I’ve rather enjoyed this accidental run of ‘Ancient Movies’, and barring Ben-Hur (which I’d re-watched last year) the inevitable end-point had to be the classic Kubrick/Douglas film Spartacus from 1960. I refer to it as a ‘Kubrick/Douglas’ film but its obviously more Kirk Douglas’ film than it is a Kubrick film- there is really very little of this film that screams ‘Kubrick’ at the viewer. In fact, if there’s anything regards Spartacus that proves a little off-putting to me, its that the film very often feels like a Douglas vanity-project: possibly an unfair accusation, because producing and starring in a film as big as Spartacus is no mean feat, but when I watch the film there’s an uncomfortable (to me, anyway) sensation of watching a huge ego onscreen and everything else orbiting around it. I mean, Spartacus as a character has practically no negative features, he’s painted as a heroic, ‘perfect’ figure and not at all, in that sense, realistic. In that respect it does feel like a ‘old’ or ‘very Hollywood’ movie, but most likely its just a feeling that its the star actor/producer calling the shots rather than the director, and its clear that its not a directors ‘vision’ that we are seeing. Some films are like that, Spartacus is hardly unique, and its possibly just a reaction on my part from being used to watching a ‘Billy Wilder Picture’ or an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Picture’ or a ‘Ridley Scott Picture’.
Re-watching classic films can be a surprising experience, most often they of course still hold up remarkably well- they are ‘classic’ for a reason, after all. My surprise this time around was something regards the narrative, and hardly a surprise at all really but I was take aback this time around by just how black the ending is. Naturally this is inherent in the basic story, as history tells us Spartacus and his buddies don’t walk off into the sunset for a happily ever after, and any film that did would be wholly inappropriate, for some reason this time around I was struck by just how bleak the film is. Maybe its a Covid thing, but I was taken by how much of a grim tone this film ends with: basically, the bad guys win, the good guys die, literally, every last one of them (even Charles Laughtons’ Senator scurries off to dispatch himself after settling his affairs) – its almost like its prefiguring the closing moments of Revenge of the Sith (albeit Lucas could only dream of that film having the gravitas of something like Spartacus). Indeed, on that last point, while its clear that the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace owes everything to the chariot race of Ben-Hur, it would seem that George Lucas had his eye on other historical epics like Spartacus with how its grim finale is echoed by that of Sith. Its rather a pity that Lucas didn’t really nail that feel with his Prequel Trilogy in general- its possibly too coy a conceit but had that trilogy been like some great Roman spectacle moved into a space fantasy milieu then it would have better existed on its own terms away from the Original Trilogy – it does seem to me that Anakin suggests something of a ‘Messiah’ figure in the Star Wars saga and treating it more like a big biblical epic may have been beyond Lucas (hell, its only about selling toys, after all) but I have to wonder. Instead of some snotty kid in The Phantom Menace, had Anakin been a teenage slave like a slightly-younger Spartacus, later saved from a Hutt’s gladiatorial arena and then rising through the Jedi ranks to eventually fall to the Dark Side… Well I guess my daydream is more of a set of movies aimed at grown-up fans of the Original Trilogy rather than films preoccupied by a new generation of kids and what they want from Santa.
But anyway, that’s all by the by and ancient history of its own, really. For some reason though I was rather struck by how bleak the ending of Spartacus is. Its authentic of course but I suppose I’m just reminded of how modern Hollywood seems to avoid any films with ‘downer’ endings.
Re-watching the film of course afforded me opportunity to watch my 4K UHD copy of Spartacus that has been waiting for too long. The film looks quite gorgeous, as one would expect – like the 4K UHD of Vertigo (shot in VistaVision) Spartacus benefits hugely from its Super 70 Technirama format, its larger film format affording a much more detailed image than usual that really shines on 4K. Naturally the film sounds gorgeous, too, with its timeless Alex North score that is at times brutal and others sweepingly romantic: Spartacus is one of those films that is much better for its score, the composer doing a lot of the films heavy lifting.
Spartacus is also one of those films more famous for its place in cinematic history, the reaction of the public at the time and its continuing popularity, and historically of course its cast and film-makers, than for its qualities, perhaps, as a film in itself. The film is not as perfect as its reputation perhaps suggests (later generations/s seem to much prefer Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, for instance) but its still a great film. The “I am Spartacus” scene has of course become part of the cultural lexicon of our age and again, part of the film that lives outside of the film itself, referred to an mimicked in all parts of pop culture. It proved to be a film and a role that was completely identified with Kirk Douglas for the remainder of his life, even if Stanley Kubrick largely disassociated himself from it. Kirk Douglas is Spartacus, in every frame as dominant an actor and onscreen personality as he likely was as a Hollywood producer: a little distracting for me this time around watching the film but perhaps symbolic of its place in Hollywood history.