I started a post about Spartacus back when Tony Curtis died, but quailed at the positively Herculean task that was taking it to pieces bit by bit, and left it for a while! There’s an important clue about Spartacus in the opening credits, which note that the screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, based on a novel by Howard Fast. Not based on history, or on Appian or Plutarch; on a novel. Spartacus is about story and scale and (sometimes) emotion, but it is not about history.
With that in mind, I’m not going to pick over every little detail of historical accuracy or inaccuracy in Spartacus. I will note a few of the major ones, which are fairly well known. Spartacus wasn’t born a slave as far as we know and he was never a slave in a mine in Libya – mining slaves usually died within a year or two and no lanista in his right mind would travel all the way from Capua to Libya to buy mining slaves. Julius Caesar didn’t invade Britain until 55 BC and Britain wasn’t properly conquered AD 43, so Varinia being British is unlikely at best. Gracchus appears to have been transplanted from the 120s BC, and the patricians were a group of families, not a ‘party’. Spartacus himself was probably killed in the final battle with Crassus’ troops, and his body was never found – he wasn’t crucified with his people, though the reason for that change is fairly obvious.
It’s also worth looking at the opening prologue, a really classic bit of Hollywood History, in some detail. The full prologue is: ‘In the last century before the birth of the new faith called Christianity, which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome and bring about a new society, the Roman Republic stood at the very centre of the civilized world... Yet, even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in the shadows for the event to bring it forth.’
1. Christianity did not ‘overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome’. The Western Empire was Christian for a century before it fell and the Eastern Empire, as the Byzantine Empire, continued as a Christian empire until 1453. The Empire became Christian in AD 312, but the tyranny continued just fine.
2. The ‘centre of the civilised world’ bit depends what you mean by the world. I’m sure the Romans themselves would have agreed, but I think there were some pretty impressive civilisations in Asia who would beg to differ.
3.Slavery exists in most human societies to a greater or lesser extent; banning it is the exception, not the rule. Presumably the implication is that Christianity led to its end, which is also inaccurate. Christians and Stoics recommended that slaves should be treated well, but they did not start to argue for the end of slavery until the eighteenth century.
4.The bit about the coming of dictatorship is more accurate – Spartacus’ revolt took place in between the dictatorship of Sulla and the rise of Julius Caesar. But the emphasis on it is rather nakedly influenced by 20th century politics.
The restored scene between Laurence Olivier’s Crassus and Tony Curtis’s Antoninus is interesting. The voices are very good; when you know, you can tell it’s actually Anthony Hopkins and a much older Tony Curtis but it wouldn’t be overly noticeable if you didn’t know. The scene itself seems pretty tame to modern eyes, despite the literally steamy setting. There are a couple of problems with it, though. Firstly, the whole conversation is based on the idea that some people think sexual relations between members of the same gender to be inherently immoral. Romans didn’t think that. It was considered emasculating and effeminate for a man to be the passive sex partner, but no one had a moral problem with a Roman man being the active partner with a male slave.
The other problem is that it seems pretty clear to me that this conversation is what prompts Antoninus to run off and join Spartacus. While, obviously, a male slave wouldn’t want to be sexually assaulted any more than a female slave would, Crassus is pretty clearly painted as the bad guy throughout the film, even being credited with helping to spark off the whole rebellion in the first place. In that context, the implication of Crassus, the only non-heterosexual character in the film, as a lecherous villain from whom Antoninus flees while Spartacus and everyone around him spend their whole time when they’re not fighting making babies and even have to specify that they love each other 'like my own father/son', seems distinctly off and out-dated to me.
And why is Crassus wearing a Celtic torc?! I can only assume it’s meant to look slightly effeminate.
There are elements of Roman society that are well represented in the film. Although no one, Spartacus included, actually attempted to overthrow the institution of slavery, the way slaves are treated and the interactions between masters and slaves are well represented. I especially like the emphasis on the horror of being sold on at your master’s will. I also like the scene in which Spartacus refuses Varinia, not because he’s afflicted with twentieth-century nobility, but because he doesn’t want an audience. His screams of ‘I am not an animal!’ make sense to me as something a Roman slave would feel that might eventually incite him to rebel (even as they have me expecting to hear ‘I am not a number! I am a free man!’). The institution of slavery was never questioned, but it seems very plausible that such excessive humiliation might drive someone (especially if they had not been born a slave) to feel especially aggrieved on their own behalf and to take a more violent route rather than trying to buy or win their freedom, which was the normal method. I love Varinia’s calm reply, which gives some reason for the affection that grows up between them even though they are hardly able to talk to each other again until much later.
Spartacus is a great film but I must confess, I’ve never been able to summon up the affection for it that I have for Ben-Hur. I haven’t seen all that many of Kubrick’s films, but I think the coldness with which he directs might be part of it. Spartacus and Varinia’s relationship is sweet and Spartacus, who barely speaks and seems entirely composed of generalised aggression during the first part of the film, gains a bit more character as the story goes on, but hardly anyone else among the rebels has any discernible personality and all the shots of cute children in the world can’t make up for that. Crassus and Batiatus are a bit more rounded, largely because they’re played by Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov, both of whom could read the phone book and make it exciting, but Marcellus is a cardboard cut-out bad guy who’s thoroughly nasty, but not very interesting. Up against Ben-Hur’s conflicted, imperfect hero and impetuous but ultimately regretful ‘bad guy’, there’s no contest.
The set-pieces are less thrilling too. The initial breakout from the ludus is well done and fairly exciting but the battles after that blend into each other a bit for me and can be rather slow, like the section where Crassus’ army take aaaaages to reach the waiting rebels. Presumably it’s supposed to build tension but I just get bored waiting for the action to start. I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, I can’t help it – I want instant gratification!
The best thing about the legendary ‘I am Spartacus!’ scene is that it reinforces a central aspect of slavery – Crassus watched Spartacus fight back at the beginning, and it was a memorable fight, so you’d imagine that even after two years he might remember something of what Spartacus looks like (especially given that chin dimple!). But he can’t remember anything. He can remember the slave who tried to kill him, but not the other – a stark reminder of how little a slave’s life could mean to a master (undercut when he does eventually remember him, but still). Plus, 6000 people die for Spartacus, which is terribly, terribly noble of them all.
There are occasional whiffs of Robin Hood in this version of Spartacus' story. Crassus calls him an 'outlaw' and all those shots of the poor people he's helping, along with the story of the beautiful woman the money-grubbing enemy takes (not to mention deliberate lack of attention to historical detail), all have me half-expecting to see Errol Flynn gallop over the hill. The difference, of course, is that Robin Hood, in most of his incarnations, is much more fun. Spartacus couldn't possibly take such a gung-ho approach when it's dealing with such serious subject matter, so it's left with noble intentions and a fair amount of posturing.
The film looks fantastic (even the matte paintings are awfully pretty) and there are some really powerful individual scenes in it, but they tend to be a bit on the episodic side. Still, it’s hard not to be moved by a film which ends with a historically accurate crucifixion of 6000 people. Plus, the maneuovering of Batiatus and escape of Varinia and the baby, and the final tearful goodbye (because apparently they're travelling north to France via the road that goes south) are fabulous, even if by this point you're desperate for the bathroom because it's soooooo loooooooong... sooo loooonnnnggggg....
Whadd'ya mean, the Romans didn't have eyelash curlers?!