Sunday, February 7, 2010

Spartacus (1960)

Terrific swords-and-sandals epic by Stanely Kubrick about a slave, played by Kirk Douglas, who stands up to the Roman Empire, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier. The central theme of overcoming human adversity and achieving self-worth in the face of enslavement is effective, but tacky; the 3 1/2 hour film would be crushed under the weight of its own self-righteousness, were it not for the deft, professional craft of Kubrick a true master of his craft. Through his camera, we do not view the action from the most obvious or traditional of methods, but instead are treated with odd angles, huge, mind-blowing use of the 70mm camera, and shockingly subversive and nuanced acting. The film earns its "epic" title without exploiting the money and production values involved, but rather by heightening tension and conflict to the largest levels possible. The attempts of Spartacus to lead his escaped slaves out of Rome are paralleled by Olivier's effort to gain a dictatorship over the Empire; they are both self-righteous and justified, but Spartacus's ideals are more practical and realistic than Olivier's bourgeois plans to take power over Rome. The decision to cast Olivier, rather than some hammy villain, does much to complicate matters, for his internal logic and reason seems to be thoroughly evident and fully fleshed out, making his scenes just as interesting and dramatic as Spartacus' expansive rebellion. His clearly erotic relationship with his slave, played by Tony Curtis (with his NY accent intact), wholly evoked through glances and line deliveries from Olivier, makes his hatred of Spartacus very real and human when Curtis runs away to join Spartacus' army. Douglas' performance is strong and stoic, even for him, but nothing revolutionary (no pun intended); while he, as exec producer, ran the show and this is, ostensibly, his, rather than Kubrick's, production, I still prefer his more risky, morally ambiguous turns, such as Billy Wilder's Ace in the Whole, to his impermeable nice guy image. The supporting cast is aces, with Curtis, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Herbert Lom, and, especially, Peter Ustinov making distinct impressions, despite their stock roles. Every performer seems to have subtext in their work, and this is, no doubt, due to Kubrick's input. The corniness level is, thankfully, at a minimum throughout, even during the melodramatic ending that justifies itself through emotion, rather than action. The script by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo is filled with wit and insight, without ever sacrificing the Ancient Rome environment.

Highly Recommended for fans of epic cinema, Stanley Kubrick, Kirk Douglas, or Laurence Olivier. I did not expect to be as enthralled by the 220 minute film as I was; Kubrick proves his everlasting steel grip of the balls of cinema once more.

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