SPARTACUS (1960) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) – The Guardian Review


A week of epics. It is true that neither Spartacus (Gaumont) nor The Guns of Navarone (Regal) conform to Bible thumping traditions but as both last for over three hours, including intermissions for the audience to recuperate on orange squash, and are littered with stars, they demand to be regarded as epics.
Far more important than their length or the money they have cost, however, is the fact that they represent the work of talented men of the cinema. Spartacus is directed by Stanley Kubrick who was responsible responsible for Paths of Glory and The Killing; and Carl Foreman who produced High Noon and J. Lee Thompson who made that off-beat war film Ice Cold in Alex have worked together on The Guns of Navarone.
Spartacus is by far the more intelligent and satisfactory film. Kubrick, unlike Foreman and Thompson, has survived being given a score of stars and a cast of thousands.
The film has been adapted from Howard Fast’s highly emotional version of the Roman slaves’ rebellion. Spartacus is the first of the Left’s martyrs and presumably humanists are meant to be as inspired by the film as the converted are by the efforts of Cecil B. de Mille and his successors.
Kubrick has been lucky in his script writer. Dalton Trumbo plays down Fast’s sentimentality and gives the dialogue a sharp class war edge. There is one memorable scene, which seems to have been inspired by the first page of the Communist Manifesto, where the Roman patricians discuss the servant problem while down below the gladiators prepare to kill each other for their entertainment.

Rarely conventional
Kubrick is at his best with the slave army. He makes them swarm like ants across the screen and points the complete antithesis between this heaving mass and the disciplined force of the Roman empire. Only occasionally does the taste descend to the level of the more conventional epic and there are a number of cloying close ups of children and old people which seem oddly out of place amid the bitter astringency of Kubrick’s work elsewhere in the film.
Kirk Douglas is the film’s central weakness. This most wooden of actors is set amid men with the splendid plasticity of Laughton, Olivier and Ustinov. Laughton is the best of the triumvirate as a Roman Lloyd George, a rabble rousing politician for plebs, who loses to the thin lipped, aristocratic cunning of Olivier.

Carl Forman has announced that he made The Guns of Navarone in order to show the waste and futility of war. If so, he chose the wrong vehicle. Whatever the original novel, the film is a “Boy’s Own Paper” pantomime. No wartime adventurer in the history of the cinema – and this includes the late Errol Flynn – has ever before undergone such hazards before accomplishing his mission.
Gregory Peck and his men sail a leaking fishing smack through a storm which threatens to drown the two and nines; climb unassailable cliffs; carry Anthony Quayle on a stretcher for half the film; are captured and escape; and just when all seems set fair for them to break into a fortress which appears to have the whole of the Wermacht guarding it, discover that all along they have had a traitor in their midst. Hardly the stuff for a serious little plea to recognise the futility of war.

Niven demoted
Nevertheless for straight, old fashioned, no nonsense adventure it does well enough. The acting is appalling – David Niven takes unkindly to be demoted to corporal and Gregory Peck proves almost as wooden as Kirk Douglas – but this is not, after all, particularly important in a film of this type. What is difficult to understand is why two such intelligent directors have wasted their talents on three hours of blood and thunder.

The Guardian, 15 May 1961


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