Friday 16 November 2018

We salute you, oh spartAcus

This month Universal launch a most-welcome concept that will hopefully become a trend with some of the other studios. Starting this week, they're re-releasing some of their classic films on the big screen in digital format. On September 25, John Landis's cult road comedy Blues Brothers will be given a limited cinema release; from October 9, Brian De Palma's sprawling gangster film Scarface will get a new run; on October 23 it's the turn of John Carpenter's schlock horror classic The Thing; and on November 6 the original and very funny Animal House movie will get an airing. First up, though, is Stanley Kubrick's 1960 historical epic Spartacus, which is currently showing at selected cinemas.

In fact, although Kubrick directed it, we should really call it Kirk Douglas's Spartacus, for it was Douglas who got the project off the ground, co-produced it and pushed it through to completion with an iron will. Kubrick would later distance himself from the finished film, which had few or none of his trademark stylistic tics and recurring themes, and it was arguably the experience of working on it that drove him away from Hollywood proper and towards an English exile.

Kubrick was just 30 when Douglas asked him to take over the direction of Spartacus. The producer and star had just fired original director Anthony Mann after only a week of shooting, complaining that Mann seemed afraid of the huge scale of the project. Kubrick, who had worked with Douglas on the brilliant 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory, was chosen as Mann's replacement, and it proved in ways an inspired choice. Kubrick jumped at the chance to oversee such a grand shoot, but if Douglas thought the young man would be easy to boss around he had another think coming.

Kirk Douglas had selected Howard Fast's novel based (rather loosely) on the true story of Spartacus as a possible project in reaction to the 1959 William Wyler epic Ben-Hur. Rumour had it that Douglas had campaigned for that role and was not amused when Charlton Heston got it instead. Spartacus would out-epic Ben-Hur, and Douglas was exacting in his efforts to make it as good as he possibly could.

For instance Howard Fast was initially hired to adapt his own book, but Douglas then dropped him in favour of the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, whom the McCarthy witchhunts had forced to operate under various pseudonyms. Trumbo was a brilliant writer, but he clashed with Stanley Kubrick from the start. Kubrick was used to writing and controlling his own scripts (in fact this is the only film he made in which he had no input in that department), and began picking holes in Trumbo's story. He complained that the characters were stiff and lifeless, and that Spartacus in particular had no flaws, but Kirk Douglas backed his writer. He and Kubrick had struck up a close friendship during Paths of Glory, but that was all but destroyed by the Spartacus shoot, and Douglas would later refer the director as a talented shit.

What Kubrick was good at, however, was marshalling the film's epic battle scenes filmed using thousands of extras. Although he usually favoured using sound stages so that he could tightly control his shoots, he insisted on moving from Hollywood to the plains outside Madrid to film the battle scenes. Eight thousand Spanish soldiers doubled as Crassus's legions, and Kubrick directed their movements from a purpose-built tower. The results were breathtaking, but considered too violent, and heavily cut by the studio afterwards.

Also considered beyond the pale was a bath house scene where Laurence Olivier's Crassus seemed to be seducing the slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis. Although the homosexuality was only implied, the almost 15-minute scene was cut, and only reinstated many years later in a director's cut. By that stage the original sound clip had been lost, and while Tony Curtis was still around to re-do his lines, Anthony Hopkins did a very passable impression for the Olivier lines.

As would almost invariably be the case on Stanley Kubrick films from then on, the shoot was a slow and arduous one, involving 167 days of filming. At one point Tony Curtis was heard asking Jean Simmons: "Who do I have to screw to get off this film?" Simmons apparently replied: "When you find out, let me know."

After clashing with Trumbo and Douglas, Kubrick then crossed swords with cinematographer Russell Metty. Metty, who'd worked with Orson Welles and others, walked off the set after one too many run-ins with Kubrick, and from then on the director did most of his own cinematography. The sad fact was that Kubrick wasn't very good at collaborating with anyone. At heart he was an artist rather than a studio director, and like all artists he found compromise and negotiation to be utterly alien concepts. And it was his experience on Spartacus that helped him find the kind of environment where he'd do his best work -- in England, far from meddling producers, where he could control every aspect of his film-making including, crucially, the final cut.

That said, he didn't do a bad job at all on Spartacus. Somehow the violence of the sweeping battles and the gladitorial arenas seemed more real and visceral in Kubrick's film than anything to that date.

Laurence Olivier's Crassus was the epitome of patrician priggishness, and was complemented perfectly by Charles Laughton's turn as the wry and wily senator, Gracchus, the characters' emnity apparently augmented by a real-life animosity between the two great actors. As for Kirk Douglas, he was perfect as the steely Spartacus, and the film fulfilled his ambition of fronting up a great historical epic. And while I'm not sure it's as entertaining as Ben-Hur, it's an altogether superior film.

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