‘I am Spartacus: set me free’, murmurs Peter Sellers’s Quilty in Lolita. It is a witty reference back to Kubrick’s previous film and his sense of imprisonment on that multi-million dollar epic. Having replaced director Anthony Mann, who had quarrelled with Kirk Douglas, Kubrick also found himself at odds with the star/executive producer and virtually disowned the film.
Whatever the source of their tension, the film’s resulting ambivalence is actually highly intriguing. To judge from interviews, Douglas saw the revolt of the slaves against Rome as a symbol of man’s unquenchable desire for liberation over oppression. Looking at it from the perspective of Kubrick’s career, however, one is more struck by Spartacus’s rebellion as another example of a foolproof plan that goes wrong. The contrast complicates and enriches our view of Spartacus, a romantic vision of him as heroic liberator offset by a military view of him as a tactical blunderer.
Spartacus as romantic hero is further undercut by the perfunctory handling of the love scenes. Kubrick seems more interested in exploring the impact of the slaves’ rebellion on the power games within Rome. Here the superb performances of Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov come into prominence, epitomising a society that oozes aristocratic decadence, calculating slyness and obsequious opportunism. When the Roman army prepares for its final assault on Spartacus’s spent forces, the camera moves to an aerial view of the Romans’ elaborate cohort formation. The effect is both majestic and chilling: a salute to their military strategy, and a coldly ironic lookoneither the first nor the last of such visions in Kubrickoat what is essentially a hyper-efficient killing machine.U.S.A., 1960.Colour.Super Technirama 70.Stereo sound.169 mins.
We will be showing the 70mm restored version of ‘Spartacus’ (1990), which contains scenes that were cut from the 1960 release prints.