'Spartacus' brings grandeur, romance back to the movies

May 03, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Spartacus'

Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Jean Simmons.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.

*** 1/2 "Spartacus," lovingly restored from its decay and now splashed across a big screen at the Westview, has this message for our times: Freedom's just another word for everything worth dying for.

It's a madly romantic celebration of the spirit of liberation, a dream-state recapitulation of an episode in imperial Roman history when an army of slaves, perhaps aware at its own deepest levels that it was doomed, risked everything and lost everything.

The 1960 Kirk Douglas-Stanley Kubrick co-production is almost in a lost language of cinematic grandeur; this is the movie Latin of panoramic shots, elaborate costume design, vast city vistas that exist only on painted flats, Brit dry irony pretending to be Roman debauchery and Yank prole-angst standing for the unquenchable will of the people.

It's probably Kubrick's least Kubrickian film, though you feel his cold genius now and then imprinting itself on the material. Douglas, the movie's true auteur, had just fired Anthony Mann and brought in the young Kubrick, with whom he'd worked on "Paths of Glory."

Kubrick probably didn't have much to do with the script, by old Hollywood-Ten writer Dalton Trumbo, and he presumably just left the frequent purple passages of mock poetry alone, feeling as helpless before them as any critic. (Tony Curtis' "song" about "twilight," which stirs the slave army, is a particular abomination.)

Some of the restoration is more curious than compelling. Most famously, a scene in which Laurence Olivier's Crassus reveals his polymorphous sexuality to Tony Curtis' slave boy Antoninus has been uncovered and included, with Anthony Hopkins now dubbing Olivier's lines in clearly recognizable tones: It's not a lecture it's a Lecter, and it doesn't add much dramatically.

Almost subversively, Kubrick appears to appreciate the villainous Romans more than the earnest slaves. He gets great turns out of an unctuous, vivid Olivier as the slimy but astute Crassus, head bad boy; and has equal fun with Charles Laughton's sassy, sly democrat, Gracchus.

Douglas makes a wonderful gladiator-general: He was at the peak of his physical powers in that year, not yet descended into the self-parody that became his forte in later times. He looks tough; with a broken nose and under a punk haircut (complete to a very '90s pony-tail), he could run with the Crips.

The movie hopelessly romanticizes the slaves, though how could it not? Kubrick loves to portray what most Roman citizens at the time regarded as a plague of looters and pillagers as a kibbutzim in transit, a happy, classless band of willowy chicks, handsome lads, brawny grandpops and walnut-faced earth-grandmas, operating under the principle: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

But he reverts to reality in his battle sequences: The final big slash-out on the slopes of Lucania in 71 B.C. is probably the most fearsome Bronze Age conflict ever filmed -- brutal, intimate, a mad helter-skelter of blood and mud and exhaustion.

Crassus was not merciful; he crucified 6,000 survivors on the road to Rome, as an object lesson. In its last and best minutes, "Spartacus" is fully equal to the dimensions of this tragedy. A great movie it's not, but as a monument to the will to risk all in order to breathe air through lungs you can call your own, it's stirring.

* "Spartacus" was originally scheduled to run at the Senator in a millimeter print but only three such prints were struck and the Senator could not run a 35-millimeter version in its ongoing 70-millimeter film festival.

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