Reflections on "Spartacus"

Written by Dalton Trumbo

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton,

Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

This film from 1960 recounts the true and inspiring story of Spartacus and his fellow slaves who led a revolt against their Roman enslavement often referred to as the Third Servile War, in or around 72 BC. More broadly speaking, the film presents a denunciation of slavery and any society that prospers by incorporating subservience and subjugation in its ethos and laws.

The Roman Empire was founded on a society that embraced slavery, developed it and thrived on it, making it an integral part of social and economic systems for centuries. In the film, we are invited to observe the customs, attitudes and workings of this society, and the potential consequences of slavery, through a variety of Romans as well as slaves.

The quarry guards at the start of the film set the scene, showing no regard for the well-being, dignity or worth of their slave charges and treating them as animals to be commanded and directed.

Batiatus, the owner of a local gladiatorial training school, arrives at the quarry in search of candidates for training. He treats the slaves as objects or animals to be inspected, judged and bought if considered a worthwhile investment. Batiatus is depicted as cunning, obsequious and cowardly, but he is not cruel or vindictive. He accepts the status quo and acts as a typical Roman citizen, pursuing his own best interests in the established social order, fawning over Patrician visitors of high social rank while displaying little or no consideration for his slaves' feelings, rights or thoughts. They are an investment, objects to be used, trained and sold off at profit with no thought for their self-respect or destinies.

The trainers at the school may be men who have fought as gladiators and received their freedom for having pleased their masters in the arena. As such, and having known the conditions and social position of slave-gladiators, they enjoy exercising authority over Spartacus and his co-slaves, seizing the opportunity to feel superior to someone and boosting their self-image.

The upper end of the social spectrum is represented by Crassus, one of the wealthiest men in Rome and one who seeks ways to realise his Patrician ambitions to become ruler of Rome and its Empire. He arrives at the gladiator school with some noble friends who wish to see a display of gladiatorial skill, including a fight to the death. Batiatus is most reluctant to accede to their request, realising the consequences on mood and morale of his trainees, but these noble visitors insist, offer to pay Batiatus well and go on to treat the spectacle of two men fighting to the death as mere entertainment and even haughtily and distractedly discuss matters of politics and position in the course of the life-and-death combat. This reveals a quite shocking indifference toward the lives of these slaves, but also toward humanity as a whole.

We are also introduced to Senator Gracchus, an ageing and wily opponent of Crassus who keeps slaves but is determined to maintain a happy household. His is the slightly more acceptable and more human face of Roman dictatorship. He even appears willing, at one point, to allow Spartacus and his followers to leave Italy, but can he survive the political chicanery at play, and the desire to protect and maintain Rome's position and power based on authority and the merciless exercise of its might?

In terms of its attitude toward those who enabled it to survive, thrive and prosper, Roman society is portrayed as condescending, dismissive, self-centred and decadent. It sowed the seeds of its own destruction as it instigated and incited resentment and hatred based on a profound sense of injustice. The very lack of hope and expectation that permeated treatment of slaves and the lower orders, and which was intended to facilitate subjugation and compliance, only served to nourish bitterness, courage and daring among our slave-gladiators - if people are left with no reason to live, they may as well die in trying to find one.

From the opening scenes in the quarry, emphasis is laid on the deprivation of freedom, rights, dignity and personal choice of slaves. They are viewed as human objects, there to do the bidding of their master. Enslaved as a result of conquest, defeat or from birth, they are divested of hope and expectation as they belong to another.

Spartacus has refused to bow to this destiny and he displays resentment as he rebels against quarry guards who show no humanity or compassion toward weak and exhausted slave workers. In contrast, Spartacus shows a desire to help a fellow slave worker but is punished for it.

In training, he shows intelligence, self-control and some warmth toward his fellow slave-gladiators. When offered the company of Varinia as a reward for his performance in training, he shows respect and behaves with dignity, refusing to take advantage of her. Again contrasting with his Roman captors, Spartacus favours empathy, compassion and sincerity. He develops feelings for Varinia which he conveys through the gentle touch of a hand, a touch Varinia finds almost overwhelming as, like all the slave women at the training school, she is treated as a chattel to be used by her master as he sees fit, with no consideration of her feelings or emotions.

Communication and camaraderie are frowned upon or forbidden - fellow trainee Draba explains to Spartacus that offers of friendship are to be rebuffed as gladiators may have to kill one another in the arena. However, this common experience of brutality and a fight for survival creates its own underlying bond. Suffering unites and a spark of humanity and caring can be enough to ignite a sense of fraternity and rebellion, and may result in solidarity founded on loyalty, hope and above all a respect for the humanity and compassion of which they have been deprived. These elements, leading to community, spirit and mutual affection, cannot be matched by Rome's discipline and offers of self-advancement.

This is embodied in the vain attempts of Crassus to win the respect and affection of Varinia after the defeat of the rebellion. Crassus fails to comprehend the difference between wealth, comfort and position and respect, principle and sincerity, suggesting that lower social orders, through experiencing deprivation, may have learned more about what is important in life than wealthy, conquering Romans.

The film is largely faithful to genuine historical events, though records are incomplete and poetic licence has been taken for dramatic purposes. Spartacus was indeed a Thracian but it is reckoned he may have spent time as a soldier and been sold into slavery after a defeat, especially given his skills in military strategy.

The script by Dalton Trumbo is literate, engaging and human. It incorporates references and details offering historical information on the lives of slaves and gladiators but this is personalised as the script focuses on Spartacus and his fellow slaves. Of course, the points made can be applied to many oppressed groups who find strength and humanity in the face of victimisation and injustice.

It is interesting to note that it is Draba, the African slave gladiator, who initially rebels against Roman callousness and indifference and whose death inspires and motivates the others to rebel, perhaps drawing attention to the situation of African Americans and the civil rights movement in early 1960s America.

The famous and immensely moving scene in which rebel slaves refuse to denounce Spartacus and proclaim "I am Spartacus", thus sharing responsibility and condemning themselves to death, was undoubtedly a reference to events surrounding the House Un-American Activities Committee. This group investigated so-called communist infiltration of American society in the 1950s and condemned numerous Hollywood scriptwriters, many of whom refused to denounce others and paid the price by being blacklisted. Dalton Trumbo was himself blacklisted and his inclusion on the film's list of credits is famously considered to have helped break the embargo on targeted writers.

The direction by Stanley Kubrick is intelligent, clear and emotionally engaging, and the music by Alex North complements and enhances both the battle and more intimate scenes.

In terms of performance, Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier make their characters human and multi-facetted, lending complexity and compassion to what could easily have been two-dimensional antagonistic roles, while Jean Simmons beautifully conveys the resignation, hope and inspiration of her character. While Batiatus plays an essential role in the drama and general proceedings, Peter Ustinov manages to imbue his character with a certain vulnerability and even some comic relief. Kirk Douglas wreaks sincerity and belief in the cause which underpins his film, and this is certainly one of the highlights of his long and illustrious career.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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