Plot: Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave in the Roman empire, about 70 years before the birth of Christ. A rebellious and proud man, he is sentenced to death for biting a guard but rescued by Biatius (Peter Ustinov), who buys him and takes him to his school for training and selling gladiators. Slave women are provided to the men as rewards. Varinia (Jean Simmons), a British slave, is given to Spartacus. He is awestruck by her grace and beauty, but when he sees that Biatius is watching them, he screams, “I am not an animal!” and will not touch her.
Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a Roman dignitary, visits Biatius’ home with two spoiled and decadent women, who insist on seeing a fight to the death. Spartacus is paired with Draba (Woody Strode), an Ethiopian, who fights with net and trident. Draba corners Spartacus but refuses to kill him, and intstead rushes toward Crassus, who slits his throat. Crassus buys Varinia, and when a guard taunts Spartacus about her, Spartacus kills him, and leads the other slaves in a revolt.
They escape to the countryside, and other slaves join them as they make progress toward the sea, where they hope to escape. Varinia and Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a slave singer and magician, escape from Crassus, and join the slaves. The Romans send troops to capture them, but the slaves defeat them, sending back the message that all they want is the freedom to return to their homes. Crassus uses the slave revolt to gain political power, by promising “order” if he is given complete control. When he is successful, triumphing over his political rival, Gracchus (Charles Laughton), he cuts off the slaves’ access to ships, and surrounds them with troops. Many are killed on both sides, and the slaves are recaptured. Crassus promises them their lives if they will just give him Spartacus. As Spartacus is about to step forward, each of the slaves cries out, “I am Spartacus!” The Romans crucify them all except for Spartacus and Antoninus, lining the Appian Way with 6000 crucifixes.
Crassus takes Varinia and her new baby back to his home. He wants her affection, as the ultimate triumph over Spartacus. Spartacus and Antoninus are ordered to fight to the death, with the survivor to be crucified. Each tries to kill the other, to save him from the slow death of crucifixion. Spartacus is successful, killing Antoninus out of love and mercy, and then he is crucified. Before he dies, he is able to see Varinia and his son, now both free, thanks to Gracchus.
Discussion: This epic saga of the price of freedom is thrilling to watch, the struggles of conscience as gripping as the brilliantly staged battle scenes. When we first see Spartacus, he strikes out at an oppressor almost reflexively. He does not care that the consequence is death; as he later says, for a slave death is only a release from pain.
His life is spared when he is purchased by Biatius. His training as a gladiator gives him his first chance to form bonds with fellow slaves. His exposure to the guards and to the degenerate women from Rome, who insist on watching muscular men kill each other, shows him that power is not based on worth. When he shouts, “I am not an animal!” he is saying it to himself as much as to Biatius. When he strikes out again, he is armed not only with the fighting skills he has learned, but also with an ability to lead, founded in a new sense of entitlement to freedom.
The characters in this movie are especially vivid and interesting. Varinia has a wonderful grace and a rare humor, which adds warmth to her character. She is able to shield her emotional self from the abuse she is forced to endure without deadening her feelings. Gracchus conveys the essential decency of a man who has made many compromises, political and spiritual.
Both the author of the book and the screenwriter were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and families should discuss how that influenced their approach to the story. Kids may also be interested to know that this was among the most popular movies show in the former Soviet Union, and should consider what it was that appealed to the communists.
Questions for Kids:
· Why was it important for the Romans to spread the rumor that Spartacus was of noble birth?
· What did Biatius mean when he said he had found his dignity? How was he changed?
· What did it mean when Gracchus responded that “dignity shortens life even more quickly than disease?”
· Why did Crassus say he was more concerned about killing the legend than killing the man?
· Why did each of the slaves claim to be Spartacus?
Connections: The movie cuts back and forth between the speeches given by Crassus and Spartacus to inspire their followers. Compare the speeches to each other, and to the most famous such speech in literature, Henry V’s “we few, we happy few” speech, delivered by Olivier (who also played Crassus) in the 1945 version of “Henry V,” and delivered with a very different interpretation by Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 version. The sense of community and loyalty of the slaves is reminiscient of similar scenes in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
This was the first screen credit for scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo after he was jailed for refusing to cooperate with Senater Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, though he wrote under other names during that period, and even won two Oscars for best screenplay under other names.
Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for his performance as the slave dealer who runs the gladiator school. He is a rare actor who is able to keep his character as interesting after becoming (at least comparatively) virtuous as he was before.
All of the performances are outstanding. Jean Simmons can also be seein in “Guys and Dolls” and “Great Expectations.” Charles Laughton can be seen in “Witness for the Prosecution,” and “Advise and Consent.” The movie also won Oscars for art direction, costume design, and cinematography.
In 1991, an expanded version of the film was released, restoring scenes that had been cut for the original release, including a bathing scene with Cassus and Antoninus with an implication of sexual interest. Because the original soundtrack was not available and Olivier was dead, his voice was dubbed by Anthony Hopkins.
Activities: Kids who like this movie might enjoy the novel by Howard Fast, also the author of a novel about the American revolution, April Morning.