PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
Slaves work in the Roman province of Libya. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a burly Thracian, comes to the aid of an old man who has fallen down. A Roman soldier whips Spartacus and tells him to get back to work, only to be attacked and bitten on the ankle. For this, Spartacus is tied up and sentenced to death by starvation.
Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a lanista (an impresario of gladiatorial games), arrives looking for recruits for his gladiatorial establishment. He inspects several slaves before finally settling on Spartacus, recognizing his unbroken spirit, along with his good health and physical condition. Batiatus purchases Spartacus and several others, then sails for Capua where his gladiatorial training camp is located. The trainer, Marcellus (Charles McGraw), immediately tries to provoke Spartacus into giving the trainer a reason to kill the Thracian as an example. Spartacus also befriends another gladiator, Crixus (John Ireland).
After several scenes showing gladiator training and life at the school, Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives with some companions, wishing to be entertained by watching two pairs of gladiators fight to the death. Spartacus is selected along with Crixus, an Ethiopian named Draba (Woody Strode), and another gladiator named Galino.
Crixus and Galino are the first to fight, and Crixus slays him. Spartacus is next. He duels the mighty Draba and is defeated. Draba, however, refuses to kill him, instead throwing his trident into the elevated spectators’ box and leaping to attack the Romans. During his climb to the box, a guard throws a spear that lands in Draba’s back, wounding him at the feet of Crassus, who quickly dispatches the slave and prepares to depart.
As Crassus leaves, he purchases the pretty slave woman, Varinia (Jean Simmons). Spartacus and Varinia have fallen in love, and in frustration at his loss and the overseer’s callous treatment, Spartacus begins a successful uprising. The gladiators eventually take Capua and all the surrounding districts. Many local slaves flock to the insurgents. Spartacus outlines his plan to escape by sea from the port of Brundisium, aboard the ships of the Cilician pirates, whom he plans to pay from the slaves’ plunder.
In the Senate of Rome, plebeian senator Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) cunningly manipulates Crassus’s protege and friend Marcus Glabrus (John Dall) into taking six cohorts of the Garrison of Rome out to crush the revolt, leaving the way open for Gracchus’s ally, Julius Caesar (John Gavin), to take command of the garrison during Glabrus’ absence. In the meantime, Crassus receives new slaves as a gift from the governor of Sicily. Among them is Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a former children’s tutor from Sicily. Crassus intimidates him during a bath with homoerotic allusions causing Antoninus to run away to join Spartacus.
Spartacus and Crixus review some new recruits, assigning them positions according to their skills. Antoninus, who is among them, identifies himself as a poet and illusionist. Later, he entertains the slave army, but he is determined to be a soldier, indirectly commenting on the relation between politics and art. Spartacus is reunited with Varinia, who had escaped from Batiatus, only to end up the property of yet another master.
A humiliated Glabrus returns to Rome, with only fourteen other known survivors of the attack. After a senate hearing, Crassus is forced to banish Glabrus from Rome for his carelessness.
Rome keeps sending armies to put down the rebellion, but Spartacus defeats them all; one such defeat at Metapontum costs the Romans 19,000 men. Crassus resigns from the Senate, supposedly to share the disgrace of his exiled friend Glabrus. However, Gracchus suspects that he is merely waiting for the situation to become so desperate that the senators will make him dictator, thus neutralizing Gracchus’s rival plebeian party. Gracchus, for his own purposes, maneuvers to help the slaves to escape in order to deny Crassus his opportunity. A disgusted Caesar betrays Gracchus, however, and Crassus reaches deep into his own pockets to defeat the plan.
When the former slaves reach the coast, they discover that the Cilicians have been bought off by Crassus. Spartacus finds himself trapped between three Roman armies (Pompey in Calabria, Lucullus in Brundisium and the legions of Crassus in Rome). The Roman deployment has maneuvered Spartacus into a position where he can be trapped between two Roman armies, and his only other choice is to fight his way through to Rome itself, a strategy with little chance of success. Meanwhile, the Senate gives Crassus the sweeping powers he desires. In parallel scenes, Spartacus harangues the slaves, while Crassus warns against the elimination of patrician privileges. Batiatus is hired by Crassus to help him identify Spartacus after his expected capture, and is in turn promised the dealership of the survivors of Spartacus’s army after its defeat.
The climactic battle begins with Spartacus leading his troops, men and women, against Crassus and his own legions. During the fighting, the slaves initially enjoy some success, but later on Crixus is killed, and the slave forces are overwhelmed by the arrival of the armies of Pompey and Lucullus. The battle results in the total defeat of the rebel army, heavy casualties on both sides, and the capture of many survivors, including Spartacus and Antoninus. Crassus promises the captives that they will not be punished if they will identify Spartacus or his body. Spartacus and Antoninus stand up, but before Spartacus can speak, Antoninus shouts “I’m Spartacus!” One by one, each surviving slave stands, shouting out “I’m Spartacus!” Crassus condemns them all to be crucified along the Appian Way from the battlefield to the gates of Rome, against Batiatus’s wishes. He saves Antoninus and Spartacus for last, recognizing the former and recalling the latter’s face and name from his visit to Capua. The slaves are marched along the Appian Way, where, one by one, they are crucified.
Crassus arrives and orders Spartacus and Antoninus to duel to the death, too impatient to wait for the next day’s celebrations in which the pair was to figure, and furious at Spartacus’s refusal to confirm his identity, Crassus declares that the winner will be crucified. Each man tries to kill the other, to spare his companion a slow, agonizing death on the cross. After killing Antoninus, Spartacus is informed that Varinia and her son are slaves of Crassus, and he is then crucified by the walls of Rome. Crassus admits to Caesar that he now and for the first time fears Spartacus, who has become a martyr, even more than he fears Caesar himself, foreshadowing events to come.
Meanwhile, Batiatus sees that the revenge of Crassus denies him the promised lucrative auction of the surviving slaves. Varinia and her first born son, recovered from the battlefield, are taken to Crassus’ home. Crassus tries to use Varinia as a love slave, and he unsuccessfully tries to woo her. In his last act before committing suicide, the disgraced Gracchus generously hires Batiatus to steal Varinia from Crassus, then grants freedom for her and her son, personally writing out manumission documents for them. Before they leave, Varinia kisses Gracchus in gratitude. After they leave, Gracchus examines two daggers, looks at one and says “Hmm… prettier”. Grabbing one dagger and putting down the other, he goes into the adjoining room, closing the curtains behind him as he leaves, and commits suicide offscreen.
Batiatus and Varinia leave for Gaul via the Appian Way and find Spartacus hanging on the last cross by the road, not quite dead. Varinia shows Spartacus their newborn son, vowing that he will grow up a free man, promises to tell her son, “Who his father was, and what he dreamed of,” and bids Spartacus a final farewell. With one last breath, Spartacus’s head slumps back, and Varinia gets back onto the wagon and rides on.
Before such films as Gladiator, 300, and the recent Immortals, there was the epic masterpiece Spartacus!
Revered as one of the great historical epics in cinematic history, in the past couple of years it actually has fallen by the wayside due to the HBO Spartacus series, which features a grittier, more violent, and above all, more hedonistic view of the same events.
It is no fluke, however, that this film brought home a few Oscars. Say what you will about the Academy as it stands today, in this era, they actually recognized great films (and the quality was much better back then, mind you.)
Now, at 184 minutes, this does seem to drag on a bit. Even the most dedicated film viewer will get a bit antsy viewing, but there is overture and entr’acte to break things up. Does the length affect one’s view on the film?
Well, for me, I though there were a few things they could have done without, but, at the same time, I see why they were included. Still, there are those out there that aren’t as understanding and forgiving as I.
Often time, I say that if you’re expecting sweeping a great story and sweeping cinematography, then you should look elsewhere. Well, this is one of those films that you should look to if you’re into that sort of thing.
Yes, some of the backgrounds are obviously shot on a soundstage, which, unlike most people, I don’t have a problem with, but the scenes that are of the beautiful countryside are breathtaking. Not to mention those times when they pan out and show the entire slave army vs. the Romans.
In this day and age, as we’ve seen in other films that have used massive military units, armies consist of the cast, a handful of extras, and then a ton of CG. Back in this time, though, every single member of those armies was a real person.
Granted, I’m no proponent of CG, but you honestly can’t tell me that it looks better to have a computer generated version of these soldiers, and you especially can’t tell me it is cheaper to use a computer to create them, than it is to give them a few bucks. I’m just saying.
The story, now let me be clear on this, is a weak point for me. Now, I say this because I was actually watching the HBO Spartacus this morning, so there was a bit of conflicting stores there, and I couldn’t help but compare and contrast. However, if I were to have not watched that show this morning, then I’m sure it would not have been a weak link.
Everything you need for a great story is here. The characters are well developed, the damsel in distress falls for the hero, deception, deceit, action, and a love story. What more does one want?
While this is a historical drama, it is not without its action. Granted, the action is one the scale as the more recent Greek/Roman films that we’ve seen, but it is still there. The climactic battle is well worth the wait, as is the final battle Spartacus endures before he is hung on a cross. Well, I should take that back. That one isn’t the greatest, but just that moment makes it feel as if it is better than it actually is.
There really is not a weak link in this cast. They all turn in superior performances that will leave you wondering why actors were able to actually act back then and seem to just fumble through stuff these days.
So, what is my final verdict on Spartacus? Well, on the surface, this epic seems to be a near perfect film, but it does have a few flaws here and there. However, none of them are large enough for me to acknowledge. My issue, though, is that at just a smidge over 3 hours long, the pacing wasn’t a bit more brisk. I actually lost interest in places. Still, I have to say that this is one of those films one should see before they die.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars