The history of slavery in America is a source of sorrow and shame to all of us.
Slavery in Rome doesn’t seem so terrible at first glance.
For some enslaved ancients, life wasn’t all bad. Slaves were teachers, professionals, and skilled artisans. It was common for slaves to earn their freedom.
For millions of others, however, the experience of slavery was unimaginably unpleasant.
By the time of the late Republic, Roman food was grown on huge plantations owned by absentee aristocrats. The work was done by chained slave gangs. They slept together in tightly packed underground cages. Disease ran rampant. Life for slaves working in Roman mines was even more ghastly.
The film begins in approximately 75 BC, with Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) slaving in a North African mine. His physique and fighting spirit catches the eye of a slave trader, who brings him to Italy to become a gladiator.
Believe it or not, gladiator school is a huge promotion over the mines. But Spartacus is not exactly grateful. Before too long, he overthrows the school by force.
Director Stanley Kubrick takes three leisurely hours following Spartacus’s march around southern Italy, liberating slaves everywhere he goes and thumbing his nose at the Roman establishment.
The problem with this movie is simple: Kirk Douglas’s lackluster performance. As a slave, Spartacus seethes with rebellious rage. As a freedman, he goes soft. You simply don’t believe that this boring guy led history’s greatest slave rebellion. Every time he’s on camera, cheesy music plays on the soundtrack and I considered hitting fast forward.
In contrast, Spartacus’s adversaries are funny and entertaining. The Roman characters are so intelligent and interesting that it seems to contradict the film’s pro-slave message.
The real star of “Spartacus” is Laurence Olivier, who plays Crassus. Crassus was a real estate tycoon and the richest man of his time.
Crassus is an unexpectedly three-dimensional villain. In one famous scene, Crassus makes a convincing defense of bisexuality to his slave as he hits on him. The slave (Tony Curtis) is unconvinced, and promptly runs away to join the rebels.
The curse of the Roman Republic was that great men like Crassus weren’t content with mere riches and luxury. Aristocrats craved dignitas, which could only be achieved by winning elections or on the battlefield.
At one point, Crassus turns to his young protégé Julius Caesar and calmly observes that he is more frightened of Caesar than Spartacus. And, of course, he is right to be. Ambitious patricians and their armies of loyal soldiers were a clear and present danger to the Republic.
“Spartacus” shows us how the Republic fell. Only a few generations later, Romans were willing to accept a tyrannical Emperor for life because they were so sick of self-assertive Senators and their rampaging private legions.
“Spartacus” has some good characters and some substance. But it doesn’t come together into a coherent or focused finished product.
The movie’s main message – that slavery is inherently evil – is both poorly argued and completely obvious. Stanley Kubrick later disowned the film, claiming that the studio edited it poorly without his input.