles don’t just happen, but rather, they occur when it’s the right time for our characters to clash.
This truly is a character driven film, and I’d even go as far to say that the scenes of characterization outshine the spectacle of the war. There is a star-studded cast that portray our main characters, and one managed to nab an Academy Award for his performance. (Peter Ustinov for his role as Batiatus, if you were curious!) But what was so compelling about the performances was how the film evenly distributed the screen time between the Gladiators and the Romans. The plot is never a one-sided affair. Spartacus is our protagonist, and his followers are the ones we want to root for, but the Roman Republic’s role as the antagonists is a bit complicated. There are corrupt politics at play, and the main Roman officials have interesting ulterior motives hidden in their actions. There is conflict within their own party in addition to their conflict against Spartacus, which allows them to bridge off into their own subplots without going too far off the narrative. These scenes tend to be battles of intellect and wit as opposed to strength, and they really make you wonder what these Roman officials have up their sleeves. The villains, perhaps, have more dimensions than our heroes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! With more rich and dynamic characters, the overall film benefits since the plot never falls into the trap of becoming a typical good vs. evil story. It’s great to have characters who aren’t so stereotypical, but instead feel relatable and more grounded with reality.
There’s also a touching romance plot in this film along with the action, and a tad bit of comedy that breaks the seriousness of the drama. And for those that like a bit of cinema trivia, this is also where the famous line, “I am Spartacus!” is from, which has been referenced and parodied in numerous movies and television shows that have come after its original release. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching this film. Whether you enjoy historical dramas or if you just like old Hollywood movies in general, this flick has the visual flare that amazes you with its set pieces and action sequences, yet also has substance that effectively makes this a timeless classic.
Where to watch this film: Spartacus (1960) is available for rent/purchase on Youtube, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, iTunes, and Netflix DVD.