Spartacus

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Something for the weekend.  The intro to the movie Spartacus (1960), one of the best film intros, with a superb melding of the music and “Roman” statuary.  I saw this film initially in 1967 when it was first broadcast on television and it awakened a lifelong love of ancient history in me. 

 The film is full of historical howlers, par for the course for Hollywood.  Crassus, the richest man in Rome, was not a proto-Fascist dictator.  Spartacus, who is a shadowy figure because the source material is sparse (only Plutarch’s Life of Crassus and a brief section in Appian’s Civil Wars), did not simply march to the sea to escape Italy with his liberated slaves, but marauded throughout Italy, defeating several Roman consular armies in the process.  There was no  Senator called Gracchus, magnificently portrayed in the film by Charles Laughton, who led the  opposition to Crassus, and Crassus wasn’t interested in personal dictatorship in any event during the time he put down Spartacus and his slave army.  The list of substantial factual errors in the film could go on for considerable length. 

However, all that is beside the point.  The film is a magnificent work of art, and it gets the atmosphere of the late Roman Republic right:  old Roman morality being forgotten, a growth of decadence fueled by ever more wealth from foreign conquests, endless amounts of slaves flooding into Italy from the same foreign conquests, factions in the Senate engaging in what amounted to a cold civil war between bouts of hot civil war, the Roman Republican government teetering on the brink of military dictatorship, the movie presents all of these elements more clearly than any  classroom lecture could.

At the time the film attracted attention because it, rightly, broke the Black List against Communists in Hollywood by listing Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter.  The movie was loosely based on the novel of the same name by former Hollywood Communist Howard Fast.  (Fast quit the Communist Party in disgust after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.)  The leftist politics are fairly easily to discern with Crassus as a proto-Fascist dictator, howlingly anachronistic, and Spartacus and his slave followers as the revolting proletariat.  It is a tribute to the quality of the film that this ham-fisted attempt at agit-prop fails to destroy the film.

Here is a first rate fan made trailer of the film:

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Of course it wouldn’t be a post on Spartacus the film without a clip of this immortal scene which has been endlessly parodied over the years, but which almost had me in tears when I first saw it as a boy. 

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Anyone who hasn’t seen this masterpiece really needs to watch it as soon as possible.

5 Responses to Spartacus

  • Mack says:

    Well said. Thank you!

    And there are no computer graphics. I do wish films made an up-front revelation of how much golly-gee-whiz electronic cartooning is used to obscure and thus ruin the plot, settings, and characterizatons. And color would be nice, too. The world is in color. What is with the current fashion of filming in murky blue or gree monotones? Dimming the lights ain’t art.

  • Don the Kiwi says:

    I saw the movie in 1961 when I was a callow youth of 19. I didn’t get any communist connection – political/ philosophical matters were furthest from my mind then.
    I saw it only a few years after my school days of Latin and Roman history, so was it was almost topical, and I was quite engrossed in it, and loved it.

  • Melinda T says:

    The little guy going up against the corrupt rich and powerful is not the intellectual property of the communists -there is a reason this theme has universal appeal – a great film…

  • Chris M says:

    Peter Ustinov was worth his considerable weight in gold in this film. Every moment he was on screen was pure perfection. It’s often said that you can judge a film by its villain.. and how much better can you get than Laurence “I prefer both snails AND oysters” Olivier??

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