The third essay in a year-long analysis of the films of Stanley Kubrick. Check out the schedule and explanation here, where you can also find links to all the completed pieces.
Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas and written by Dalton Trumbo, may be the best Swords-and-Sandals story ever put to film. The film is a powerhouse but is easily the least “Kubrickian” film in all of the great director’s filmography. This is mostly due to Kubrick sharing control with Douglas, who produced the film and had final cut, and the writer Dalton Trumbo. In this piece, I’ll detail the circumstances surrounding this intense collaboration, starting with the political climate and background of the film. I’ll continue on with the story and characters developed by Trumbo and Douglas and finish with Kubrick’s stylistic contributions to the film. Though all three creators approached the film with their own intentions and goals, they were still able to produce an irrefutable classic.
In the filmography of Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus is an anomaly. It is the only film over which the director did not have full artistic control. Instead, he routinely argued with star and producer Kirk Douglas. Spartacus is also Kubrick’s only major film where he did not also have a hand in the writing (ed: while Kubrick is not credited for writing Lolita – he did; we’ll get into that next month). Instead, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote the entire script in just two weeks. In fact, Kubrick wasn’t even the first director of Spartacus! He was brought on a week into the shoot, when Douglas felt that the scope of the project was beyond original director Anthony Mann. Kubrick and Douglas had worked together on Paths of Glory with much aplomb, so Douglas hired Kubrick to come in and take over Spartacus.
Why the frenetic decisions, and why the bizarre talent grab? Because Douglas’s version of the story with Universal Pictures was not the only Spartacus film in production. United Artists also had a treatment of the film, starring Yul Brenner. Douglas’s failure to win the lead in Ben-Hur galvanized him to find his own Swords-and-Sandals epic, and he was immediately attracted to Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus. Fast struggled to adapt his own work to a screenplay format, but Douglas got the green-light anyway when he was able to persuade esteemed British actors Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton to appear in the film. Douglas had his epic story and some performers, but little else. For a real screenplay, he turned to Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo was a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, just like Howard Fast. His intention with Spartacus was both practical and ideological: to get paid serious money for writing a big Hollywood epic, and to ridicule the blacklist by subverting it in secret (which he had already been doing). Douglas actively spoiled the secrecy, insisting that Trumbo receive the full writing credit. This, along with president John F. Kennedy crossing the “picket line” to see Spartacus in theaters, dealt a major blow to the popularity of the Hollywood blacklist.
It is in this context that Kubrick was conscripted to direct the film. Kubrick’s motivations were also clear: he wanted to show Hollywood higher-ups that he could handle a project of this size. His previous films were reasonable critical successes, but not commercial ones. His directorial skill was starting to be taken seriously in Hollywood, but there were still major doubts that Kubrick could be trusted to helm a big-budget production. Kubrick did not choose to direct Spartacus because he was drawn to the story, as he mentioned in an interview that only the first third of the film was at all interesting to him. Nor was he confident that working with Douglas would be easy or artistically fruitful, as the two had butted heads on Paths of Glory years earlier. Kubrick intended Spartacus to be his $12 million business card, blazoning to the world that he was capable of handling the scope of a big budget epic.
This is the artistic construction of Spartacus, a collaborative amalgamation of disparate intentions, goals, and ideas. Douglas, Trumbo, and Kubrick each approached the film from a different perspective – one as an epic, one as a political statement, and one as a calling card. It is a wondrous miracle that all three got exactly what they wanted and also ended up with a masterpiece on their hands.
Part I: Plot and Characters
There is a clear creative division between those in charge of the subject of the film (the plot and characters) and those in charge of the style (cinematography and editing), so it makes sense to segregate these portions of the analysis. Hence, the first section of this piece will investigate the contributions Kirk Douglas and Dalton Trumbo made to the story and the characters of Spartacus and detail how these choices inform the themes of the film. The second will handle Kubrick’s stylistic contributions.
The plot of Spartacus is a pretty standard tragedy, beginning with the main character at his lowest point, dramatizing his ascent to leader of a slave rebellion, and concluding in the destruction and loss of all that he has gained (well, almost all). This your basic Rise / Fall structure, starting off with a long, slow rise from the direst of situations – slavery. The film is structured into these three segments and told in a completely linear fashion, making the drama easy to follow.
The most interesting of the three acts is the first, where Spartacus is sold to the gladiator school of Batiatus. Here, we get an introduction to the life of a slave like Spartacus and see the perverse incentives that are brought to bear when people are bought and sold. Watching the gladiators interact is heartbreaking, as they hesitate to make relationships for fear of being pitted against one another in the arena. It is a brutal world that foments discord and rebellion. We also get an introduction to Varinia and her budding relationship with Spartacus as well as the four most important Romans in the film: Crassus, Glabrus, Batiatus, and (through hearsay and a hilariously placed bust) Gracchus.
This entire act is a pot about to boil over. There is palpable rage from the gladiators, but no confidence to act upon it. Dealing daily in life and death, they are content to keep their heads down and fight for survival. This mood and behavior is starkly contrasted by the visiting Romans. The fight between Spartacus and Draba reveals the absurdity of the Roman high class, or as Batiatus refers to them, “Ladies and gentleman of quality, those who appreciate a fine kill.” This sentiment, and its absurdity, echoes Kubrick’s previous film Paths of Glory, where General Mireau remarks that the men, “died wonderfully” while munching breakfast. The disconnect between the worldview of the Romans and the slaves will be a constant in the film.
By comparison, the second act of the film where Spartacus grows his slave army, is relatively dull. There is a more direct declaration of intent from Spartacus and the other slaves, as well as multiple montages showing the burgeoning society of the slave rebellion. But the most important dramatic events involve Spartacus finding Varinia again and then meeting Antoninas. Up until the intermission of the film when Spartacus’s army bests Glabrus’s, it’s mostly wheel-spinning.
It is far more interesting to delve into the world of the Roman senators, learn about their relationships and philosophies, and witness their political maneuverings. The reputation of the larger-than-life Gracchus precedes him, and he owns the film whenever he is on screen. Since the entirety of the first act dealt with the world of the slaves, it is appropriate for far more of the intrigue to come from Rome in this second part.
In the final act, Spartacus and Crassus meet again on the battlefield – a sprawling battle sequence that baffles comprehension from a technical standpoint. Kubrick had thousands of trained extras from the Spanish Infantry marching in unison as the Roman army, and the battle is still one of the grandest ever put to screen (no CGI in 1960, folks). Spartacus loses due to sheer numbers, and the slaves are either slaughtered or captured. The film then enters into an extended denouement where the remaining slaves are crucified on the road to Rome, Varinia is captured by and defies Crassus, and the final ideological conflict between Spartacus and Crassus is resolved, with Crassus the materialistic victor, but Spartacus the philosophical one. The key moments are plotted in spectacular fashion and convey the theme of individualism and freedom wonderfully.
The characters in Spartacus essentially exist on this same ideological spectrum. On one end are the Slaves and Gladiators, and on the other end are the Romans. The slaves comprise the title character Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), his wife Varinia (Jean Simmons), and his trusted friends Antoninas (Tony Curtis), Dionysius (Nicholas Dennis), and Crixus (John Ireland), among other slaves. The Romans comprise Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and his confidant Julius Caesar (John Gavin), Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his crony Glabrus (John Dall), and the gladiator trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, in an Oscar-winning role). Though the group of ex-slaves is unified under the leadership of Spartacus, the Romans are more disjointed and always looking for the next political victory.
The conflict that arises between these groups is quite clear: the slaves strive for their freedom, while the Romans struggle to preserve their way of life by staunching the slave rebellion. While there are peculiarities in the ideologies (especially with regards to the Romans), the entire philosophical conflict is fought in the context of independence vs. subservience. This is a theme that is stated explicitly again and again, but also arises from subtext, as we will see in Part II.
These contrasting ideologies are personified by Spartacus and Crassus and can be inferred from many specific qualities of these men and their relationships. One of the clearest examples is the way these two men (and the groups they belong to) approach romantic relationships. Crassus and his ilk purchase their sexual enjoyment, and the marital relationships they enter into seem loveless and formal. Even Gracchus and Batiatus, the most sympathetic of the Romans, trade in flesh without hesitation. By contrast, the relationship between Spartacus and Varinia is genuine, earned, and based on mutual respect and love. It develops slowly at the gladiator school and blossoms into a full-fledged romance. It’s a clear distinction between the Romans and the slaves: subservience vs. independence.
The character of Antoninas offers an even more specific case study. Antoninas is a scholar and a singer who was given as a gift to Crassus. In the “Oysters and Snails” sequence, Crassus has Antoninas bathe him and is wantonly prepping Antoninas for a homosexual encounter (this scene was cut from the original theatrical release due to the obviousness of this subtext and the prudish Hollywood standards). Though the scene is softly shot through a veil, with the flickering candlelight of a romantic scene, the language used by Crassus is all about dominance. After the bath, Crassus intimidates Antoninas with the power of Rome, “No man can withstand her, no nation. How much less a boy?”. It’s an uncomfortable sequence, which makes the following surprise more effective: Antoninas escapes Crassus’s compound and defects to Spartacus’s slave rebellion.
There, Antoninas wants to learn to fight. But, his singing talents and prestidigitation are a rousing hit in the camp. Here, his gifts are appreciated and given freely, and his intelligence is an inspiration to Spartacus. Just after Antoninas sings a beautiful song about returning home, Spartacus laments his ignorance and sharp edges, “An animal can learn to fight. But to sing beautiful things, and make people believe them . . .” Later, he wishes that he could learn things: how to read, where the wind comes from, and why the moon changes shape. Antoninas is inspired by the combat prowess and leadership of Spartacus. Spartacus is inspired by the intellect and artistry of Antoninas. This relationship dynamic, based on mutual value and inspiration, is completely contrary to the forceful relationship that Crassus had in mind.
Later, the character of Varinia can be thought of in a similar vein. Antoninas freely escapes from Crassus to Spartacus. Varinia is forcibly transferred from Spartacus to Crassus. Given the freedom to choose, both of these characters choose Spartacus. Again, the relationship that each man has with Varinia is informative, with the key difference being the degree of freedom. Spartacus and Varinia share a dream of freedom, of raising their son to never know the life of a slave. Spartacus looks to her for strength, as she looks to him.
Crassus struggles to understand this dynamic and can only substitute gifts and threats. Batiatus characterizes Varinia’s defiance to Gracchus in the language of a slaver, “The more chains you put on her, the less she looks like a slave. And you feel like she would submit to the right man, which is irritating.” Once Crassus has legal dominion over Varinia, he begins to learn precisely what Batiatus means. Though her freedom is snuffed out and she will do whatever he says, he wants her to willingly submit. But, she can never do that for him. He is the diametric opposite of the one man she does love and has submitted to. We begin to understand his frustration and even his fear at the power of a free man like Spartacus.
In Spartacus, Kirk Douglas and Dalton Trumbo craft a plot brimming with heroism and populate it with multi-dimensional characters on each side of an ideological rift. The characters have defined roles, interesting relationships, and nuanced conflicts. The contrasting worldviews of these characters convey most of the drama and themes of the film, and the plotting pits them against each other in a rousing conflict of muscles and minds. It’s a masterful expression of a timeless subject – the fight for freedom. Kubrick would take this grand subject and apply his signature visual style to further develop these same ideas.
Part II: Cinematography, Editing, and Subtext
As previously mentioned, Spartacus was the only film where Kubrick did not have a hand in writing or producing, nor did he have final cut privileges. Thus, it is difficult to attribute the story, characters, and plot (all elements of the subject) to Kubrick. But the style of the film – especially with regards to the cinematography and editing, is somewhere he could flex his muscles. Since this is Stanley Kubrick we’re talking about, it is also expected of him to imbue the film with a rich subtext, and we see much of that in Spartacus.
Cinematographer Russell Metty and Stanley Kubrick did not get along well. Kubrick began his career as a still photographer and was a veritable expert when it came to cameras, lenses, and photography. When he asked for something specific, he demanded absolute compliance. There are many reported incidents of Kubrick and Metty butting heads over a specific shot or a use of light, to the point that Kubrick eventually told Metty, “You can do your job by sitting in your chair and shutting up. I’ll be the director of photography.”
So, the camera on Spartacus was Kubrick’s. And his cinematography is both interesting and thematic throughout the film, but especially in the first act (which you’ll recall he considered the most interesting). Here, Kubrick uses intelligent framing, shifting viewpoints, a dim color palette, and shadow to convey the subservient life of the slaves and the altogether grimness of their existence.
As a starting point, consider the first time our two main characters visit Batiatus’s gladiator school: Spartacus in a wagon full of slaves, and Crassus astride a horse and then in attendance with Batiatus and the other Romans. Batiatus talks over both sequences, but the framing makes it clear that Spartacus and Crassus are the focal points. Kubrick frames Spartacus in the foreground and center, with Batiatus out of focus in the background. Later, as Crassus throws his requests around, he is front-and-center among five Romans – the focal point of even this rarefied congregation. Through shots and framing alone, Kubrick has established these two characters as the main ideological combatants of the film.
Kubrick also gets appreciable mileage out of shot angles as a means for typifying the imbalance of power between the slaves and the Romans. This is especially true during the arena sequence but can be seen elsewhere as well. The low angles used to show Crassus are an obvious means for making the man seem larger than life and wholly in charge. His introduction is shown in a rather distant mid-shot with him astride his horse, but the low angle still conveys his power. Much later in the film, the Roman senators (especially Gracchus) are shown orating from similar angles. The framing props these men up in the viewer’s mind and establishes their political power over the lives of the slaves.
By direct contrast, the slaves and gladiators are shot straight-away or even from slightly high angles – at least until they escape or are in moments of power. The gladiator school has a lot of this, but nowhere is it more brazen than in the fight between Draba and Spartacus, which flits between extremely high angles to show the Roman point of view and extremely low angles to suck the viewer into the plight of the gladiators. As the Romans “enjoy” the fight, the gladiators look small, insignificant, and cheap. Down in the pit, they appear grand, strong, and potent. This spontaneous shift further illuminates the contrasting life styles: for the Romans, this is a lark; for the gladiators, it is their entire lives.
This same sequence also sports another visual motif used by Kubrick throughout the first act: shooting through a barrier to imply the captivity of the slaves. In the arena match, Spartacus is often shown through Draba’s net, indicating that there is no way for him to escape this trial. But usually, Kubrick accomplishes a similar feat by shooting through the metal bars of the gladiator school. This is apparent whenever the gladiators are confined, but it is most obvious in the sequence where the Roman women select the four men they wish to see fight to the death. The shots from both perspectives, the slaves and the Romans, are framed by the metal bars of prison. The captivity, and the subservience, are omnipresent.
Kubrick’s use of shadows and darkness in the gladiator school serve a similar goal. The lodgings of the slaves are all dim and dark, with shadows falling over the slaves continuously. It’s a world without light or hope. Even in rare moments of escape, like the meeting of Spartacus and Varinia, the two characters move around and cast each other in their own shadows. Hence, when the sickening voyeuristic plot of Batiatus is revealed, it has already been shown that one cannot escape the darkness in this place. This darkness is an aspect of many other cinematic techniques employed by Kubrick, from fades to black to stolid static shots in the recesses of the jails.
Aspects involving camera movement, editing choices, and other stylistic elements relate to the way Kubrick injects momentum and movement into Spartacus. Though related to the overall cinematography, these elements focus on the movement in the shots and the things in them, as well as specific editing choices. We’ll look at two different categories here: the camera movements within shots (including pans and zooms), and the connection of shots through various transitional editing choices, especially fades, dissolves, and Kubrick’s heavy reliance on montage.
There are two specific camera movements that Kubrick employs to communicate meaning to the audience. These are far subtle than the grandiose tracking shots that we saw in Paths of Glory, but they are still there. Both shots foreshadow a crucial moment where the story will change dramatically, one between the first and second act, and one between the second and third. These are the shots of the slaves the night before the rebellion, and the grandiose army shots preceding the climactic battle between the gladiator army and the Romans. In each, specific camera movements add depth and meaning to otherwise flat scenes.
The night that Draba is killed, the slaves are all marched past his body and thrown into their cells. As the Romans sleep, there are multiple shots of slaves sitting in their cells, staring off into the distance. One of the shots pauses and zooms in on the slave. What could be interpreted as a morose sadness from the slaves is transformed into something more aggressive by this single camera movement. Now, this man is not the owner of a passive, beaten mind, but of a vengeful one deep in thought. It’s incredibly subtle but clearly meant to imbue the slaves with the energy that explodes in the next sequence.
A similar slight camera movement later distinguishes the Roman army as supremely skilled and disciplined, portending the domination of the slave army. Kubrick directed these gigantic army scenes from the top of custom-built towers, barking directions at eight thousand extras plucked from the Spanish infantry. The movements of the troops are precise and coordinated, and Kubrick’s control of the camera reflects this expertise. Again, it is a subtle movement, but it is so much more effective at conveying the expertise and the trouble that the slaves are in than a simple static shot would.
Before we move directly to the editing techniques used by Kubrick, there is a sequence at the beginning of the gladiator training that shows just how quick and subtle Kubrick can be. The sequence is when Marcellus attempts to goad Spartacus into fighting him and shares many of the camera techniques that we’ve seen before, most notably the high-angle shot of Spartacus to make him appear small and weak. But, there is also an editing technique here, and an “error” that breaks one of the most fundamental rules of editing: In this stand-off between the practiced Gladiator who won his own freedom and the proud newcomer, Kubrick breaks (or at least harshly bends) the 180° rule.
The 180° rule is pretty simple: if you draw a line between your two characters in one shot, make sure you keep the camera on the same side of that line in subsequent shots. Keep the left character on the left, and the right character on the right. If you swap these without an establishing shot in between, it can radically confuse the audience. Here, Kubrick subverts the norm by intentionally breaking the rule. There’s a mid-ground over-the-shoulder two-shot showing Spartacus on the left and Marcellus on the right. The next shot is a close-up, with Spartacus on the right and Marcellus on the left. The 180° rule has been broken, and the audience is disoriented – mirroring the disorientation of Spartacus, who has just been challenged with a quandary. It’s subtle and fast, yet conveys the entire emotional state of our main character – all by taking advantage of cinematic conventions and subverting them for Kubrick’s own purpose (he’ll do this again in The Shining).
Other editing techniques are more conventional but no less effective. Scenes with thematic importance, such as the first meeting between Spartacus and Varinia, are punctuated with fades to black, drawing attention to the scene. By contrast, Kubrick makes extensive use of dissolves between shots in the gladiator school, giving the impression that the days stretch together for the enslaved into one interminable experience.
This is further developed by an extensive use of montage. In the gladiator school, these are mostly focused around training the slaves, but later on Kubrick uses the montage to show the exploits of the slaves, their burgeoning economy, and the trials and tribulations of their march to the sea. I didn’t specifically count all the montages, but I would guess that there are more montage sequences in Spartacus than in the rest of Kubrick’s films combined. This is one of the glaring weaknesses of the film, as it gives the latter acts a dullness and a repetition that saps some of the energy of the film.
Finally, this being Stanley Kubrick, there are a multitude of subtextual aspects to Spartacus. Some of these are to be found in the writing, so credit is due to Dalton Trumbo as well. First, specific language in the film clearly casts the slaves as low, non-humans, as “others”. The opening narration (a hallmark of early Kubrick, as both The Killing and Paths of Glory began similarly) introduces the hero by saying, “A slave added to her master’s wealth” by giving birth to Spartacus. The idea of slaves as property continues unabated, but it is specifically conveyed through myriad comparisons to animals. Spartacus is referred to as a “stallion” and is branded along with the other slaves, and the Roman women instruct the guards to “slit their throats like chickens” if the slaves don’t fight. Of course, this sentiment is roundly rejected in the brilliant scene between Spartacus and Varinia where Spartacus declares, “I am not an animal”, and Varinia echoes, “Neither am I”.
This direct answer to Roman convention and power is also evident in the tendency of the slaves to appropriate the tools of their captivity to aid in their freedom. Guards’ weapons, soup, cooking instruments, the grill, and even prison bars are used as weapons by the slaves in the direct aftermath of their rebellion. These were all tools used to keep them subservient, re-purposed to effect their liberation. Later, this is extended to the intellectual realm, as the slaves apply their skills to serve the slave rebellion army, from loom work and cooking to combat training and performance art.
Multiple aspects of Roman culture express a rich subtext as well. In another hallmark of Kubrick, the Roman Senate hall is adorned with a chessboard-style floor, indicating the maneuvering and strategy inherent in politics. The “board” is only 7 squares on its shortest side, potentially reiterating the corruption and unreached ideal of Rome. Gracchus and Crassus both make statements about belief in the gods of Rome that suggest that religion is a tool to manipulate the masses. Glabrus’s scepter is snapped in two by Spartacus, an obvious emasculation that is finalized during his interrogation by the Senate. Crassus’s decision to adorn a captive Varinia in the style and ornament of a rich Roman (both the clothing and the jewelry) is just an expression of fancier fetters.
Finally, Spartacus deals heavily in political and religious themes. The film was written by a blacklisted author, based off a novel by a blacklisted author, so the themes of intellectual exploration and free speech amid persecution are obvious. Crassus rabble-rousing the rest of the Romans and his acquisition of the mantle of dictator can be seen as stand-ins for Senator McCarthy, Hedda Hopper, and other champions of the anti-communist movement in 1950s Hollywood. Similarly, the iconic “I’m Spartacus” sequence (which Kubrick attempted to remove for fear it was too on-the-nose), suggests the “proper” response of being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee: solidarity. At least, according to Trumbo and Fast, who each refused to “name names” and served the prison sentence instead. References to Christianity abound as well. Spartacus, “Prays to a God of Slaves . . . for a son who’ll be born free”, a potential reference to Christ, and he dies by crucifixion (as do many other slaves).
Though Spartacus was not under the full control of Kubrick, the visionary director was still quite capable of leaving his signature on the stylistic elements of the film. This is apparent in stunning wide-shots of entire armies, quiet zooms in dark cellars, and subtle framing choices. Other directors could have taken over at the helm of this film and produced a reasonable Swords-and-Sandals epic. But Spartacus endures to this day because of the absurd technical prowess and attention to detail imparted by Stanley Kubrick.
These stylistic choices convey some of the same ideas and themes as Trumbo and Douglas explored with the subject of the slave rebellion of Spartacus. Though Kubrick, Trumbo, and Douglas all had different viewpoints, intentions, and desires with this film, they were able to collaborate effectively and earn precisely what they wanted out of the deal: Douglas got to star in his epic, Trumbo got to undermine the Hollywood Blacklist, and Kubrick got to earn acclaim by directing one of the most expensive films in the history of Hollywood to both critical and commercial success. The result was Spartacus, probably the least Kubrickian film in all of Kubrick’s career, but still a cinematic powerhouse.
Thank you for reading my essay on Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, the third essay in a year-long series. If you enjoyed it sufficiently, be sure to share it by clicking the embarrassingly obvious buttons below, and be on the lookout for April’s film: Lolita. You can also sign up for email updates whenever a new post is published on Plot and Theme, just so you don’t miss anything (a waking nightmare of yours, I’m sure).