John Wayne Was miffed at Spartacus, cussing it as “Marxist propaganda”.
He’d have probably said the same thing about ‘Pillage: The Life of Attila the Hun’, but the duke did have a point – so laboured is the left-wing subtext, it would stick in Ken Livingstone’s craw.
It’s difficult to see how the true(ish) story of a slave revolt in ancient Rome could have resulted in anything that didn’t fly the red flag on some level – but screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, freshly rescued from the post-McCarthy blacklist by star Kirk douglas, still delivers a version of the eponymous rebel gladiator fit to please the soviet Union’s most ardent political censors. He’s a paragon of nobility, goodwill and virtue… and as such, a touch dull.
Which can’t be said for the other strand of Spartacus, the cynical world of the wealthy Romans, who are a terrific bunch to spend time with.
Laurence Olivier gives world-class bastard as Spartacus-obsessed general Crassus, and Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov have a ball together as, respectively, aging senator and deposed gladiator trainer.
Ustinov rewrote much of his own dialogue and it shows, his dark wit more than redeeming the sermonising elsewhere, which director Stanley Kubrick (then a 31-year-old lacking the clout of his later years) was powerless to remove.
It’s fascinating to look for Stan’s signature amid this jumbled but entertaining peak to the swords, sandals‘n’togas craze of the ’50s.
Extras are sparse, which considering the troubled production (everybody hated everybody else) is a crime – what price a decent commentary, at least?
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