From the sweeping overture, it’s clear that Spartacus is pitched at a totally different scale from Kubrick’s previous films, marking the start of an extraordinarily fecund period in his career, where each film somehow manages to outdo and exceed the last. Yet despite clocking in at over three hours, and being over twice as long as any of his previous films, Spartacus is arguably the tightest film in Kubrick’s career to date as well. No doubt, there is sublime spectacle here, from widscreen sweeps, to incredible sets and structures, to Kubrick’s first use of colour, which is thematised in the opening credits as they gradually transition from black-and-white to deep blue while spending an inordinate amount of time on cinematography credits. However, Kubrick pairs that epic dimension with restraint, delicacy and lyricism – this is light years from Cecil B. DeMille – which makes the widescreen elements all the more surprising and breathtaking when they do arrive. Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay is a big part of this balance, as is Kirk Douglas, whose Grecian features were born for the role of Spartacus – dynamic and statuesque at the same time, like a marble figure caught in motion. Despite his heroic poses, however, Douglas and Trumbo’s Spartacus is highly reflective and introspective, prone to soulful and intimate moments that combine with the more spectacular scenes to produce the greatest sword-and-sandal epic ever committed to cinema.
Like most sword-and-sandal epics, Spartacus tends to project American history onto a biblical canvas, although even that project is defter and more elegant here than in Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments or other comparable films. The broad stroke of the narrative follows Spartacus, a Thracian slave, who is plucked from a mining pit to be trained as a gladiator by Lentius Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) in Capua. While in Capua, Spartacus falls in love with Varinia (Jean Simmons), another slave, and catches the eye of Marcus Crassus (Lawrence Olivier) when he is forced to fight a fellow slave to the death. Before Crassus can scrutinize him too closely, however, Spartacus initiates a slave rebellion, overthrows Batatius’ men, and gathers an army of freed slaves and common folk while marching through Italy, gradually attracting the attention of Crassus back in Rome, along with Crassus’ opponent Gracchus (Charles Laughton). In the process, Crassus’ own slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis) escapes from Rome, and makes his way to Spartacus’ camp, turning Crassus’ campaign against Spartacus into a personal vendetta. Finally, Crassus manages to defeat Spartacus and crucify him, although the film suggests that Spartacus will live on as a venerated martyr and inspiration to millions, while Crassus is destined to be supplanted in the close future by Julius Caesar (John Gavin).
The broad sweep of Spartacus thus clarifies that, at its height, the sword-and-sandal epic was quite distinct from earlier, more overtly Christian films – much as Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings is dramatically different from his second version of The Ten Commandments. Rather than focusing on the life of Christ, sword-and-sandal epics tended to focus on moments just before the birth of Christ – whether literally, as in the case of Spartacus and Ben-Hur, or figuratively, as in the case of The Ten Commandments, which conflates the flight out of Egypt with the start of the New Testament. In both cases, however, sword-and-sandal epics positioned these pre-Christian moments as part of the arc of American history, thereby fusing the New Testament with the passage of American ideation and self-identification. In the process, they frequently focused on Christ-surrogates, who were also proto-Americans, collapsing the sweep of biblical history with the sweep of American history, which in turn became the point at which the Old and New Testaments truly converged. In that respect, it’s noticeable that Spartacus has a much more emphatic American accent than any of the other leads here, who are predominantly occupied by effete, even effeminate, Anglophone actors.
What makes Spartacus so distinct and challenge is that it uses this convergence of biblical and American history to craft the most sustained critique of slavery ever filmed in Hollywood at this moment in time. In effect, Trumbo’s script presents slavery as the catalyst Americans needed to fulfil their Christian mission – Americans needed slaves to free slaves, and thus become properly American – creating a perverse logic whereby Old Testament slaves were the first true Americans, meaning that freeing African-American slaves was simply the final step in America emancipating itself as a whole. By extension, Spartacus suggests that there is no slave rebellion on this scale to film in American history because the rebellion had already happened during Spartacus’ time, meaning that American history was itself the culmination of the long history of slave revolt that commenced with Spartacus and ended with the close of the American Civil War. This quite extraordinary premise effectively permits Kubrick and Trumbo to make a three and a half hour epic about the horrors of slavery, cementing the sword-and-sandal epic as the only real way Hollywood could process the legacy of slavery in the years before the Civil Rights movement – namely, by presenting biblical cognates for American history in which Old Testament protagonists were trying to escape their bondage.
Yet Spartacus is more pointed than most sword-and-sandal epics in the way it approaches this genre, as Kubrick and Trumbo find all kinds of ways to suggest that their biblical backdrop, with its assurance of American manifest destiny, was the only way that white America could safely represent the collective guilt of slavery at the time they were working. Opening by recalling a time when “the Republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery,” Kubrick and Trumbo repeatedly present slavery as the most damning aspect of the pre-Christian world, meaning that Christianity effectively ramifies as the end of slavery, which in turn becomes a synecdoche for the demise of the old dispensation. In that way, Spartacus becomes both a type and antitype of Christ in his refusal to accept the bondage of the Old Testament – or even an alternative figure of Christ, shaped for an American audience – as Kubrick asks the audience to genuinely believe that the United States fulfilled the New Testament by abolishing slavery for good. Rather than America instituting a new regime of slavery, Spartacus asks us to accept that America ended a millennia-old regime of slavery, here equated with the more ancient and alienating fringes of the Old Testament. That’s a hard proposal to take seriously, which is perhaps why it often feels as if Kubrick and Trumbo are over-identifying with the sword-and-sandal epic to the point of deconstructing it, rather than taking all its premises and assumptions at face value, or offering it in an uncritical way.
Of course, that’s not to say that Spartacus is mere deconstruction either, since part of the power of the film is the way that Kubrick and Trumbo creatively appropriate the constraints of the sword-and-sandal epic to craft a film that touches more vividly on the mechanics and motivations for slavery than any other made by a white director in Hollywood at the time. This is especially the case in the first act – the gladiatorial training centre in Capua – where the slaves are set against each other, deprived of sexual pleasure to keep them under control, and permitted just enough of a glimpse of upper-class life to reiterate they can never achieve it, even in the highly unlikely event that they are eventually freed. Kubrick saves his first really visceral use of Technicolor for these scenes, where a series of orange, yellow and blue daubs are painted onto Spartacus’ body to instruct the other slaves on the best parts of the flesh ro attack, maim and disarm. A series of similarly brilliantly painted bodies ensue, all of which support Kubrick and Trumbo’s interest in the libidinal mechanics and motivations for slavery– the perverse pleasures that slaves provide, above and beyond the economic use of slavery.
In fact, very little is done by slave labour, or needs to be done by slave labour, in the scenes that we see, since Kubrick and Trumbo quickly collapse mere slave labour into an embodied vision of slavery as part of a broader flesh trade – one component in a wider sadistic pleasure in the spectacle of humans reduced to flesh for entertainment. Gladiatorial combat is here presented as the logical and libidinal conclusion of slave labour, absorbing and distilling it to a pleasure principle, as if to suggest that slavery was ultimately a source of pleasure more than a source of labour, a mode of sadistic enjoyment above any argument from economic, social or structural necessity. Kubrick and Trumbo really push this powerful and provocative reading, consistently presenting slave-owning and slave-disciplining as a sexual orientation, from an eerie early scene when Batiatus looks on gleefully as Spartacus hesitates to lose his virginity to Varinia, to the sequence that sets the slave revolt in motion – a visit from Crassus and his female retinue, who are tasked with choosing the two most attractive men to fight, and finally settle on Spartacus and Draba (Woody Strode), an Ethiopian slave, after conferring in giggles about the size of Draba’s genitals. Just in case the sexual undertones weren’t explicit enough, the women insists on Spartacus and Draba being as scantily dressed as possible, and fighting to the death, demanding that their throats are cut if they don’t commit to the fight.
The next burst of Technicolor comes with this fight scene – the pivotal moment in the film – which ends with Draba refusing to fight Spartacus, and instead scaling the wall to the spectators’ stand, where he looks the two women in the face before Crassus cuts his throat for them. While Spartacus is spurned by this act of nobility into his slave revolt, the fact remains that an African slave shows him the way, as Kubrick and Trumbo manage to bury an image of African oppression and dignity at the fulcrum of this most conservative of Hollywood genres. From there, Spartacus escapes with a ragtag army that quickly develops into a militarized, mobile nation of slaves – or a nation without slaves – and matches to the sea. Kubrick delays virtually all of his Technicolor dazzle for this sublime march – the figurative equivalent of the escape from Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea, in The Ten Commandments – which takes up most of the second act of the film. Despite the focus on Spartacus, and the intermissions back in Rome, we’re never allowed to forget that this entire journey is a way of paying tribute to Draba, and the invisible black slaves that he channels, as Kubrick uses widescreen vision to try and stretch the limits of visibility in more ways than one, evoking the notable absence of black slaves in the American genre most devoted to bondage.
During this second act of the film, Kubrick also focuses more intensely on the relationship between Antoninus and Crassus, and then the relationship between Spartacus and Crassus. In doing so, he gradually suggests that the ultimate libidinal pleasure of slavery lay in witnessing the open secret of homoerotic desire, and the potential for homoerotic regard between men, in the locked gazes of gladiators on the brink of death. Just as gladiatorial combat took slavery to a logical and libidinal conclusion, so this homoerotic regard is in some sense presented as the conclusion of gladiatorial masculinity here, turning slavery into a way of collectively witnessing the unspoken homoerotic substrate of this patriarchal society. As the slaves are “oiled, buffed, shaved, massaged,” their combat turns into a homoerotic fetish – the defining and sustaining fetish of the ancient world – while the slave revolt unleashes the homoerotic energy back to the world at large, rather than confining it to the death-drive.
To that end, Kubruck emphasises homoerotic spectacle from the very outset, crafting a series of scenes that feel designed for closeted gay men. Sometimes these scenes are comic and tongue-in-cheek, as when Charles Laughton – a famously gay actor – talks at length about his insatiable appetite for women. Sometimes, however, they are more frankly and fully erotic – a panoply of glistening torsos, statuesque features and bronzed skin that culminate with the Roman Baths, where Crassus cruises Caesar in what for all intents and purposes feels like a gay bathhouse from the time Kubrick was filming. By the time we get to Crassus’ pivotal conversation with Antoninus about their homosexual relationship, then, there is virtually no effort at real euphemism, with Crassus acknowledging that he prefers both “oysters and snails,” and that “taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.”
More subtle, in this scene, is the way that Crassus presents homoerotic attachment as the bedrock of Roman culture, attempting to seduce Antoninus within the privacy of his apartment, before taking him out onto the balcony to enjoy a panoramic view of “the might, the majesty, the power, the terror of Rome.” Fluidly connecting the private spaces of his desire with the public vistas of Rome, Crassus effectively tells Antoninus that he can only love Rome by loving him in turn, and indeed explicitly inists that to submit to him is simply to submit to Rome: “There’s only one way to deal with Rome – you must serve her, you must abase yourself before her.” Since Kubrick and Trumbo are by now making a barely concealed film about the present, Rome here feels like a cipher for Hollywood – an affirmation that homoerotic energy sustains Hollywood, and they artists must both engage with it in order to create films. In effect, the film compares two ways of looking at homoerotic life – denying it exists, but continuing to rely on it, and embracing it fully as an integral element of social life.
These two attitudes come together in the character of Antoninus, and the caesura that ensues when Crassus returns from the balcony, and simply finds Anontinus absent. We next see Antoninus in Spartacus’ slave army – there is no explanation of how he got there – where he becomes a companion to Spartacus, and soon outranks even Varinia. The two men meet when Antoninus delivers a “song” to Spartacus, although his “singing” is really poetic recitation, and involves the most biblical diction in the screenplay, which seems to draw on the Song of Songs in particular, except in the opposite spirit of how this idiosyncratic book is typically received in Christian exegesis. Whereas the Song of Songs is generally read as a personal dedication that also functions as a Christian allegory, here Antoninus recites an allegory that initiates and cements Spartacus’ regard in the same moment – an unwitting dedication of love wrapped up in a vision of the slaves’ past and future that produces a “thirst for knowledge” on Spartacus’ part that he can only – momentarily – quench by kissing Varinia for the first time. By contrast, Crassus used Antoninus to satisfy the decadence and corruption of Rome, now shifting his attention to Caesar, who is presented frankly as a gay erotic object during the bathhouse scene, shot through with the same tempestuous longing as Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, in the only genuinely erotic scene in Kubrick’s career.
Rather than oppose heterosexual and homosexual desire, Kubrick and Trumbo thus draw a distinction between slaves as repositories of cloistered homosexual desire, and the slave army as a liberated homoerotic desire. Much as they use the sword-and-sandal epic as a cognate for forbidden racial themes, so they use it to tackle sexual themes as well, in the name of Spartacus’ heroic homosexuality, which is pointedly defined against the effete homosexuality of his Roman overlords. You might say that the film is an argument for straight-acting homosexuality, but with more openness about homosexual desire than that might otherwise suggest, due in part to the lyricism and beauty with which Kubrick films Spartacus and Antoninus’ rapport. This convergence of slave and sexual liberation crystallises the night before the climactic battle, when Spartacus moves through the camp, letting his gaze drift and cruise from one group of people to the next, seemingly taking in the entire world before his eyes finally alight on Antoninus. All the plangent beauty of this sequence is locked into this mutual gaze, as Kubrick opts for a quite gorgeous and unusual Technicolor combination of purple, blue and green, signalling this as a space outside regular Hollywood spectacle. Just as Spartacus’ first meeting with Antoninus led to his first kiss with Varinia, so this moment of unabashed homoerotic love is deflected into his first discussion with Varinia about her pregnancy – that is, it sustains his sense of the future, and his desire for the upcoming battle.
At the level of spectacle, this is one of the greatest battle scenes ever shot – widescreen and plosive, but also ethereal and dexterous, with every part immaculately controlled and choreographed, but with a genius’ taste for the serendipitous, right down to the shadows of clouds drifting overhead. Yet the aftermath of the battle is just as powerful, as Kubrick cuts abruptly from the heat of the action to a long, slow pan that captures the full toll of dead – an agonising contrast to the ex-slaves in solidarity on the night before the fight, transitioning us to a sobering last act. In these final scenes, we learn that Crassus has taken Varinia as his wife, as we return to him trying to make love to her with naked statues of men placed in the background, while Spartacus and Antoninus await crucifixion outside. In his efforts to make love to Spartacus agains these marble nudes, Crassus desperate tries to tap into his heroic homosexuality, but he can only eventually double down on the libidinal logic of slavery by forcing Spartacus and Antoninus to fight to the death. In an incredibly affecting conclusion, Spartacus effectively sacrifices himself for Antoninus, killing him on the spot to spare him the horrors of crucifixion, and so assure him a relatively clean death. Yet this is also a moment of consummation for Spartacus and Antoninus, cementing a love that Crassus can’t shake, moving through an overtly sexual clash of bodies, and ending with a declaration of love that is only barely and half-heartedly qualified: “I love you…like a father,” “I love you…like a son.”
In these final moments, Kubrick and Trumbo appear to be deflecting the mystical relation between God and Christ into this moment of father-son communion between Spartacus and Antoninus, as if the Holy Spirit were the homoerotic substrate ebbing and flowing around them – the precondition for this moment of emotional transubstantiation. In arguably the most moving ending of Kubrick’s career, Varinia says goodbye to Spartacus on his cross, assures him that his son is free, pledges to tell his son his story and enjoins him to “imagine a God for slaves.” Spartacus’ agency is now entirely collapsed into the cross, as Kubrick shifts back to a long shot as Varinia drives away, in what is really, ultimately, more of a historical tragedy than a traditional sword-and-sandal epic. By the time the screen cuts to black, Spartacus has completely earned its final musical epilogue, as Alex North’s composition modulates beautifully between mourning and hope, positioning the film, and America, on the very cusp of the Old and New Testaments, even as Kubrick and Trumbo have used that unique province of the sword-and-sandal epic to make the epic about American history that Hollywood could never condone at this time: an epic about the ever-present legacy of slavery.