Batiatus: What? Wait a minute. Crassus here? Varinia, my red toga with the acorns. And some chairs in the atrium. Second-best wine. No, the best, but small goblets.
F: The first hour but never the whole way through.
R: Likewise, caught bits on TV but had never seen it start to finish.
F: The sheer scale of this film is very impressive. Definitely on the same level as Ben Hur, if not even more so!
R: It’s hard to resist the urge to compare the two, seeing as they only came out a year apart from each other. But this is a richer, more sophisticated story, isn’t it?
F: Yes I think so. I think it helps that Spartacus was a real person and the slave revolt an actual historical event. Plus there were no miraculous cures for leprosy in this!
R: This certainly has a much more satisfying ending by not needing to resort to miracles. More than that though, the characters feel properly realised and three dimensional. The exception to that might be Jean Simmons’s character Varinia. Did you think she was slightly underwritten?
F: Yes perhaps although at least she has more to her than the other female characters in this. They either pour wine or are background figures in the slave revolt group. I agree though the the other main characters are fleshed out. I particularly enjoyed Peter Ustinov as Batiatus although they all look like they are having fun with these over the top characters.
R: Batiatus is my favourite character by some distance. Such a dry wit, and you really believe in his pampered Roman aristocrat way of life. If there’s a downside to that it’s that he ends up stealing the show a little. Spartacus himself is a little dull in comparison, isn’t he?
F: He doesn’t have the best lines that’s for sure. But he’s brave and noble which is kind of what I wanted from him in this film. Plus Kirk Douglas is great. After watching Trumbo last year it’s also good to know some of what went on behind the scenes on this movie. Dalton Trumbo’s script really lifts the film and I’m glad Douglas didn’t listen to any of the studio heads and gave Trumbo screen credit for his work even though he was blacklisted at the time.
R: Yes, as a spectacle, this probably isn’t quite as impressive as Ben Hur, but the script is much stronger. Those who have seen Trumbo (or have a good knowledge of Hollywood history) will know he was blacklisted for being a communist sympathiser. Do you think this film goes beyond being anti-slavery and could be seen as anti-capitalist or pro-communist?
F: I think you can see it like that, especially if you know a bit about the man who wrote it, but ultimately I think it is an adaptation of an actual historical event. You mentioned as we were watching the credits before the film you didn’t realise this was a Kubrick film. Did you see much of his style in this?
R: All the Kubrick films I’ve seen have explored the breakdown of the established order to some extent, and in that way this certainly fits alongside the rest of his work. Thinking more specifically about how it was filmed, it’s very unsqueamish (I let out a little whoop at one of the shots in the battle where an arm gets sliced off), and it has a few really striking wide shots. But I’d probably need a second viewing with your question in mind to do it justice. How about you? Did you spot many Kubrick hallmarks?
F: I think you know Kubrick’s filmography better than me – I tend to find his films terrifying (The Shining), boring (2001: A Space Odyssey) or utterly vile (Clockwork Orange) although I am interested to see whether my opinion of the last two will change when we get to them in the list.
R: Those are some bombshell statements to just drop like that, but I guess I’ll wait to explain to you why you’re wrong on 2001 and Clockwork Orange until we get to them on the list…
Is it worthy of the top 100?
F: Although I think the story and characters are better than Ben Hur, I don’t think this is as much of an epic or has those must talk about sequences. So it’s a no from me.
R: I enjoyed it more than Ben Hur but still a no from me. The plot sags a little too much in the second act.