A deep dive into the workings of Stanley Kubrick masterpiece ‘Spartacus’


Spartacus may have been the film that made Stanley Kubrick’s career what it was. The brilliant director had already achieved a level of success in Hollywood, mainly with his 1950 drama, Paths of Glory, but it was the big-budget 1960 spectacular, Spartacus, which gave him recognition, and the freedom to pursue the less mainstream projects that followed, including Lolita (1962), Doctor Strangelove (1964), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In spite of generous funding and studio support, it was not an easy undertaking for Kubrick. Spartacus was purportedly a nightmare of conflict, censorship, disorganisation, and clashing artistic visions, from beginning to end, an ordeal for cast and crew, and a project whose very survival was in question more than once. Actor Tony Curtis was reported to have emerged from the set one day, storming to fellow actors, “who do you have to screw to get off this movie?”

To begin with, Kubrick had not originally been intended as the film’s director. Spartacus began filming under the direction of Anthony Mann, a popular and well-established Hollywood director in multiple genres. Following a mysterious dispute with the film’s star and executive producer, Kirk Douglas, Mann was quickly replaced by Stanley Kubrick before more than a few minutes’ footage was complete. Kubrick took over the production with a level of confidence that caused unrest on the set, as did his insistence on altering the film to fit his own vision. When he became dissatisfied with the cinematographer’s approach, Kubrick, a former professional photographer, took over the work himself, leaving the position ostensibly occupied by 25-year veteran technician Russell Metty, who was reduced to doing nothing. When Spartacus eventually won the Oscar for cinematography, Metty, as the credited cinematographer, was left in the humiliating position of having to accept an award he had done almost nothing to earn. Such high handed decisions, combined with Kubrick’s demanding and perfectionist directorial style, made for an uncomfortable experience on set. Kubrick’s disdain for the script did not help: he did not hide that fact that he found parts of it silly and melodramatic. Even the film’s most famous and admired scene, in which rebel slaves protect their leader by simultaneously confessing, “I am Spartacus!” was considered by Kubrick to be sentimental trash. The ultimate quality of the film owed nothing to the director’s respect for the raw material.

Problems were not limited to filming. Spartacus was made during the era of Hollywood blacklisting when suspected Communist sympathisers were prevented from working in the film industry by the broad powers of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Howard Fast, the author of the 1951 novel on which the film was based, had been imprisoned and blacklisted. No publisher would touch his novel, and Fast self-published and sold copies of Spartacus on his own, the book’s success partly due to its popularity with Fast’s supporters and fellow Communists. The association with Fast was already problematic; but the film also chose blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt it, a fact the producers kept carefully secret until after the film’s completion, hiding Trumbo’s identity behind a pen name. Associations with blacklisted writers might well have caused Universal Studios to withdraw their backing and end the project altogether. Trumbo was ultimately able to receive credit – without a pseudonym – for the script.

Spartacus is of interest for more than its complicated background. Loosely based on historical events, the film tells the story of a Roman slave uprising, mainly from the perspective of its leader, and seen from a contemporary worldview. It follows the rebellious slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), who had done only manual labour since childhood; his life changes when he is purchased and trained as a gladiator. Spartacus gradually comes to not only hate his own servitude but to despise the institution of slavery, and to see it as an offence against human dignity. A chance opportunity to escape leads to a massive slave revolt, one which threatened the significant power of Rome.

The plot alternates between the lives of Spartacus and his followers, as they evade the authorities and strategise their ultimate liberation, and the actions of the Roman senate and military leaders trying to stop them, and their various political schemes and power struggles. It is clear enough now, and would have been more so to a 1960 audience, that the plot contains indirect references to contemporary political and social conflicts. Although, as Peter Ustinov commented, the story “lends itself to all sorts of Marxist interpretations,” screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would likely not have purposely written the script as a political manifesto, according to producer Edward Lewis who had worked with Trumbo many times. Still, the original novel was rife with political implications which carried over to the film adaptation, from a patrician Roman sneering at the “college of sausage makers,” a veiled reference to 1950s anti-union activities, to the cynical plotting of the Roman senate, who try to use the slave revolt to their own political advantage. Trumbo’s script did include one line which was generally understood to be a call-out to his blacklisters: a senator saying threateningly that “the list of the disloyal has been compiled.” The political references remained mostly between the lines, allowing Spartacus to be equally popular with those who endorsed its presumed message, and those who simply enjoyed a good, lavish Hollywood movie.

At one level, the film is a fairly mainstream historical drama, similar to spectacular Hollywood epics of the time such as Ben Hur and Quo Vadis. It is magnificent—even showily extravagant—in its set and costume design, which strive for an appearance of historical accuracy, and for gritty realism in scenes depicting the lives of slaves. However, the film is taken beyond the level of a Hollywood blockbuster by two factors: the unusual subject matter—a Roman slave revolt, and the surrounding theme of human rights and human dignity—and the distinctive stamp of a Stanley Kubrick film. In an interview, Kubrick explained that he wanted to avoid “the usual approach” in filming an epic, and to direct Spartacus “as if it were Marty,” to avoid anything predictable and focus on intimate details of characters, bringing home the degradation and misery of the slaves in particular.

Scenes which might have been simply dramatic are given added depth or silent commentary by Kubrick’s creative filming choices. For example, when two centurions are made to fight to the death for the entertainment of noble spectators, the camera views their battle from above, where the wealthy chat quietly in raised seats, indifferent to the desperate struggle taking place below them. This approach is even more effective when a similar fight is seen indistinctly, viewed through cracks in a wooden enclosure where the next two combatants tensely wait their turn to fight to the death. As in all Kubrick’s films, camera work provides not only distinctive imagery, but silent commentary. Kubrick’s work raises Spartacus from a melodramatic spectacle to something more intriguing.

The cast is a noteworthy part of the production, containing an eclectic group of well-established actors. Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) was a fairly mainstream Hollywood star. Laurence Olivier plays the wealthy and influential Roman general and politician, Marcus Crassus; Charles Laughton, the aristocratic senator Tiberius Gracchus; and Peter Ustinov is Quintus Batiatus, who trains (and sells) slaves as gladiators. The impressive cast is rounded out by popular stars in secondary roles, including Jean Simmons as Spartacus’ fellow slave and lover, and John Gavin (Psycho, Imitation of Life) as a young Julius Caesar. The sheer volume of the talent from various backgrounds, along with the assortment of accents and dialects and the diverse acting styles, occasionally weighs the film down, and rumours from the time suggest the more illustrious stars may have become contentious and difficult to direct.

Peter Ustinov once reminisced about the mild competitiveness among certain cast members, noting one scene (apparently omitted from the final cut) between himself and Olivier, in which two short lines of dialogue (‘Spartacus? You’ve seen him?’ ‘Yes.’) were drawn out into a lengthy mutual display of long pauses, gestures, grimaces, and other elaborate theatrics, as the two actors play off one another. Many of the scenes have a hint of that quality, although well enough controlled that it does not distract from the film itself. The characters are written in a naturalistic way which makes them real and identifiable people rather than stock historic personages, and the cast brings them admirably to life – perhaps Peter Ustinov most of all, with his often hilarious portrayal of the amoral, self-serving, flamboyantly deferential Batiatus. Kirk Douglas recalled that Ustinov was permitted to ad-lib much of his dialogue, probably a wise decision on the director’s part.

Once completed, the film was faced with censorship over its violent battle scenes, nudity, sexually explicit scenes, a particularly gruesome execution, and what was seen as the excessively degrading treatment of Roman slaves. Negotiations and compromises resulted in multiple cuts, and still more minor cuts to accommodate local restrictions when the film was released internationally. As a result, five versions of the film exist, ranging in running time from 161 minutes to 202 minutes. The 1991 Criterion release on DVD, at 196 minutes long, is the closest to a complete version now available, following a painstaking reconstruction of the original studio version, making the film, as originally intended by the director, available to all.

(All images via Cinephillia Beyond and ASCC) 

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content