Spartacus is a 1960 American epic historical drama film directed by Stanley Kubrick. The screenplay by Dalton Trumbo was based on the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast. It was inspired by the life story of the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity, Spartacus, and the events of the Third Servile War.
The film starred Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, Laurence Olivier as the Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus, Peter Ustinov, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, as slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, John Gavin as Julius Caesar, Jean Simmons as Varinia, Charles Laughton as Sempronius Gracchus and Tony Curtis as Antoninus. The film won four Academy Awards in all.
Douglas, whose Bryna Productions company was producing the film, removed original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting. Kubrick, with whom Douglas had worked before, was brought on board to take over direction. It is the only film directed by Kubrick where he did not have complete artistic control.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Kirk Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus, and President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed American Legion picket lines to view the film, helping to end blacklisting. The author of the novel on which it is based, Howard Fast, was also blacklisted, and originally had to self-publish it.
n the 1st century BC, the Roman Republic has slid into corruption, its menial work done by armies of slaves. One of these, a proud and gifted man named Spartacus, is so uncooperative in his servitude that he is sentenced to fight as agladiator. He is trained at a school run by the unctuous Roman businessman Lentulus Batiatus, who instructs Spartacus’s trainer Marcellus to bully the slave mercilessly and break his spirit. Amid the abuse, Spartacus forms a quiet relationship with a serving woman named Varinia, whom he refuses to rape when she is sent to “entertain” him in his cell.
Batiatus receives a visit from the Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus, an arch-conservative who aims to become dictator of Rome. Crassus buys Varinia on a whim, and for the amusement of his companions arranges for Spartacus and three others to fight in pairs. When Spartacus is disarmed, his opponent, an African named Draba, spares his life in a burst of compassion and attacks the Roman audience, but is killed by an arena guard and Crassus. The next day, with the school’s atmosphere still tense over this episode, Batiatus takes Varinia away to Crassus’s house in Rome. Spartacus kills Marcellus, who was taunting him over this, and their fight escalates into a riot. The gladiators overwhelm their guards and escape into the Italian countryside.
Spartacus is elected chief of the fugitives and decides to lead them out of Italy and back to their homes. They plunder Roman country estates as they go, collecting enough money to buy sea transport from Rome’s foes, the pirates of Cilicia. Countless other slaves join the group, making it as large as an army. One of the new arrivals is Varinia, who escaped while being delivered to Crassus. Another is a slave entertainer named Antoninus, who also fled Crassus’s service after the Roman tried to seduce him. Privately Spartacus feels mentally inadequate because of his lack of education during years of servitude. However, he proves an excellent leader and organizes his diverse followers into a tough and self-sufficient community. Varinia, now his informal wife, becomes pregnant by him, and he also comes to regard the spirited Antoninus as a sort of son.
The Roman Senate becomes increasingly alarmed as Spartacus defeats the multiple armies it sends against him. Crassus’s populist opponent Gracchus knows that his rival will try to use the crisis as a justification for seizing control of the Roman army. To try and prevent this, Gracchus channels as much military power as possible into the hands of his own protege, a young senator named Julius Caesar. Although Caesar lacks Crassus’s contempt for the lower classes of Rome, he mistakes the man’s rigid outlook for nobility. Thus, when Gracchus reveals that he has bribed the Cilicians to get Spartacus out of Italy and rid Rome of the slave army, Caesar regards such tactics as beneath him and goes over to Crassus.
Crassus uses a bribe of his own to make the pirates abandon Spartacus and has the Roman army secretly force the rebels away from the coastline towards Rome. Amid panic that Spartacus means to sack the city, the Senate gives Crassus absolute power. Now surrounded by Romans, Spartacus convinces his men to die fighting. Just by rebelling, and proving themselves human, he says that they have struck a blow against slavery. In the ensuing battle, most of the slave army is massacred by Crassus’s forces. Afterward, when the Romans try to locate the rebel leader for special punishment, every surviving man shields him by shouting “I’m Spartacus!” As a result, Crassus has them all sentenced to death by crucifixion along the Via Appia.
Meanwhile, Crassus has found Varinia and Spartacus’s newborn son and has taken them prisoner. He is disturbed by the idea that Spartacus can command more love and loyalty than he can and hopes to compensate by making Varinia as devoted to him as she was to her former husband. When she rejects him, he furiously seeks out Spartacus (whom he recognizes from having watched him in the arena) and forces him to fight Antoninus to the death. The survivor is to be crucified, along with all the other men captured after the great battle. Spartacus kills Antoninus to spare him this fate. The incident leaves Crassus worried about Spartacus’s potential to live in legend as a martyr. In other matters he is also worried about Caesar, who he senses will someday eclipse him.
Gracchus, having seen Rome fall into tyranny, commits suicide. Before doing so, he bribes his friend Batiatus to rescue Spartacus’s family from Crassus and carry them away to freedom. On the way out of Rome, the group pass under Spartacus’s cross. Varinia is able to comfort him in his dying moments by showing him his little son, who will grow up without ever having been a slave.
- Kirk Douglas as Spartacus
- Laurence Olivier as Crassus
- Jean Simmons as Varinia
- Charles Laughton as Gracchus
- Peter Ustinov as Batiatus
- Tony Curtis as Antoninus
- John Gavin as Julius Caesar
- John Dall as Marcus Glabrus
- Nina Foch as Helena Glabrus
- John Ireland as Crixus
- Herbert Lom as Tigranes Levantus (pirate envoy)
- Charles McGraw as Marcellus
- Joanna Barnes as Claudia Marius
- Harold J. Stone as David
- Woody Strode as Draba