Until Spartacus, the Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic was synonymous with the biblical or triumph-of-Christ epic (Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, etc.).
Kirk Douglas, who both produced and starred in Spartacus, is Jewish, and for his sword-and-sandal epic chose a pre-Christian, non-biblical subject: Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus, inspired by the true story of a first-century BC gladiatorial slave uprising that shook decadent Rome to its foundations.
Though pre-Christian, Spartacus prefigures and provides historical context to the Gospel story in intriguing ways — most obviously in the bold climax, the film’s greatest strength. Spartacus doesn’t entirely escape the melodrama, cheesiness, and anachronistic hairstyles that afflict the genre and period, but the comparative frankness of the politics, sexuality, and violence, and especially the downbeat third act and memorable finale give it a dramatic heft beyond its predecessors. The decadence and corruption of Rome, too, is vividly contrasted with the wholesome, family-oriented society of the rebel slaves.
Douglas is a strong, manly actor, but for some reason he doesn’t quite achieve the commanding presence needed in a rebel slave whom other rebel slaves will follow unhesitatingly to freedom or death. He projects intelligence, passion, and dignity, but a certain primal quality is somehow lacking. It’s interesting to compare his performance to that of Charleton Heston in Ben-Hur; Douglas is more nuanced, but Heston has an iconic quality that sells the character and the story.
The best performance in the film is Peter Ustinov as the ironic, venal Batiatus, a trainer and seller of gladiators, who gets the best lines and delivers them with relish. At the other end of the spectrum is laughably miscast Tony Curtis as the slave-minstrel Antoninus, whose highly unmusical efforts at "song," delivered in Curtis’s heavy Bronx accent, fail even as camp.
Though veiled homosexual innuendo can be found even in Ben-Hur, some particularly blunt (but still veiled) dialogue with Laurence Olivier’s decadent Crassus flirting with Antoninus during a bath scene was originally cut from the 1960 film; decades later it was restored, with Curtis re-recording his own dialogue and Anthony Hopkins subbing for Olivier.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.