Unlike its creators, “Spartacus” (Universal, 1960) is aging gracefully. Lighter on its feet than most epics of comparable size and length, refreshingly unencumbered by Tinseltown piety (the story ends about 71 years before the birth of Jesus), and painstakingly restored, it’s better than ever. If nothing in it approaches the thrilling chariot race from “Ben Hur” or the ostentatious spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra barging through the streets of Rome, it is more consistently entertaining than those two swollen meditations on the classical world.
The story of a slave rebellion that shook the Roman republic to its foundations presents an unusually ripe opportunity for fatuous moralizing, especially when it is told by men who had only recently emerged from prison after refusing to help their government oppress its citizenry. Yet “Spartacus” wastes little breath speechifying against indefensible forms of tyranny. For this reason, Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay (from Howard Fast’s novel), may seem merely workmanlike at first hearing. But it’s better than that: if it hasn’t the facile cleverness of Robert Bolt’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” at least it is free of Bolt’s maddening pretentiousness; Trumbo doesn’t wrap platitudes in epigrams and present them as if they were The Wisdom of the Ages.
With his hair cut en brosse, Kirk Douglas looks little like my idea of a Thracian bondsman, but he sure looks great in his various gunnysack ensembles; he looks even better as a gladiator, when he wears only a burlap diaper and pull-tab galerus (mail shoulder guard). He’s incredibly photogenic—all sharp angles and muscularity, glistening under a fetching coat of oil. An actor of extremely limited resources—an adherent of the Don’t-Force-It-Get-A-Bigger-Hammer school of acting—he indicates a narrow range of emotions with terrific energy. What he lacks in breadth and depth, he attempts to make up for in brute force. He adopts a generalized mood for each scene, and then proceeds to act out isolated words, as if they had no connection to the scene as a whole. His acting is an odd combination of crude pantomime and over-emphatic speech, as if he were playing charades and Password at the same time. He’s at his worst when a scene requires him to appear to be lost in thought; he can’t do it without pulling cartoon faces. Only Joan Crawford pantomimed the act of thought with such hilarious ineptitude. Early in the picture, Douglas shares a scene with Woody Strode; in a few minutes they will fight to the death in the arena.
Douglas brays and roars and stamps about, while Strode moves not a muscle and silently acts him off the screen. So does everyone else in the picture, for that matter—Douglas is easily the worst actor in it (even Tony Curtis, as duh Singguh rof Soanggs, is better), but his energy and commitment to the material go a long way to mitigating his shortcomings.
The DVD is chiefly recommended for the hilariously scabrous commentary by Douglas, Fast, Peter Ustinov and a few others. The movie was difficult to make and many big egos were bruised in the process. Now many of those old wounds are revisited by the people who inflicted them and the ones who still nurse them. The combination of self-serving reminiscence, egomania, wounded pride and extreme old age makes some of the commentary sound like “The Sunshine Boys.”
Fast, still bitter over his dismissal as screenwriter, unable to disguise either his feelings or his motives, is perhaps the funniest—the embodiment of a peevish old coot. At first, weary pessimism checks his chagrin. But before long, Dalton Trumbo’s observations awaken his rancor, and the first sight of Kirk Douglas turns the old boy into Yosemite Sam. From then on, Fast’s commentary is a nearly unbroken stream of abuse: scorn pours from him in a feeble voice that trembles with decrepitude and dismay.
Douglas (who also produced the picture) defends himself with his own brand of demented indignation, sometimes assuming a crude display of injured innocence, other times affecting a condescending compassion for Fast, whose reason (Douglas implies) has been beguiled by paranoia. Fast sounds like a sorehead, but Douglas sounds entirely self-serving and not (ahem) perfectly truthful. He’s a lousy actor, and a worse commentator. Sadly, his commentary must have been recorded shortly after his stroke, and his diction bears its ravages, lending poignancy to his self-defense.
Both Douglas and Fast have compelling reasons to dislike each other; they both appear to be constitutionally incapable of collaborating or embracing a point of view not entirely their own. It’s not that they’re willfully dishonest, however: they simply can’t be trusted to remember things accurately. Both are highly excitable, passionate, strong-willed men—and completely unable to pretend an objectivity that they don’t have. They can’t tell a story that makes them look bad. For all these reasons, they’re unreliable commentators and they cancel each other out.
It was a brutal set to work on: the all-star cast was a rogues’ gallery of scene-stealers, egomaniacs and intriguers, each plotting to pull focus and winkle screen time away from his co-stars, each seeming to forget that the star was also the producer with the final cut. True to form, Douglas cut the film to the contours of his ego, and thereby brought all the supporting cast’s jiggery pokery to naught—with the notable exception of Peter Ustinov (prominently featured on the commentary track), who succeeded in getting his own way in everything. While the others were busily planting knives in each others’ backs, Ustinov cozied up to the boss. At once self-deprecating and self-serving—Uriah Heep with adipose—he buffaloed everyone, including Fast and Douglas, who granted him permission to write his own lines (and to “tighten” Charles Laughton’s).
Speaking his own brittle aphorisms and blinking his piggy eyes appreciatively at the cleverness of his droll ironies, Ustinov gives his usual ham performance—busy-busy-busy, cartoonish and irrelevant—he’s like one of those “Fantasia” hippopotami skittering about en pointe. Onscreen, his tiny eyes glitter with self-congratulation as he pulls focus, while on the commentary track, speaking with the lofty hauteur of an aristocrat, he treats most of his fellow actors as so much dust under his chariot wheels. But for all his pretentions, he’s a low comedian with plummy overtones—he acts up a storm all by himself, and clutters every line with extraneous business. One hot afternoon late in the shooting, Laurence Olivier, saddle sore and broiling inside his heavy armor, finally lost patience with Ustinov’s scene-stealing monkeyshines. Olivier cantered up to him, leant down and said, in a quiet voice with murder in it, “Dear boy, could you perhaps . . . do less?” Ustinov eventually won an Oscar for his sins, but nursed a grudge against Olivier for the rest of his life. Though he doesn’t mention the incident in his commentary, he makes casually cruel remarks about Olivier whenever he mentions him — and has the effrontery to psychoanalyze him. He does, however, resist the temptation to criticize Douglas or Fast outright, choosing instead to praise them—faintly—and let the delicate wince in his voice do the dirty work for him. Ustinov has the good sense and bad manners to speak ill only of the dead. He’s so full of himself that you can’t trust a thing he says. But my God, how well he says it! Taken as a display of smooth disingenuousness, or as an exercise in carefully disguised self-congratulation, Ustinov’s commentary is virtuoso. He’s an impressive and thoroughly unreliable raconteur: ostentatiously erudite, condescending, funny, dropping names like crazy, skewering as he praises, cringing as he swaggers. As a commentator, he gives the most accomplished performance of his career.
Olivier’s performance in the picture is amused and amusing. He seems to be enjoying himself, not always in a perfectly innocent way, as in the two homoerotic scenes: one with Tony Curtis as his catamite, the other with John Gavin as Julius Caesar/Muscle God (“Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus!”). Olivier can’t help leaning into him and stroking his arms with the backs of his fingers. Gavin is stoic as a Roman and stony as the Appian Way; did he know what Larry wanted?