March 16, 2010

#81: Spartacus

Next up is the first of two movies in a row from 1960: Stanley Kubrick's epic Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas as the leader of the famed slave rebellion. Fun fact: Kirk Douglas felt miffed after not being cast as the title role in William Wyler's Ben-Hur from 1959, and vowed to make another self-starring epic. Several months later, this film appeared. Take that, Wyler! While Spartacus boasts no epic chariot races and has a questionable ending, it's still a worthy epic. Another note: by some accident I ended up watching this on the ides of March. Trippy.

Company: alone this morning. Got up early to watch this as a start to my week. Jorgy sleeps but may stir.

Cuisine: oatmeal with blueberries, a couple cutie oranges, and eventually my skim no-whip two-pump white mocha, courtesy of Jorgy -- this is a long movie and required snacks.

That chin!

The story begins in Libya 2000 years before the birth of Christ, during the time of "the human disease of slavery." Spartacus (Douglas) is a Thracian slave who is purchased by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, in an Oscar-winning role) to be trained as a gladiator. Gladiators at this time were trained in intense combat and then sold to arenas where they would fight to the death as public entertainment. At the camp he meets the beautiful slave girl Varinia (Jean Simmons, who passed away only about two months ago) and she is surprised to find that when they are alone together, he doesn't rape her or take advantage of her like the other slaves might. He is gentle and kind to her. Is it because he's admittedly never been with a woman before, or because he genuinely respects and cares for women? We learn quickly it's a little of column A and a little of column B.

I can't help but wonder if the shots of these camps weren't meant to be a historical allusion to the Holocaust. This may not have been in Kubrick's mind but in 1960 I imagine the pain of WWII was still fresh in many minds. Just saying.

All right, that fight to the death is over. You guys! Your turn!

The camp and its training are portrayed as harsh, dirty and relentless, but one can't help but think you're getting paid to work out. Not bad. Then one remembers you're only working out so you can battle to the death with some chump. Now that's harsh. Well, it should come as no surprise to the people running this camp that if you treat these combative men like animals, they will eventually fight back and kick your collective Roman ass -- and so they do. Spartacus leads the slaves out of the camp and to the countryside where they plot revenge and amass an army of slaves to fight for their freedom.

Path of destruction!

After this, the film becomes a familiar fable: lowly slave turns master general of an underdog army and leads his cause into battle against the establishment of Rome. While the film is beautifully shot (in "Super-Technirama 70," as the credits fabulously mention) and well acted overall, what stood out to me was the discussion of morals and the underlying sexual politics at work. The famous "snails and oysters" scene between the Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his body servant, Antoninus (Tony Curtis), is as dirty and deviant as anything was allowed to be fifty years ago, since it's all in the metaphors. (This scene is probably the major selling point for Christian in Clueless, who brings this movie over to Cher's house to watch on their date.) This could be discussed at length, but suffice it to say that one could quite successfully discuss masculinity and femininity in Spartacus at length.

Um... okay, this is just a beautiful shot of Spartacus riding into the sunset. Yeah.

"Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That's why he's not afraid of it. That's why we'll win."

On the eve of battle, both generals address their battalions, in starkly different arenas: Spartacus on a mount (curiously without amplification) ...

... and Crassus on the steps of the Roman senate, where he confides that he must not only kill Spartacus, but also "the legend of Spartacus." This admission struck me as particularly relevant to today's worldwide conflict against terror: it seems we are less concerned with convicting and sentencing individuals than with banishing the idea or legend of terror, which, while noble and cinematic, seems much less tangible and attainable. But Crassus is concerned about his political standing and legacy, and just killing Spartacus straight away wouldn't be enough, not when we've waited three hours to get to the end of this story.

The battle commences (complete with rolling logs of fire! Nice, slaves!) and the Romans overtake the slaves after an intense and prolonged battle resulting in the death of thousands. You can't even see the grass as bodies cover the plain (perhaps another reflection of the Holocaust?), and the survivors of the slave rebellion are left with a choice: identify and hand over their leader or face crucifixion. In one of the film's most famous moments, each slave stands and screams "I AM SPARTACUS!" as if to spit in the eye of the Romans.

Although they chose to rebel and chose death over the sacrifice of their leader, I doubt those slaves really thought that 6,000 of them would be crucified without Spartacus speaking up and handing himself over so a few of them could be saved. This is one of the plot points that I kind of couldn't get over. What kind of a general are you? Am I wrong here? I won't give away the ending but for me the last half-hour was a suitably rich emotional payoff for the rest of the film.

"We've started something that has no ending."

It seems that Kubrick is making subtle points about the vulnerability of men all along the way in this film. The fact that the scene pictured above on the eve of battle between Spartacus and Varinia takes place with him below her, placing himself at her feet, is just one instance. After confiding his fears in her, she remarks that "you're strong enough to be weak." Is she advocating admitting defeat? Is she equating strength and weakness, or requiring both in a man? Can you have one without the other? We never think of our generals, our soldiers, our men and women overseas, as collectively weak, but we must recognize weakness in everyone. Maybe Spartacus makes tactical or moral mistakes, but is he forgiven for his moments of weakness because of his impact, his strife on behalf of the greater good? Kubrick has never been one to make anything less than bold cinema, so it should come as no surprise to me that these major questions are asked in an epic context. Apparently he was a troublesome director on this project and wanted to put his own readings on the story. I'll be glad to revisit A Clockwork Orange and maybe discover more about him as a director and moralist.

That's twenty movies down! I'm a fifth of the way through! ... Oof. Still feels daunting, but slow and steady, slow and steady. Next up is a lighter subject from the same year: The Apartment, a film I remember thinking was just okay. I'll be happy to find new reasons to give it another chance.

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