Restored 'Spartacus' more of a pageant than in 1960

April 29, 1991|By Janet Maslin | By Janet Maslin,New York Times

Seen today, in the lovingly restored 197-minute version, the two-tiered historical pageant that is "Spartacus" says at least as much about America in the late 1950s as it does about ancient Rome.

This sword-clanking 1960 epic about a slaves' uprising -- it is scheduled to open at the Senator Theatre in late May -- was the film that took a giant step toward ending the Hollywood blacklist, since its screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was finally freed from the onus of working under pseudonyms and credited under his own name.

That is only one of the reasons "Spartacus" has earned its place in film history. Another is that it is an early work by Stanley Kubrick, although he hardly regards this as a pet project.

Kubrick was hired only after shooting began, as a replacement for another director, Anthony Mann.

Since then, Kubrick has effectively disowned "Spartacus," but his stylistic hallmarks are still occasionally discernible in the midst of all that muscle-flexing kitsch.

This is also a film whose battle scenes look as if they required the services of a real army, because they did. There were so many Roman legions on hand (as played by 5,000 Spanish soldiers) that Kubrick shot his climactic military maneuvers from half a mile away.

And "Spartacus" earned another kind of distinction for having cost more ($12 million) than the studio that produced it (Universal) was actually worth. MCA bought Universal for $11,250,000 while the filming of "Spartacus" was in progress.

Restored under the supervision of Robert A. Harris, who also did such superb work on "Lawrence of Arabia," "Spartacus" has the kind of visual grandiosity that was much admired 30 years ago and today seems surpassingly strange

And Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton received copies of both scripts. "We were 3-for-3 against 0-for-3," Douglas remembers thinking, when all three actors preferred the Trumbo version (which was adapted from Howard Fast's novel).

As the wildly decadent Crassus, Olivier is central to the once-deleted "snails and oysters" bath scene that makes for one of this restoration's livelier moments. (His voice has been supplied by Anthony Hopkins, who sounds distinctively like himself but expertly mimics the Olivier diction.)

Making thinly veiled sexual overtures to a handsome slave (Tony Curtis, who is also described rather improbably as a "singer of songs," or poet), he frames his thoughts about sexual preference in terms of sea creatures.

Censors considered this too risque and suggested changing the points of comparison to "artichokes and truffles," which the film makers rejected, and so the scene was deleted.

Included now, it is both valuable to the plot and comfortably attuned to the film's pervasive suggestiveness, which for a mass-audience film of this scale is indeed remarkable. From the decadent rich who delight in gladiatorial fights-to-the-death to the slyly insinuating Roman senators, the privileged characters in "Spartacus" exude corruption.

Not so the slaves, who are noble to a one, and whose embodiment of brotherhood gives the film its ideological slant.

A reaction against Hollywood's anti-communism can be felt in the film's idealized view of these workers. But it must also be said that the wicked rich are a lot more interesting.

It is Laughton, as the scene-stealingly cynical politician Gracchus, who has the film's best lines.

"In Rome, dignity shortens life even more surely than disease," he remarks. Meeting Varinia, he casually kisses her hand and says, "So this is the woman it took Crassus eight Roman legions to conquer. I wish I had time to make your acquaintance, my dear."

Amusing at some points and laborious at others, "Spartacus" moves at the lumbering pace of the virtually extinct wide-screen epic, but it eventually arrives at a tragic ending involving fierce battle, a sea of corpses and the sight of the Appian Way lined with crucified slaves.

These scenes are made even more wrenching by the great tact and efficacy with which they have been restored.

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