Spartacus (1960) – Review by Eugene Archer

Hailed in Farewell

by Eugene Archer

Critics have always debated the correct way to apportion the credit for a multi-million-dollar production among producers, writers, actors and corps of technicians, but Stanley Kubrick, the youthful director of Spartacus, has no such doubts. If any critical bouquets are available after the elaborate costume spectacle opens Thursday at the De Mille, the dynamic Mr. Kubrick is prepared to claim a director’s share.

“I think the film will be a contender for awards,” he remarked with typical candor over a Scotch and soda the other day. “It’s just as good as Paths of Glory, and certainly there’s as much of myself in it. I don’t mean to minimize the contributions of the others involved, but the director is only one who can authentically impose his personality onto a picture, and the result is his responsibility—partly because he’s the only one who’s always there.”

In assuming the responsibility for Spartacus, the self-confident Mr. Kubrick was undeterred by either his occasional disagreements with the producer-star, Kirk Douglas, or by the fact that, at 31, he is the youngest director ever placed in charge of a $12,000,000 film. Self-assurance, in fact, is the personality trait most apparent in this intense and dark-browed young man. “He’ll be a fine director some day,” Mr. Douglas recently observed, “if he falls flat on his face just once. It might teach him how to compromise.”

Mr. Kubrick’s cool demeanor in maintaining the courage of his convictions has been known to antagonize his collaborators, but it proved a useful asset when he was called to take the reins of Spartacus early last year after the initial director, Anthony Mann, had an “artistic difference” with Mr. Douglas in the first days of production. With Dalton Trumbo’s screen play in need of repairs and such expensive temperaments as Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis already on call, the situation would have challenged a veteran, much less a fledgling director whose first four films had grossed considerably less than the pre-Biblical spectacle cost.

Mr. Kubrick, according to all reports, took control with icy aplomb. He promptly replaced the leading lady, Sabina Bethmann, with Jean Simmons and went to work with Mr. Trumbo on the script, changing it, as he put it, “to a more visual conception, and removing all but two lines of Kirk’s dialogue during the first half-hour of the film’s three-hour-plus running time. We fought about that one,” he added wryly, “but I won.”

The theme Mr. Kubrick indicated, has distinct parallels with his other film work. “It concerns the outsider who is passionately committed to action against the social order. I mean the outsider in the Colin Wilson sense—the criminal, maniac, poet, lover, revolutionary. The protagonists of Paths of Glory, The Killing, Spartacus and my next film, Lolita, are all outsiders fighting to do some impossible thing, whether it’s pulling a perfect robbery or saving innocent men from execution by a militaristic state or carrying on a love affair with a 12-year-old girl.”

Lesson for Today
In Spartacus, which deals with the justice of slavery, the Roman slave begins by revolting out of blind instinct, but gradually acquires a will to improve the society he is part of and to exert his full value in it. Observing that this aspect had modern implications, Mr. Kubrick emphasized that he was equally concerned with the opposite point of view. “My villain, Laurence Olivier,” he said, “is convinced that slavery represents a social advance, since it saves the lives of captured prisoners and turns them into vassals of the Roman state. Previously, the captives from conquered nations were slaughtered.”

By articulating both attitudes, Mr. Kubrick hopes to cause his audience to think—a rarity, he concedes, in an historical film. “If I have my way, they’ll think in Lolita too,” he said. “The audience will start by being repelled by this ‘creep’ who seduces a not-so-innocent child, but gradually, as they realize he really loves the girl, they’ll find that things aren’t quite as simple as they seemed, and they won’t be so ready to pass moral judgments. I consider that a moral theme.”

After almost two years’ association with Spartacus, including close supervision of the editing, Mr. Kubrick feels that he has a film to be taken seriously by even his avant-garde admirers—unlike the usual “costume epics,” none of which he has particularly admired. “Let’s say,” he added mildly, “that I was more influenced by Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky than by Ben-Hur or anything by Cecil B. De Mille.”

The New York Times, October 2, 1960


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