Sunday, February 10, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.5: Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.
Grade: 74 (B+)

Paths of Glory marked the point when Stanley Kubrick became one of the most important directors of his generation, but its failure at the box office didn’t give him much clout. Kubrick and producer James B. Harris struggled finding a suitable follow-up for the next several years. Kubrick was hired by Marlon Brando to direct the western One-Eyed Jacks, but the two had strong disagreements about which direction to take the film (Brando wanted realism, Kubrick expressionism) and Kubrick was eventually fired so that Brando himself could direct. The director and Harris moved onto an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita, but the two had trouble figuring out how they would get the film past the censors.
But before Kubrick and Harris could start on a script for Lolita, the director got a call from his Paths of Glory collaborator Kirk Douglas, who had just started production on a Roman epic called Spartacus. The original director, Anthony Mann, had finished the opening scenes, but Douglas wanted Kubrick, and he felt both that Mann was intimidated by the size of the picture and that Mann was trying to get a subtler style of acting from the brash Douglas. Douglas fired Mann and gave Kubrick a week to prepare for Spartacus.
What happened next is tricky: Kubrick was still a relative novice, a 30-something year old kid with two phenomenal but unpopular films under his belt. The director and Douglas often clashed over the script and the style of the film- Douglas wanted a noble hero’s journey, Kubrick a more troubled protagonist. Because he was the bigger star, Douglas got his way, and the notoriously controlling Kubrick was unhappy during production. When the film was recut to appease the censors, Kubrick was further irritated. He would later speak badly of the film, saying that he was working with a dumb script and a controlling Hollywood machine. Some of Kubrick’s complaints about the production are understandable: it doesn’t feel much like a Kubrick film. But it’s still rousing entertainment, filled with proof of Kubrick’s craftsmanship and his skill at working with actors.
Spartacus (Douglas) was born a slave to a mining colony, but he’s rebellious by nature. When Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) comes to the colony looking for potential gladiators, he’s struck by Spartacus and takes him in. Spartacus yearns for freedom all while falling for Varinia (Jean Simmons), one of Batiatus’ slave girls. When the powerful senator Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier) tries to take Varinia away, Spartacus starts a slave uprising, reunites with Varinia, and starts a march with a gladiator/slave army towards Rome. Meanwhile, the power-hungry Crassus manipulates his way to controlling Rome while the pragmatic Gracchus (Charles Laughton) does battle in the senate with him.
First thing’s first: no, Spartacus doesn’t look or feel like a Kubrick movie. It’s an impressively crafted movie, but there’s little to separate Kubrick’s contributions to the early scenes shot by seasoned pro Anthony Mann. Hell, there’s little to separate it stylistically from the other big Roman epics of the era- the film was seen as a response by Douglas against not being cast in Ben-Hur, but the two films are awfully similar. They both have casts of thousands, impressive battle scenes, gorgeous production and costume design, a three-hour plus running time (complete with road show presentation and, here, a great Saul Bass opening credits sequence). They’re both less auteur theory and more Old Hollywood. 
One could easily find traces of Kubrick if one squinted hard enough: there are certain visual echoes of Paths of Glory (characters speaking of the value of humanity, a checkered senate floor that resembles the earlier film’s chateau). The climactic battle sequence uses drum beats to mark edits, as did Paths of Glory. And certain Kubrick themes do come out: man’s capacity for cruelty and dehumanization, the brutality of war and theatrical violence (particularly in the early gladiatorial scenes), and the powerlessness that comes with entrapment. But most of these ideas are only on the surface, they’re delivered without Kubrick’s brand of bitter irony (it’s very straightforward indeed), and they still speak more to Douglas and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s interests than Kubrick.
Spartacus was revolutionary, in its own way, though not in the traditional Kubrick fashion of reinventing cinema. Trumbo was part of the Hollywood Blacklist after his ties to the Communist Party came out during the HUAC hearings. Trumbo had worked during his blacklisted days, but usually uncredited (Roman Holiday) or under a pseudonym (The Brave One, for which he won an Oscar he couldn’t collect). Douglas had read and loved the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast (another blacklisted man), and he hired the notoriously quick-writing Trumbo to write Spartacus. Douglas had been the first to break the blacklist, and the film was protested by noted Hollywood conservatives like John Wayne and Hedda Hopper, who were likely instrumental in keeping Spartacus from getting Oscar-nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (though the film did win four Oscars, including Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov). This was a risky film, in short, both for Trumbo’s involvement and the political connotations of the script.
Spartacus is born into slavery, a marked man, and the fellow gladiators don’t want anything to do with each other (“I don’t want to know your name…I may have to kill you”). When Spartacus leads an uprising, he speaks against the Romans, who are “rich and fat for what they didn’t work for”. The senate, meanwhile, is wildly corrupt, but in the words of Gracchus, “a little republican corruption and some freedom” is preferable to “the dictatorship of Crassus”. Gracchus is a man of the people who will say what he needs to in order to maintain power (on gods: “Privately I believe in none of them, publicly I believe in all of them”). 
Trumbo loads the script with anti-HUAC subtext- the famous “I am Spartacus” scene plays as a moving tribute to the men who refuse to name names in order to save themselves, their crucifixion now literal rather than figurative. The film is also filled with allusions to the Holocaust, with the Romans standing in for the Nazis as Crassus walks over the Jews slaughtered in battle. In a scene cut from the film’s original release, Crassus reveals his bisexuality and his feelings towards Tony Curtis’ Antoninus, who will soon reject him and join Spartacus. Trumbo’s well-rounded characters- the noble but almost painfully stubborn Spartacus, the compromised but decent Gracchus, the cowardly sycophant Batiatus, the power-hungry and paranoid Crassus- make these political connections more than just breast-beating. Spartacus isn’t particularly better than Ben-Hur, but it is a whole lot smarter.
What of Kubrick, then? If nothing else, Spartacus is a valuable training lesson for Kubrick on multiple fronts. Kubrick vowed from this point forward to only work on films he had control on, which he did till the day he died. The film also let him experiment with using music on set to heighten the emotions of performances, and the battle sequences (very bloody for 1960 standards, although much of it was initially cut) are very impressive, showing Kubrick’s gifts at directing action and war that would pay off in Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket.
 
The film is particularly important in the way it taught Kubrick how to work with actors: Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov were all annoyed at how Kirk Douglas hired them by making their roles seem bigger than they were, not to mention miffed that Douglas was exerting so much control. After all, the three of them were all talented writers and directors in their own right. Kubrick, in a shrewd move, let them improvise in rehearsals or rewrite much of their own dialogue, which he would later let influence what he actually shot. It was a move that would later influence many of his more distinctive films (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining). Spartacus is mostly a Kubrick movie only in name, and yet it’s still one of his most formative experiences, and Kubrick fans would be wrong to dismiss it.

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