Fresh Blood For the Old Guard: Spartacus

No matter how much of a fanatic we profess to be, we all have gaps in our knowledge when it comes to our passions. Here, I’ll share my first experiences with canonical pieces of cinema.

A few years ago, I didn’t really think of myself as Kubrick fan. I respected and admired films at the top of his filmography like A Clockwork Orange, 2001, and Dr Strangelove. I enjoyed some of his allegedly middling (relatively speaking) work like Lolita, but was ambivalent towards late era stuff like Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. But lately, I’ve been getting into some of the deeper, more obscure cuts. Early films like Paths of Glory and The Killing really surprised and delighted me. So I was really excited to have a look at his first truly massive production: Spartacus.

Spartacus is the tale of a man’s rise from slave to leader of a revolution, and is a uniquely sensitive, socially conscious, and even socialist take on the old sword and sandals genre. The character of Spartacus is an early, extremely effective example of a hero for the downtrodden we’ve since seen in movies like Gladiator and Braveheart. He values his principles and his people beyond his own life, and desires a symbolic victory over a practical outcome like survival. So that’s right down my alley.

What sets the film apart is probably the becoming aspect of Spartacus’ journey. The scene in which Spartacus encounters his future wife is a great one. She comes to him as an offering, a prize for good behavior, and he is excited to have the first woman of his life. When he realizes his masters are leering at him, prodding him to have his way, he rebels and declares “I am not an animal!”. Varinia immediately repeats his very words to him, and Spartacus recognizes the hypocrisy of his situation. He breaks the cycle of subjugation, and shows her true tenderness and sympathy for the rest of the movie. When he gets a brief opportunity to speak to her, he asks “Did they hurt you?”. Their courting of one another is a very gentle, very thoughtful and respectful subplot, and executed with tact and grace exceptional for any era.

Spartacus also broaches the subject of race with a surprisingly deft touch. Early in the film, Spartacus reaches out to an Ethiopian named Draba, who rebukes his pretensions towards friendship due to the adversarial relationship among slaves inherent to their school of gladiators. When pitted against each other later in the film, Draba defeats Spartacus, but actually shows him mercy. Rather than kill Spartacus, Draba lashes out as his captors, and makes a futile attempt at an escape. It’s an extremely symbolic gesture central to Spartacus’ development, and imbues Draba with a dignity and heroism seldom seen in portrayals of minorities this early in Hollywood’s history.

By credibly engaging its protagonist with exceptionally illuminating supporting characters, Spartacus manages a pretty rare feat of crafting a parable that is simultaneously socialist and individualist. Certainly, Spartacus rises above his brethren and becomes a great leader, but he does so with humility and a great sense of obligation to his fellow man. What makes the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene such a powerful one is that Spartacus is just as willing to lay down his life for his men as his men are for him. It’s a truly special moment in cinema because not only does it reveal the strength and conviction of its hero, but of all mankind.

Spartacus, as mentioned above, does a fantastic job of approaching topics like race and sex with egalitarian wisdom and clarity, but it stumbles just a bit when it deals with sexuality. To its credit, the mere acknowledgment of differing sexual orientations was a pretty significant taboo to tackle for such a major production, especially given the era. Spartacus deserves some credit for even alluding to the reality of bisexuality. Unfortunately, it does so by framing it as the ultimate decadence of its greatest villain, Crasus. His assertion that “tastes” and “preferences” should not be subject to moral scrutiny by those who simply lack the inclination is actually a pretty persuasive one, but when it comes from the mouth of someone as blatantly villainous as him, the structure of the story tends to direct an audience towards dismissing or even disagreeing his point. It’s not necessarily fair, but his speech certainly would have carried more weight (and admittedly, been far more dangerous and risque) if spouted by a more explicitly heroic character, or at least a less dubious one.

Overall, Spartacus struck me as one of the high points of its genre, and an unusually brave and sensitive epic. As I’m coming to see, however, that puts it squarely in the middle of the pack as far as Kubrick movies go.

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