Sunday, March 15, 2015


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

When I was young, there were these big scale Hollywood movies that came out around Thanksgiving and lasted through the December holiday season. It was a tradition that my immediate family would go to see these epics during the four day Thanksgiving holiday.  There were no multiplexes, so you had to go into downtown Philadelphia (where I grew up) to see a first run film. According to my parents a movie wasn’t special unless you had to buy reserved seats, and the film was long enough to have an intermission. I saw Ben Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Cleopatra, and Spartacus to name a few. Since we were Catholic and of Italian descent, if a movie had something to do with Jesus or Italy, and especially both, they were on my family’s must-see list. Back then, I enjoyed eating those jumbo Hershey chocolate bars my mother bought me at the theaters. The caffeine infused candy also helped me stay awake while watching those sprawling Roman sagas. (I took the preceding from my novel, Feast or Famine.  It's okay to steal from yourself, right?).

Most of these films were just lavish spectacles that emphasized flash over substance, (although Ben Hur does use symbolism by making water represent the grace and charity of God). Spartacus, however, despite its Cecil B. DeMille cast-of-thousands look, focuses not on religion (although it makes Christian allusions) or the nobility. Its story extols the importance of individual freedom and the need for self-sacrifice to gain that independence from oppressors.  

The director, the great Stanley Kubrick, addressed this theme in a different great anti-war movie, also with Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory. Spartacus was born a slave, but even though that life is all he knows, he is defiant. When we first see him, he risks punishment by trying to help another slave who has collapsed from working in the rock quarry.  There is meaningful symbolism in the scene because Spartacus, before attending to the slave, throws off the load of rocks he is carrying, as if wanting to literally and figuratively unburden himself of his servitude. Even though he has not known freedom, the idea of liberty is in his mind. 

He is rescued by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, in an Oscar-winning supporting performance of a man whose only allegiance is to himself) and placed in his school for gladiators. At the school, the men are taught to not make friends, not to connect with each other, since they may have to meet in the ring and kill their fellow combatants. This rule also prevents them from uniting and fighting their captors. Spartacus is not like the others. He asks the name of another gladiator, wanting to find out about him. He does not give into lust, respecting Varinia (Jean Simmons), and refuses to subjugate her the way he has been enslaved. He only is intimate with her when they are no longer slaves and can freely and equally commit to each other.

Sexual oppression is seen elsewhere in the film. When Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives at the school and forces arena fights that result in deaths, the royal women he brings with him choose the combatants. They smirk and whisper to each other as they objectify the men, wanting them to appear in scant outfits. One chooses "the big black one," the Ethiopian, who fights Spartacus, and they vicariously are thrilled by watching the men thrust at each other with swords and tridents. Later, Crassus, in the bath scene notorious for its time, tells Antoninus (Tony Curtis) that he enjoys "oysters and snails," implying that he likes sex with women and men. After his bath, Crassus, while looking out at the majesty of Rome, tells Antoninus that if nations cannot resist the empire, how can a boy. He is saying that if he wants to abuse him, he will. He also later tries to possess Varinia. Kubrick will again explore the connection between sex and power in Dr. Strangelove, which was covered in a previous post.

Crassus' enemy in Rome is the Senator, Gracchus (Charles Laughton), who wants to maintain the Republic and the Senate, and who fears a dictatorship. But, he too is a patrician with slaves, and exploits women. In the end he does make sure, by using Batiatus, that the pregnant Varinia will escape Crassus' servitude. 

Spartacus uses the self-sacrifice of the Ethiopian who spared him in the arena as a way to unite the gladiators, and they rebel and free themselves from their captors. But, he convinces his followers not to act like the Romans. He can be seen as a Christ figure, who believes in self-sacrifice for the good of others. When his army is defeated and he is captured, the survivors refuse to give him up, each one saying, "I am Spartacus." In a way, they all are him, as they are disciples who now share the essence of their teacher's soul. Crassus discovers his identity and makes him fight Antoninus to the death like a gladiator. But, Spartacus kills his friend out of mercy, so that he will not suffer a slow death. Spartacus is crucified, but he lives long enough to see his son in the arms of Varinia. His wife and child are free and will continue the fight because of his sacrifice.

There is a false note in the film in the performance of Curtis. It is hard to get past the Brooklyn accent when he speaks, such as when he says he is a "singar of sawngs" or that he "tawt da classacs."

Are there any of these tales about the glory of Rome and early Christianity that you enjoy?

Next week’s film is Children of Men.

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