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Overall Rating

Worth A Look44.12%
Average: 2.94%
Pretty Bad: 8.82%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 28 user ratings

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by MP Bartley

"Stanley's step-son."
4 stars

Spartacus, the tale of a slave who led a rebellion against the Roman empire, is not the best film that Kubrick ever made - probably because it's the least Kubrick-esque film that Kubrick ever made.

The troubled story behind Spartacus is legendary. Anthony Mann was hired, and subsequently fired, by producer and star Kirk Douglas (although the opening salt mine sequence of the film is all Mann), with his replacement being the director that Douglas reaped great critical plaudits with on Paths of Glory.

It was not a happy experience, however, for either star or director and while Douglas would eventually learn to look back happily on his attempt to better Ben-Hur, Kubrick never would and it's easy to see why. It's easily his least personal film and fans of the great director could really struggle to see any of his unique DNA imprinted upon the film. Frankly, a lot of it could have been directed by Mann - or anyone else for that matter. A lot of Spartacus is interchangeable with the other Roman epics of the time and scenes of Spartacus frolicking in the woods and forests with his great love (Valerie Simmons) verge on being flat-out awful - or worse, dull.

You can almost feel Kubrick itching to get away out of these scenes, and it's a feeling that infects the rest of the film. It's epic in the biggest sense of the world, but also the worst. If anything, Kubrick should have found a great deal in common with the protagonist of his film - both labouring under a dictatorial system, where their every move was controlled and attempts at freedom stifled. It's an irony that Kirk Douglas probably wouldn't have appreciated.

But let's not bury Spartacus so quickly. It may not be the finest Kubrick film, but that's not really a fair reflection of its quality, and there are certainly moments that you imagine he did have fun with. The scenes of Spartacus and his fellow slaves being whipped into shape as gladiators at Battiaus' (Peter Ustinov) training school sees them stripped of all humanity and personality, as they repeat the same combat moves over and over again. They are thrown prostitutes to keep them happy, everyone ultimately reduced to chunks of saleable meat - it's a notion he would visit again on the battlefields of Vietnam.

And it's also the first indication that Kubrick could handle a bigger canvas than he had previously been given. The vistas are huge and gorgeous and the eventual face off between Spartacus' army of slaves and the Romans sent to destroy them is a shivery wave of destruction, visceral and violent. People really do look like they've been set on fire and it's not hard to imagine a wry smile on Kubrick's lips at the dark humour of the well drilled Roman army shifting into complex positions against the slaves' big amorphous mass of rage - it ultimately doesn't matter, as the battle descends into chaos anyway.

Douglas was always a better actor than Heston and Spartacus ultimately becomes a more appealing character than the one who took all the Oscars just a few years previously - a slave intrinsically generating more sympathy than a wronged prince. It's not Douglas' film, however, which instead gets neatly sliced three ways by Ustinov as the conniving trainer, ceaselessly trying to get an angle on every development of the uprising; Laurence Olivier as the power-hungry senator keen to stamp out the rebellion as a means to cement his takeover of Rome, and Charles Laughton as another senator who is drolly amused by Spartacus' impertinence and uses it as a thorn to needle Olivier constantly. Olivier is a greatly hissable villain, Ustinov has great fun and walked off with a well-deserved Oscar, while Laughton apparently recognises how po-faced the whole thing is and does his damndest to snaffle all the best lines.

Sticking out like a sore thumb is Tony Curtis, as Spartacus' fellow slave and best friend, his Bronx accent never far from the surface. Curtis always had charm and sincerity however, and that, together with Douglas' granite determination, gives the film its two most memorable and affecting moments - the iconic moment where Spartacus realises how much he means to his men, and the tragic ending where Olivier sets the best friends against each other. Kubrick may have turned his nose up at it, but Spartacus is quite possibly his most nakedly emotional and sentimental film.

It resides as an oddity on his career, almost as a footnote. Kubrick as a hired director was never going to be a match made in Heaven and the film bears all the hallmarks of a director with little interest in much of what's happening on screen. But just because a genius dismisses part of his work, doesn't mean that us lesser mortals can't find something worthwhile in it regardless.

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originally posted: 09/07/11 02:59:24
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User Comments

5/18/12 keith miron Very long movie :( 2 stars
8/22/11 mr.mike Saw the 196 min. Criterion DVD , well worth it. 4 stars
3/21/07 action movie fan visually impressive, but too talky and slow-ben hur-colossus of rhodes, gladiator-better 2 stars
12/30/06 Bitchflaps Sup-par film from a very talented director, Kubrick was right to disown it. 2 stars
12/28/06 Agent Sands A Roman epic with Laurence Olivier in one of the best performances I think I've ever seen. 3 stars
10/17/06 Isaac Baranoff For a movie that Stanley Kubrick disowned, this is pretty good. 5 stars
8/05/06 David Cohen Easily the best "man" movie ever made 5 stars
7/06/05 DM A smart, surprisingly moving epic from a decidedly unsentimental filmaker. 5 stars
1/03/05 UMER olivier rocks in this movie 5 stars
5/31/04 Frazier Awesome and powerful, Spartacus is a must see! 5 stars
5/15/04 R.W. Welch Not highly accurate, but a rousing epic with capable cast. 4 stars
11/30/03 john phenomenal - as good as Douglas is Ustinov, Laughton and Olivier make the picture 5 stars
11/22/03 adguy Quite simply the best epic ever made. 5 stars
5/06/03 Dave Very entertaining if rather inferior to Ben Hur, miles better than the derivative Gladiator 4 stars
6/25/02 Charles Tatum Actually, one of Kubrick's best films 5 stars
2/27/02 Shrike An epic the likes of which they just don't make anymore 4 stars
11/29/01 KMG Fucking A!!!!!!1 5 stars
11/07/01 P.Rodriguez Terrific Movie, VERY long, but worth every minute 5 stars
6/14/01 Bada Bing Crosby Oysters or snails? 5 stars
5/04/01 Gracy Lionheart YAY!!! Spartacus!!! 4 stars
3/25/01 Monster W. Kung Whoever thinks Gladiator is better than this (which is a REAL story) should be shot. 5 stars
1/07/01 R.W. Welch Better-than-average epic yarn, but limps at the end. 4 stars
8/19/99 Matthew Bartley Ustinov,Laughton and Douglas are outstanding 4 stars
4/30/99 Matt I AM Spartacus!!!!! 5 stars
3/17/99 little jerry As a Kirk Douglas film it's excellent.As a Stanley Kubrick film it's unrecognizable. 4 stars
12/28/98 AnimeVision Douglas rocks! This is one of the best around,period. Full of emotion... 5 stars
10/06/98 Tommy Maguire One of the true great epic motion pictures. Fabulous performances all around. True class. 5 stars
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  28-Apr-1991 (PG-13)



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