Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on a novel by Howard Fast, screenplay by Dalton Trumbo,1960
The name Spartacus has a long and honorable history in the annals of the modern international labor movement, most notably, as used by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and their comrades as the early name for their ill-fated revolutionary organization the Sparatacusbund in the 1919 German revolutionary working class uprising. Why would a 20th century revolutionary labor organization use the name of a pre-Christian era Thracian slave-general for their organization? To state the question is to provide the answer. The symbiotic relationship between the efforts to overthrow Roman chattel slavery in ancient times and capitalist wage slavery in modern ones is a “no-brainer”. Whether one can draw that inference from the story line of this cinematic effort is another question. That is where the fact that this story line, as outlined by director Stanley Kubrick and producer Kirk Douglas, is based on a novel by the old-time former Stalinist and Hollywood blacklisted writer Howard Fast (and screenplay by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo)tells us that it is at least partially so.
As to the story line- of course from minute one all our sympathies are, or should be, with the Thracian slave Spartacus who longs to be free from the boot heel of the Roman slave master. As the story progresses we confront two different concepts of the world- Spartacus’s longings to be free and Rome’s, at this time barely republican, need to control the known world by example, if possible, by force of the legions if necessary. The film traces that inevitably conflict, especially in its military form, until the final clash between armies in the field of the slave and the master. Not for the last time the master wins- but the longings to be free are never really extinguished despite those plebeian defeats. That is the real message here. Remember it, please.
Through in a little love interest for old Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) with a slave girl (Jean Simmons) that helps to keep him going, some graphic scenes on the tough life of the gladiator, a little humor provided by the owner of the gladiator school (an Oscar-winning Peter Ustinov) and a little Roman ruling class intrigue between the good Roman republican (Charles Laughton) and the first of a line of would-be imperial dictators (Laurence Olivier) and you have a three hour film that has some grit. See this older classic cinematic effort for the acting and fine directing. But also see it to know why someday, somewhere the plebes will rise again.