Thanks to my parents, I saw a lot of epic films as a child. The three major films we watch at least once a year are Ben-Hur (1959), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Spartacus (1960). The latter is presented as a (very free) rereading of the story of Spartacus (a real person by the way), who led the slave revolt in Capua, known in history as the Third War of Privileges.
I had very mixed feelings about Spartacus. When I was a kid, the first half of this film bored me to tears because it contained a lot of things I didn’t understand, while the fun part (all the arguments) came later. Now that I am older, I can of course appreciate the politics and intrigues that occupy a large part of Spartacus. I especially appreciate the political confrontation between Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and Crassus (Laurence Olivier). It is especially amusing to see them arguing about the loyalty of Julius Caesar, as if they both realize how important this man will become in the future (keep in mind that Caesar is not that important at this moment in history).
The story of Spartacus himself is always one of my favorite parts to watch. When you see him training to become a gladiator, it is clear that sooner or later something will come of it, because Spartacus is considered very rude. And when the last straw that breaks the camel’s back is finally reached, everything explodes in an epic way. You may feel excited when Spartacus’ chief executioner gets what he deserves. And after that it is also nice to see how Spartacus organizes the rebels in a fairly effective army. In fact, things are going so well that you might think (if you don’t know the story) that this story has a happy ending for the slaves because they are free forever. But, uh… …the story went the other way, and when the final fighting arrived, Stanley Kubrick did not hesitate to point out the terrible consequences.
Seriously, the end, when all surviving slaves are crucified, is hard to see. And yes, for the record, it’s done. The real Crassus wanted to set an example for all other slaves who might have ideas, and he crucified all survivors along the Appian Way, and the crosses were on the side of the road for YEARS. Despite the terribly dark end there is a silver lining: Varinia (John Simmons), who sneaked into Aquitaine with the newborn son of Spartacus Aquitaine. Moreover, Spartacus can see his son (who will grow up to be free) only a moment before his death, which is one of the things he wanted more than anything else. At least he can go to his grave knowing that his son and the woman he loves will live their lives in freedom.
Note that the version of the movie I saw is the last restored version released in Blu-ray and 4K. This means that in the film, which was restored in the early nineties, there is a scene in which Crassus talks to Antoninus (Tony Curtis) about oysters and snails, which seems to be a metaphor for sexual preference, although the analogy eluded me for years, until someone explained it to me. The fact is that during the restoration of this scene the soundtrack was lost and Laurence Olivier died in 1989. So…. For this scene alone, the voice of Crassus is picked up by Anthony Hopkins, Olivier’s widow who remembers that Hopkins had once made a deadly impression on her husband. If you listen carefully, you can hear the difference. Good impression, but not quite the same. Still, I can understand that it has allowed us to reconstruct an important scene in the film.
It doesn’t even bother me that the film is mistaken in certain historical details. Like the fact that Crassus became the first consul of Rome? No, it wasn’t like that. Gracchus (one of my favorite characters) wasn’t even a real person, he was an amalgam of several people who lived before the Third War of Privileges DECADES. And of course the famous scene from I am Spartacus didn’t happen either, it’s just that the body of the real Spartacus was never found. But as I said, I don’t let these problems bother me, because the story is so good that I’m more than willing to enjoy it.
Spartacus is definitely one of those films that you have to see before you die, and it stays that way for more than 60 years.
Let me know what you think of Spartacus in the comments below, and have a nice day!
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