Movies and Censorship: Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus”


 Spartacus is based on an historical figure and is the story of the rise and fall of a slave living in Rome before the birth of Jesus Christ. Spartacus is rescued from working in an open-pit mine by a gladiator trainer, Batiatus, who sees that the slave has a fire in his eye and the capacity to captivate an audience. Enrolled in a gladiator school, Spartacus is instructed on how to fight, but he is not allowed to kill. As a form of reward for good performances, the stu­dents sometimes are allowed to see women. Most of the men treat the women as their own slaves in these limited interactions and are interested only in sexual activity. Spartacus, however, refuses to treat anyone like an animal, and with Varinia he develops first a friendship and later a romantic relationship.

The Roman official Marcus Crassus visits the school, bringing with him two women who wish to see four of the trainee gladiators fight to the death. Spartacus, unfortunately, is among those chosen. Spartacus is defeated in the battle, but his opponent refuses to kill him. For the penalty of breaking with Roman tradition in gladiator wars, Spartacus’s opponent is put to death. This infuriates the gladiators, who see no point in fighting each other, but who also do not want to die at the hands of the Romans. When Spartacus learns that his love interest, Varinia, has been sold to Crassus, he becomes enraged and kills one of the guards. His action sparks an uprising and the gladiators break out. Led by Spartacus, the rebellious gladiators sweep through Italy, looting villas and freeing slaves. He hopes that they will be able to escape to freedom and to return to their homelands. Crassus, however, sees the defeat of Sparta­cus’s army as an opportunity for him to seize power in the Republic. This inevitably leads to a final battle between the slaves and the Roman army. Spartacus is portrayed as a catalyst for a new era of Roman dictatorship: By suppressing his slave rebellion, Rome sets itself irrevocably on a path away from the Republic and perhaps confirms its eventual downfall. At the end, Spartacus is crucified and dies.


 Spartacus was censored before it was first released, and it is one of the last commercial films “in which homosexuality was removed before the code was changed.” Geoff Shurlock, head of the Production Code Administra­tion (PCA), objected to the suggestions of homosexuality in the character of Crassus and recommended in a report to Universal that “this page clearly suggests that Crassus is sexually attracted to women and men. This flavor should be completely removed. Any suggestion that Crassus finds a sexual attraction in Antoninus will have to be avoided. . . . The reason for Antoni­nus’s frantic escape should be something other than the fact that he is repelled by Crassus’s suggestive approach to him.” Shurlock also warned in several scenes that “the subject of sexual perversion seems to be touched on” and recommended that the scenes be deleted from the script, and that “the loincloth costumes must prove adequate.” The Catholic Legion of Decency (LOD) focused much of its attention on the violence in the film, which the organization found “too gruesome by half. The Legion was particularly perturbed about one shot in which a gladiator is dismem­bered.” The violence of the original film had “chilling authenticity” because, in scenes in which men were dismembered and in particularly gruesome battle scenes, Stanley Kubrick employed dwarfs and armless or legless men with breakaway artificial limbs to create a greater impression of the carnage. The LOD also protested a scene in which the crucified Spartacus writhes in pain ana his beloved Varinia calls out to him, “Oh, please die, my darling.” At the request of the LOD, that line ol dialogue was removed and the scene edited.

Before releasing the film to the general public, Universal held a screening for representatives of the LOD and the media. In the version shown to these groups, the film clearly suggests that the Roman general Crassus is homosex­ual and that he wants to acquire Antoninus for his sexual gratification. The scene in question occurs when the young slave Antoninus is helping the older Crassus in bathing and the two discuss how to treat a woman. Crassus seems to suddenly change the subject:

Crassus: Do you eat oysters?

Antoninus: Yes.

Crassus: Snails?

Antoninus: No.

Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to he immoral?

Antoninus: No, master.

Crassus: Of course not. It’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it?

Antoninus: Yes, master.

Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite and therefore not a question of morals, is it?

Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.

Crassus: Um, that’ll do. My robe, Antoninus. Ah, my taste . . . includes both oysters and snails.

Murray Schumach writes that “the scene was killed because of the legion. Some of the bloodiest violence was also eliminated for the same reason.” Even with the cuts, the amount of bloodshed left in far outweighed that of movies not having historical or biblical backgrounds. The cut scenes, which amounted to more than a half hour, were not restored to Spartacus until 1991. The film also came under fire from the American Legion, which sent letters to its 17,000 posts (branches) advising members, “Don’t See Spartacus!” They objected to the involvement of the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the film, who had been identified in hearings conducted by the I louse Un-American Activities Committee as a danger to this country for his connection to the Communist Party.


Gardner, Gerald. The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1987.

Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. New York: Continuum Books, 1989. Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet. New York: HarperCollins, 1987.

Schumach, Murray. The Face on the Cutting Room Floor. New York: William Morrow, 1964.


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