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Spartacus (1960)

Kirk Douglas photo
Kirk Douglas with director Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus (1960)

"Spartacus took three years out of my life – more time than the real-life Spartacus spent waging war against the Roman Empire." (Ragman's Son, p. 334)

Spartacus remains one of the best-known of the ambitious historical epics of the 1950s and early 60s – sometimes referred to as "sword and sandal" pictures – which included Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Com1960)mandments, Exodus, and many more.  It took 167 days to shoot the film, with a cast and crew of over 10,000 people.  Its budget ran over $12 million, making it one of the most expensive films ever produced in Hollywood at that time. However, Spartacus won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture in 1960 and grossed over $13 million its first year.  It is the movie most closely associated in the public mind with Kirk Douglas and continues to attract popular and critical attention today.  It was restored and re-released in 1991, including some scenes that had been deleted from the theatrical version.

The film follows the life of the Thracian slave, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) who led a thwarted revolution against Roman oppression   Purchased by a trainer of gladiators (Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Batiatus), Spartacus leads a band of slaves, peasants, and deserters in a revolt climaxing in a dramatic battle with the Roman Army. He is brought down and crucified by the Roman senator Crassus (Lawrence Olivier).  Charles Laughton played the rival senator Gracchus, and Tony Curtis was written in at the last minute as the comely slave boy Antoninus; his scene with Crassus in the bath was problematic for Hollywood censors.  It was cut from the picture but can be found in the remastered DVD release.

Spartacus is frequently credited as the film that broke the Hollywood blacklist, giving open credit to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The film was based on a novel by another member of the Hollywood 10, Howard Fast, brought to Douglas's attention in 1957 by Edward Lewis, one of Bryna's main producers.  Fast was originally employed to write the screenplay himself, which turned into "a disaster…just characters spouting ideas, speeches on two legs." (Ragman's Son  307)  Lewis and Douglas turned to Dalton Trumbo partly because they admired his work, partly because they knew he could work fast, and they were trying to beat United Artists who had optioned a similar property.  Trumbo made significant revisions to the plan of the film. But Trumbo was still blacklisted, forced to work under a series of aliases, including the one he intended to use for this picture, "Sam Jackson."  When director Stanley Kubrick himself attempted to confuse the issue by taking writing credit, Douglas decided to drop the subterfuge and put Trumbo's name in the credits.  It was an open secret by that time, anyway. However, it may have cost the film an Academy Award nomination in 1960, along with Exodus, also written by Trumbo. (Monaco 156)

Production began on January 27, 1959 with Anthony Mann directing. After a series of disagreements Douglas fired him on Friday the 13th of February, though the quarry scenes Mann shot in Death Valley were still used in the beginning of the film. Kubrick was brought in to replace him.

Spartacus was released on October 7, 1960.  Kirk Douglas recounts that the slave army's voice, especially in the "I am Spartacus" scene, were recorded using the crowd at a Michigan State v. Notre Dame football game on Oct. 17, 1959. (Ragman's Son 326)

When Spartacus was restored in 1991, it was discovered that the original soundtrack for the bath scene was lost.  Since Laurence Olivier had died two years previously, Anthony Hopkins was brought in to provide the voice of Crassus.

-- Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Kirk Douglas, Ragman's Son.  NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Paul Monaco, The Sixties: 1960-1969. Vol. 8 of "A History of The American Cinema" (Charles Harpole, General Editor).  NY: Scribners, 2001.

"Spartacus" in Wikipedia

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