Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #241
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier
My personal history with Spartacus, a film I had never actually seen until tonight, is long and bizarre. In the 5th grade, I was obsessed with the improvisational comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? On reflection, it was a mostly terrible show, but I really loved it for some reason. The cast loved to take single ideas and make a joke about them in every single episode, whether it made sense to do so or not. One of these constantly recurring gags was from Stanley Kubrick's 1960 Rome epic; on nearly every episode, one of the show's four performers would announce "I'm Spartacus!" in some presumably comical context. So, since about the year 2000, I've been familiar with one scene from Spartacus. When Pepsi used the same scene for an ad campaign in 2005, I felt like I already knew it, and even this was five years before I would watch the film. That's how pop culture works sometimes. When something is too deeply ingrained in the public psyche, the creator sometimes loses ownership. So I took nothing more than my familiarity with the great scene where dozens of members of the slave army stand up to take the blame for Spartacus' role in their revolt when I sat down to watch the film tonight, and I found the other three hours extremely satisfying.
One thing kind of bugged me about the movie that I have to air out. The screenplay for Spartacus was written by Dalton Trumbo, the Johnny Got His Gun author famously blacklisted during the McCarthy Era as a communist. Some accounts say that the "I'm Spartacus!" scene is a metaphor for the solidarity felt among the blacklisted writers during the Red Scare. And that's fine. In fact, it gives the scene a nice second dimension and serves to enhance it. The result is a feel-good vibe of solidarity among disenfranchised parties. That's on one hand. On the other hand, Spartacus is a movie about a slave revolt – being released to 1960 America, no less – that steers as far clear of race issues as it possibly can. The only mention of race involves a trident-wielding Ethiopian slave chosen to fight against Spartacus in the film's first act. He is later called "a Negro," hardly in a manner any more racist than depicting him as a slave in the first place, and that's that. If Trumbo could insert a commentary on the writers blacklisted during the Red Scare, then he surely could have found room to make a nod to race relations in a film that so perfectly lent itself to the subject and in an era that so desperately needed such a discussion. It's silly to knock a movie for what it isn't, though, and what Spartacus is deserves heaps of praise.
The word "epic" as it relates to film is meaningless without Spartacus. Told in sprawling episodic fashion over some of Kubrick's vastest cinematography, it is a triumphant yet tragic story that could be ripped from the pages of Virgil (Please don't call me out on that, classics nerds). It traces the life of a hardheaded Thracian slave from his days working in Libya to his time in a gladiator academy, and from his role in leading a slave army to his crucifixion for revolting against the state. We get glimpses into his love life along the way, and Trumbo managed to write in a fairly beautiful romance with Varinia, a slave girl from Britannia played wonderfully by Jean Simmons. The movie is everything one would expect such an epic endeavor to be, and its iconic scene plays just as powerfully in context as it does in the countless send-ups and tributes that it inspired. It's not Kubrick's best picture, but it's quite possibly his most ambitious, and most of that ambition is capitalized upon magnificently.
The Good: "I'm Spartacus" is one of the most iconic scenes in the history of film, and with good reason.
The Bad: As with so many films this episodic, there's some disconnect between scenes. It's what made Ran feel so uneven, and it pops up from time to time here as well.
The Skinny: Just sneaking on the list at #241 sounds pretty good to me.