UK Certificate: PG
US Certificate: PG
Intended audience: Older children and adults
My all-time-favourite sword and sandals movie has always been Spartacus. Unlike so many other Roman Empire epics of the time, neither Jesus nor Christianity crop up in here – at least not directly. There is however a brilliant reference to Spartacus praying to a “God for slaves”, and a reference in the prologue about how the new religion of Christianity was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome.
Loosely based on the true story of a slave uprising against the Romans, our hero Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is trained as a gladiator by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov). When powerful Roman Senator Crassus (Lawrence Oliver) visits and demands to see a fight to the death, said gladiatorial contest leads to an uprising. Spartacus then tears through the country, freeing slaves and fighting the Romans at every turn. Along the way he falls in love with fellow slave Virinia (Jean Simmons) and dreams of having a son who is born free. Of course, things are destined to go horribly pear-shaped, most notably in a stunningly staged battle with Romans advancing in long wide shots like ants with terrifying precision.
The talents of Stanley Kubrick (here the only time he ever worked as a director for hire) and previously blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo combine to create a hugely memorable epic. Douglas is iconic in the leading role, and his heroics are supported by witty turns from Ustinov and also Charles Laughton (as Senator Gracchus). Their exchanges add comic relief to much of the intensity (For example: “You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?”).
Tony Curtis also crops up in a pivotal supporting part, leading to one of the most deeply moving parts of the film, as he and Spartacus are commanded to fight one another by Crassus. Both try to kill the other, purely to save them the pain of crucifixion, a fate Crassus has decreed for the victor.
To be fair, the film could have done with being slightly cut down in the mid-section. However, the latter stages are so stirring – from the afore-mentioned scene with Tony Curtis, to the classic, much parodied moment where Spartacus’s defeated slave army stand as one to declare “I’m Spartacus!” – that one forgives such indulgence in the three hours plus running time. The tear-jerking final scene is also perfect, enhanced by Alex North’s wonderful music score.
As with any good Roman Empire film, there is also a great deal of pontificating on the nature of Rome, and whether it should be a Republic or dictatorship. As Rome slid towards the latter it was, of course, eventually undone. But the main theme here remains slavery. On a spiritual level the undeniably stirring message comes through loud and clear: freedom from its oppression is worth fighting and dying for.