When people think of historical epics, Spartacus is usually one of the first films that comes to mind. It was produced by Kirk Douglas and his Bryna Productions and distributed by Universal International. With a budget of about $12 million, Spartacus was one of the most expensive non-studio funded projects of the time. Douglas hired famously blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to craft a screenplay based on the popular novel by Howard Fast. Originally, Trumbo had to write under a pseudonym so the production wouldn't be shut down. Once the film was completed, Douglas bravely credited him properly. The film features a beautiful opening title sequence designed by Saul Bass and a wonderful score by Alex North.
The original director of Spartacus was Anthony Mann who would go on to helm El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Accounts differ as to why Mann was dismissed but he only shot the opening sequence and was then replaced by a young Stanley Kubrick. Douglas and Kubrick had worked together on Paths of Glory. Spartacus would be the last film Kubrick made without having complete control over the production. Kubrick was displeased with Russell Metty's cinematography and so did most of the work himself. When Spartacus won the Oscar for cinematography, it was given to Metty.
Douglas himself plays the titular slave-turned-rebel and he hired a fantastic international cast to work with him. Laurence Olivier plays the villainous Crassus, Charles Laughton plays senator Gracchus, Jean Simmons plays the beautiful Varinia, Peter Ustinov plays the lanista Batitatus and the dreamy John Gavin plays a young Julius Caesar.
The story begins with Batiatus searching Roman mines for slaves to buy for his gladiatorial school. There, he finds the Thracian prisoner Spartacus. Spartacus is taken to Capua where he learns the art of the gladiator. At the ludus, Spartacus meets Varinia, a household slave with whom he falls in love. When Crassus visits the ludus and demands a gladiatorial match, Spartacus is selected as one of the combatants. His opponent refuses to kill Spartacus and instead attacks Crassus. When the opportunity presents itself, all of the slaves rebel, killing Batiatus' guards and escaping. Batiatus himself, escapes with Varinia to Rome.
Spartacus is able to convince the slaves to remain together and fight for the freedom of slaves throughout Rome. They agree and they travel together through Italy attacking rich villas and freeing slaves to join their cause. Eventually, they amass a large army. In Rome, the senate debates what to do about the uprising. Most of the army is away fighting two separate wars. Eventually, they send about half of the Roman garrison to meet Spartacus under the command of Glabrus. Meanwhile, Spartacus is reunited with Varinia who has escaped from Batiatus. They are finally able to express their love and they get married.
Crassus uses the opportunity of the slave revolt to try to gain more political power. He and Gracchus become involved in a great deal of political posturing and maneuvering. Crassus buys a young slave called Antoninus (Tony Curtis) and, in a scene famously removed for its homosexual connotations, expresses that he is interested in both "oysters and snails" (women and men). This prompts Antoninus to escape and join Spartacus' army where he inspires the former slaves with song.
Spartacus makes a deal with the Cilician pirates who are to build enough ships to transport his men away from Italy. The pirates take payment for the ships but eventually betray Spartacus leaving his army stranded in Italy and surrounded by Roman armies who have been recalled to fight him. Backed into a corner, Spartacus has no choice but to continue to fight. He marches his army north towards Rome. When the former slaves defeat Glabrus' forces, Crassus is given command of a larger force and sent to meet them. This gives Gracchus the opportunity to give Caesar command of the garrison of Rome. Meanwhile, Varinia discovers that she is pregnant and Spartacus wishes nothing more than for his son to be born free.
Spartacus continues to gather followers on the road to Rome and Crassus has positioned himself to become a hugely popular and powerful public figure. He is named first consul and vows to destroy Spartacus and his army. Gracchus tries to maneuver himself and Caesar into positions where they can take over should Crassus fail.
The armies finally meet. It is a huge spectacle but the untrained slaves stand no chance against the machine that is the Roman army. They are attacked from two sides and defeated. The few survivors, including Varinia and her baby, are taken prisoner. When the prisoners fail to reveal which man is Spartacus, Crassus orders them all crucified. He takes Varinia and her baby into his home as slaves.
As final insults, Crassus tries to seduce Varinia. She refuses his advances and finally reveals that Spartacus is among the prisoners. Crassus then pits Spartacus and Antoninus against each other in gladiatorial combat. Spartacus is forced to kill his friend to save him from the torture of crucifixion. He is then, himself, crucified. Realizing his weakened position now that Crassus has succeeded in quelling the rebellion, Gracchus puts his affairs in order. He hires Batiatus to kidnap Varinia and her child from Crassus' home. Gracchus then arranges travel papers for them so they can escape the city and he kills himself rather than live under the rule of Crassus.
As Varinia and Batitatus leave Rome, they find Spartacus dying on a cross. Varinia shows him his son and assures him that he will now live free.
Spartacus is a great film, well-deserving of the many Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs it received. Though little is known about the historical Spartacus before the events of the Third Servile War, this film has become the hero's de facto biography. It's also famous for its timely and subtle references to American politics of the time.
The best DVD version of Spartacus is the wonderful Criterion edition. It's two discs featuring a restored version of the film that is truly beautiful. It includes the missing scenes that were originally excised on the orders of the Hays Code. The second disc features fun contemporary interviews and news reel footage as well as a 1992 interview with the very entertaining Peter Ustinov. It's also got some of Saul Bass' storyboard art and even some of Kubrick's sketches. If you haven't seen this it really is a must-see film.