Douglas does Gladiator School
There is no denying that "Spartacus" is an impressive movie, epic in scale and full of drama and action but at the same time it is a movie which is flawed, flaws which stop it from being great. As such for everything which is great about "Spartacus" such as the impressive sets, the action packed fights and the performances of Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov you have the issues such as dodgy accents and characters such as Jean Simmons's Varinia looking far too perfect as a slave. It is these issues which constantly raise their ugly heads and stops "Spartacus" being the amazing movie it should have been and are the main reason why watching the movie now you find yourself occasionally laughing when you shouldn't. But having said that for a movie which is 187 minutes long "Spartacus" is entertaining and keeps you interested despite by today's standards having a middle section which meanders along never really going anywhere.
Having been raised as a slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) finds himself being saved from death when slave trader Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov - Logan's Run) buys him and takes him to his gladiator school to be trained as a fighter. It is whilst there that Spartacus not only learns the skills of a fighter but falls for fellow slave Varinia (Jean Simmons). But when first general of the republic Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) buys her it leads to Spartacus leading his fellow gladiators in an uprising, an uprising which leads to Spartacus leading a legion of slaves on a journey across Italy looking to escape from the Roman Empire. But Spartacus's army of slaves doesn't go unnoticed at the Senate where there is a power struggle between First senator Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and first general Crassus, leading Crassus to devise a plan to stop Spartacus in his march for freedom.
"Spartacus" is based upon on the true story of a slave revolt almost 100 years BC and turned into a movie by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. In fact one of the things which "Spartacus" is now known for is being critical in ending the blacklisting, with Kirk Douglas insisting that Trumbo was properly credited for his work instead of having to hide behind a pseudonym. And you have to say that Trumbo's screen play is pretty decent as we follow Spartacus from being a slave where he is sold to Lentulus Batiatus to be trained as a Gladiator. What follows on from there is not so much about Spartacus being turned into a fighting machine, as has been the case with more recent similar movies, but his breaking away and leading his fellow gladiators and slaves in an uprising, forming an army. And at the centre of this, the partial cause of Spartacus's uprising is his love of Varinia who is sold to Marcus Licinius Crassus.
But whilst we follow Spartacus's journey from slave to becoming their leader, leading them into battle against Roman armies you have the political side of things with duplicitous politicians in Rome. Now to be honest it is this side of the movie which bored me, as to be honest I am not that into the historical side of things and Roman political battles. But then all of this does pave the way for the now notorious snails and oysters scene where we have Tony Curtis bathing Laurence Olivier and Olivier's character trying to seduce him. It is almost comical to watch now as Olivier's Marcus Licinius Crassus enquires of Curtis's Antoninus whether he likes snails or oysters but at the same time adds something different to the movie however brief that scene is.
Whilst I may not enjoy the political side of "Spartacus" it does interweave with the slave uprising and makes for what is a compelling storyline. Part of the reason why it is compelling is that for all the action and political arguing it does deliver some high impact scenes. There is of course the iconic "I am Spartacus" scene but also watching the slaves walk down a road where their fellow slaves are hung from crosses, crucified lining the road side is surprisingly shocking. I say surprisingly shocking because for all the grittiness it would be wrong to say that "Spartacus" is realistic and often softens the truth of what life was like for slaves and gladiators under Roman rule. But then in an almost ironic way, having softened the grittiness of the truth "Spartacus" doesn't chicken out by delivering an uplifting cop out ending, it ends with the unexpected. You could say it's a mixed bag because "Spartacus" isn't realistic when it comes to showing how things were but then it delivers more grittiness and surprises than you would expect from a movie made for the masses.
One of the main reasons why "Spartacus" is an impressive movie is because it is epic in every sense of the word. Just watching the final battle which sees Spartacus large army of slaves flanked by two massive Roman armies and you can't but help notice that there must have been over 10,000 extras in those scenes alone. And that is not just the only impressive thing as the actual battle which ensues with flaming logs rolled down hills and hand to hand combat is mesmerising. But even before you get to this impressive epic final battle "Spartacus" is still visually impressive from the stunning landscapes through to the sets such as Batatus's Gladiator school. "Spartacus" is a movie which every time you watch you notice something else, something which impresses that you can't believe you missed first time around,
Making "Spartacus" even more impressive are 3 very solid performances. Kirk Douglas seems to have a point to prove as he makes Spartacus a multi layered character going from this volatile slave, into a leader of men. And so whilst you have those elements of Douglas you see in many of his movies from his charisma and fighting spirit it is in the quieter moments, the moments of heart break which Douglas delivers a performance which is stunning. If Douglas's performance does impress you have to say that Laurence Olivier makes Marcus Licinius Crassus a fascinating character especially during the attempted seduction of Antoninus. And then there is Peter Ustinov who may seem a little camp as Lentulus Batiatus, owner of the Gladiator school, but it is a performance which draws you into his character. These three are not alone as Charles Laughton is good as Sempronius Gracchus as is Herbert Lom as Tigranes Levantus.
But then you have the problem and that is there are various characters who end up being plainly wrong. Whilst I think Jean Simmons was a stunning actress the fact that she plays slave Varinia with a very English accent and rarely looks like she has a hair out of place is simply wrong. And Simmons is not alone as the accents and portrayals from Tony Curtis and John Ireland serve up the same issues. And it is these problems over the characters which ends up spoiling "Spartacus" and stops it for me from being an absolutely amazing movie rather than just a great one. So annoying are these issues, especially watching "Spartacus" now that there are scenes which now border on the comical.
What this all boils down to is that "Spartacus" is a great movie and whilst certain elements date it slightly is still entertaining to watch now over 50 years since it was made. The storyline, action, drama and romance make it compelling despite being over 3 hours long and the trio of performances from Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov help to lift it when it seems to be dragging its feet. But sadly the lack of authenticity when it comes to the characters with the accents being very wrong and occasionally looking wrong ends up stopping "Spartacus" from being the absolutely amazing movie it could have been.