61 years of (the film) Spartacus
[This article first appeared in the Trotskyite on-line magazine International Socialist on 24th October 2021. It’s included here, as it was first published, as I think it has a few interesting things to say about the 1960s film of the slave revolt against the Roman Empire. I don’t agree with all the comments and it’s a little tiresome to read that all Communist Party members ‘repudiated Stalinism’ – but then that’s a trope with Trotskyites. So this article is published in the spirit of non-sectarianism, just this once.]
On 6 October 1960, the film Spartacus opened in New York City’s DeMille Theatre.1 Time Magazine celebrated “a new kind of Hollywood movie: a superspectacle with spiritual vitality and moral force”.2 Long-standing New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was less excited, dismissing the film as “heroic humbug”, adding that “the middle phase is pretentious and tedious, because it is concerned with the dull strife of politics”.3 People entering the film had to brave picket lines organised by the right-wing American Legion. The Legion had sent out 17,000 letters encouraging patriotic war veterans to protest the film.4 Hedda Hopper, a columnist close to the Legion, wrote that “this story was sold to Universal Pictures from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go and see it”.5 Still, the film went on to win four Oscars at the 1961 Academy Awards.
The “Commie scriptwriter” behind the movie was Dalton Trumbo. Spartacus was the first film to carry his name on its end credits for over a decade. Trumbo had spent 11 months in prison after he refused to testify in front of Joseph McCarthy’s House of Representations Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He was part of the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers who challenged McCarthy’s right to investigate their connections to the Communist Party and paid heavily for it. Since 1945, no film had been prepared to publicly acknowledge his contribution, even though he had won two Oscars in this period for screenplays he had written under pseudonyms.
For the 12 years following their 1948 trial, none of the Hollywood Ten could openly work in the US film industry. Some got jobs as labourers, some left the country. Others carried on writing, albeit at a much lower rate of pay, under assumed names. By proudly displaying Trumbo’s name, Spartacus openly challenged the repressive status quo—and the anti-Communist witch-hunts weren’t what they used to be. At the Los Angeles première, the 1,500 guests were met by only 36 pickets. By the end of 1960, Spartacus was the year’s highest-grossing film.
Spartacus and the McCarthy witch-hunt
Spartacus was created in a Hollywood still reeling from the McCarthyite witch-hunts. Trumbo’s script reminds us of the indignities that he continued to suffer. At one point, the Roman senator Crassus declares, “The enemies of the state are known, arrests are in progress, the prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled.” Trumbo knew that his name could be found on similar lists that had been compiled much more recently. Although McCarthyism is now often thought of primarily as a Hollywood phenomenon, its purview was much wider. Its aim was to root out radical opinion and social resistance. Norma Barzman, who was forced into exile by the blacklist, explains: “They attacked Hollywood because it was high profile and made it easier to create a climate of fear. The blacklist was a small part of what was going on in this country at the time”.6
The 1950s had started badly for the left in the United States, as Stefan Bornost explains:
Unlike the 1930s, which was characterized by large social struggles, workers failed to break in large numbers away from the system and towards the Communist Party. Instead they were increasingly integrated into the developing conservative and anti-Communist Cold War consensus. The Communists thus lost both political possibilities and members. Party membership fell from 80,000 in 1944 to 5,000 in the mid-1950s. Of these 5,000, around 1,500 were Federal Bureau of Investigation informants.7
In 1952, the US Chamber of Commerce recommended barring “Communists, fellow travelers and dupes” from jobs as “teachers and librarians”, and from posts in “any school or university.” Specifically targetted were “the entertainment field” and “any industrial plant large enough to have a labor union”.8
McCarthy was helped by the “business union” model adopted by the big trade union federations, which actively worked to police the left:
In 1949, the CIO expelled 11 “red” unions. By 1954, 59 out of 100 unions had changed their constitution to bar Communists from holding union offices—a provision that was only recently dropped—and 40 unions banned Communists from being rank and file members.9
Beyond the trade unions, there was a broader left-liberal acceptance of McCarthyism. Instead of defending the political rights of Communist Party members, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conducted its own witch-hunt to drive radicals out of its ranks—such as ACLU founding member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.10
Spartacus was a product of a time that had witnessed these massive defeats for the left, but also one in which that left was slowly starting to recover. By the late 1950s, some of the trade unionists who had been targeted by McCarthyism were starting to regroup. If you have ever been inspired by the iconic “I’m Spartacus” scene, just think what such a display of solidarity would have meant to socialists and trade unionists who, after years of betrayal by politicians and union leaders, were beginning to organise again.
Who was Spartacus?
Spartacus was based on a novel of the same name written in prison by the Communist author Howard Fast. Fast, a one-time recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize, had also been brought before the HUAC and subsequently imprisoned. In his autobiography, Fast claimed that the story of the rebel slave was barely known before his novel:
“It would be a safe bet to say that before the appearance of my book and the film that Kirk Douglas made from it ten years later, not a single schoolboy in ten thousand had ever heard of Spartacus”.11
Indeed, Paul D’Amato notes that “there are scarcely 10 pages written about Spartacus’s rebellion by ancient historians”.12 Historian Theresa Urbainczyk wryly notes that “slaves did not write their own history; we only know about them from the elite, who wrote the history and stamped their interpretation on events”.13 Douglas, the producer and leading man, had a similar analysis:
“Spartacus was a real man, but if you look him up in the history books you will find only a short paragraph about him. Rome was ashamed; this man had almost destroyed them. They wanted to bury him”.14
Yet Spartacus’s story was not unknown among socialists. In a letter to Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx called Spartacus the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history”.15 In an answer to a playful questionaire presented to him by one his daughters, Marx named Spartacus as his hero.16 Similarly, Urbainczyk notes that Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the slave revolution on Haiti that began in 1791, was dubbed the “Black Spartacus” by his admirers.17 When Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht formed the organisation that was to become the German Communist Party, they called it the Spartacus League. Indeed, Fast’s initial interest in the Spartacus story came from his desire to rehabilitate Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacus League as alternative figureheads to Stalin.18 Urbainczyk’s book about the film starts with a quote from Liebknecht, taken from a memorial in old East Berlin: “Spartacus means the fire and spirit, the heart and soul, the will and deed of the revolution of the proletariat”.19 In a footnote, Urbainczyk again quotes Liebknecht: “Spartacus means every hardship and every desire for happiness, every commitment to struggle of the class conscious proletariat. Spartacus means socialism and world revolution”.20 In the Soviet Union, many sports societies were named after Spartacus, the most famous being Spartak Moscow, which adopted the name in 1935.
Indeed, the admiration of Spartacus went beyond socialists; he was also praised by Enlightenment liberals such as Voltaire.21 So, although Spartacus was not a household name before 1960, he did hold a certain place in a popular consciousness as a symbol of resistance. As Urbainczyk remarks:
Spartacus is like Che Guevara, of whom many people have heard but about whom far fewer know very much. It is not important for them to know about him; he simply represents the idea of fighting back and of not being crushed.22
Little Spartacus and big Spartacus
In Fast’s novel, Spartacus urges “the slaves of the world” to “rise up and cast off your chains”.23 Yet, despite such rousing moments, the novel was also beset by the pessimism of a man isolated by McCarthyism’s furious witch-hunts. Bornost argues that the book metaphorically “apportions some of the blame to working people of the US—the empire functions because the masses march along, isolating the socialists”.24 Like Fast, Trumbo had been persecuted by McCarthy’s witch-hunts and had grown disillusioned by Stalin’s Soviet Union, but not in the idea of socialism itself. Trumbo “decided to stay as close as possible to Fast’s novel”, eager to “tell Spartacus’s history as a revolutionary uprising”.25 This resulted in a script which “absolutely drips with contempt for the ruling classes”.26
Trumbo’s script developed from his vision of what he called the “large Spartacus”: a warrior who “fought for the fundamental principle that every man should be free to determine his own destiny”.27 Large Spartacus did not just bemoan the personal injustices that he suffered as an enslaved person; he also denounced the system that was to blame for his suffering. He embodied “the traits, values and hopes of the proletariat”.28 Trumbo contrasted this large Spartacus to a less ideological “small Spartacus”—the vision that Universal Picture’s executives had for the character—who understood the rebellion more as “a jail-break and subsequent dash for freedom”.29 A film based on small Spartacus would be more a heist movie than a detailed critique of capitalism. Yet, as the film’s production process developed, small Spartacus started to dominate.
There were several reasons for this. For a start, Trumbo and Fast found it impossible to work together. According to Urbainczyk, Fast “disliked Trumbo intensively, and the fact that the latter was working on the screenplay had to be kept a secret from him”.30 This was a problem for Trumbo, who needed all the allies he could find. After Spartacus had been released with Trumbo’s name on the end credits, the Hollywood blacklist was effectively lifted; nonetheless, while the film was still being produced, his involvement was a secret and he was not allowed on set. This allowed the crew and some of all-star cast, such as Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, to make significant changes to Trumbo’s script.
The artist as capitalist: Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas
Fast’s novel was neither the first nor the only vision of the Spartacus story. In 1939, Arthur Koestler, a British-Hungarian author and Cold War propagandist, wrote the novel The Gladiators, which was republished in 1956 to counteract the popularity of Fast’s more radical text.31 While Spartacus was being made, United Artists was attempting to produce a similar film version of The Gladiators.32 Even though Koestler’s novel was never filmed, it strongly influenced Spartacus’s nihilistic director, Stanley Kubrick. As Urbainczyk notes, “Kubrick had read Koestler’s novel, which was much closer to his own cynical view of humanity than Fast’s more upbeat book”.33 In his biography of Kubrick, Michael Herr says that “he wasn’t a cynic, but he could have easily passed for one. He was certainly a capitalist”.34 Kubrick wanted a film that “spared the illusions of neither the left nor the right” and “emphasised slave brutality and violence”.35 This put him in permanent conflict with Fast and Trumbo, who wanted a film that depicted the revolutionary process and reflected their experiences of the McCarthyite witch-hunt.
As its producer and lead actor, Douglas had a decisive influence over the film. Even though he was a liberal, his background and politics were of a quite different calibre to Kubrick’s. Douglas grew up a working-class Jewish immigrant:
“My six sisters and I grew up during the Great Depression. Our family struggled every day for bread and borscht”.36
His outlook was partially shaped by his experience of racism:
“The name ‘Kirk Douglas’ got me work as an actor. The name I was born with—‘Issur Danielovitch’ wouldn’t have gotten me through the door”.37
Pointedly, Douglas titled his autobiography The Ragman’s Son. By 1960, however, this working-class Jew with Belarusian parents was also a close friend of the incoming liberal president, John F Kennedy. Douglas’s politics were torn between the class consciousness with which he grew up and his material reality as a wealthy producer and a star of the big screen. He defended Trumbo against the witch-hunt, but his film company, Bryna Productions, paid the blacklisted writer way below the going rate. Spartacus’s battle scenes featured soldiers from the Spanish army, still led by the fascist Francisco Franco. The antifascist Douglas was undoubtedly appalled by this—but the owner of Bryna Productions knew a good deal when he saw it. Douglas was in a position to make Spartacus because of his success and wealth, but, every so often, he remembered where he had come from. According to the narrator’s introduction on the 2004 DVD version of Spartacus:
Producer Kirk Douglas wanted a larger than life hero that would enhance his stature as an actor and star. Novelist Fast wanted a pure, principled revolutionary to personify the ageless revolt of the oppressed against the oppressor. kDirector Stanley Kubrick, the master of cinematic cynicism, wanted a conflicted wretch, who was finally destroyed by the horror of bloody battle.38
The Spartacus that we see on the screen is all and none of these.
The battle with Universal Pictures
So far, we have looked at the contrasting political visions of the individuals responsible for producing Spartacus. However, the film that appears in cinemas is never the one conceived by its creators. Movies are products owned by film studios, and the bigger the studio involved, the more the film industry is able to assert control. Bornost explains:
Universal Pictures maintained full control over the final cut. Studio boss Ed Muhl put Universal’s position clearly: “Deep ideas are nice in a movie but what counts is audience appeal”.39
Douglas himself was under no illusions about who had the final say about his film:
“Without my approval, Universal made 42 cuts to the film. As its head of productions, Eddie Muhl, later admitted, they were ‘for content, not for length’”.40
References to homosexuality, “gratuitous violence” and “bad language” were cut.41 However, the most important cuts were political, as Douglas noted:
Having capitulated publicly on the use of Dalton Trumbo’s name, Universal was now even more concerned about the political message of the film… Their tortured rationale was that if this rebel slave even appeared to have a chance at overthrowing the Roman Empire, anti-Communist critics would say that this was all part of Trumbo’s hidden message, designed to foment rebellion in America.42
In the film’s original conception (and, indeed, in the historical story of Spartacus), the rebellious army of slaves won some victories before finally capitulating to the sheer overwhelming power of the Roman Empire. In the 1960 film, all scenes showing Spartacus’s fighters’ winning battles had been removed. Douglas bemoaned the fact that “although he was still depicted as more than just a runaway slave concerned only with his own safety, any hint that he might have been leading a successful revolution was removed from the film”.43 It was just about acceptable to see slaves revolting, but to show them succeeding was still unthinkable.
Douglas complained that these changes transformed large Spartacus, who “fought for the fundamental principle that every man should be free to determine his own destiny”, into “medium Spartacus” at best.44 One reason why this was such an affront, he argued, is that this “fundamental principle” was in fact the basis upon which the US itself was founded. Indeed, this shows how far Douglas’s and Trumbo’s views of large Spartacus diverged. For Douglas, large Spartacus was about liberal individualism; for Trumbo, it was the overthrow of capitalism. Yet, even Douglas’s reformist Spartacus was butchered by Universal before the film was allowed into cinemas.
Race, gender and sexuality
The 1950s were not just experiencing the rebirth of labour struggles. In the black ghettos there was a growing feeling that a change was gonna come. Already in 1955, Ebony Magazine had announced “the emergence of a “new, militant Negro”: a “fearless, fighting man who openly campaigns for his civil rights, who refuses to migrate to the North in search of justice and dignity, and is determined to stay in his own backyard and fight”.45 In the same year, the successful 384-day Montgomery bus boycott made Martin Luther King a household name. In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower was forced to sign a new Civil Rights Act. Three years later—in the year of Spartacus’s release—four black college students refused to leave a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, launching months of protest. During the 1961 “freedom rides”, black and white activists went to southern states to fight for desegregation of public transport.
The significance of Spartacus’s depiction of a slave rebellion was not lost on black militants, whose recent ancestors had themselves been enslaved. Just in case the audience missed the point, the opening voice-over explained that the film was about the dream “of the death of slavery, which would not come until 2,000 years later.” Clearly, the film was not just about ancient Rome. Although Spartacus had a very white cast, it was both a product of and a contribution towards the growing wave of resistance. Without the nascent civil rights movement, it would have been a less significant film, but it also played its part in bringing the fight for civil liberties into the mainstream.
However, Spartacus’s politics focus on more than just race. In one scene, as Neil Faulkner notes:
Guards jeer at Spartacus when he is provided with a slave prostitute. He yells at them, “I’m not an animal!” And very quietly she says to him, “Neither am I.” This is about another kind of oppression—also set to explode across America with the rise of the women’s movement.46
Nevertheless, the rare female characters are generally poorly drawn. Spartacus’s slave army does include women fighters, but they are largely mute. Like most historical epics, Spartacus focuses on a single, male hero. As film scholar Joanna Paul observes, “The narrative centrality of the single hero is readily announced in the titling of Spartacus, Ben-Hur, Gladiator and Alexander”.47 Often these films eponymous characters act as ciphers for the ideological ideals and contradictions of masculinity. For instance, at the end of the film, Spartacus is offered a choice between fighting oppression and family life with his wife, Varinia. He ultimately conforms:
General Spartacus was replaced by the family man Spartacus… The Spartacus who appears on screen dreams of a family life in freedom, focusing on private life in accordance with the conservative family values of a USA in the 1950s.48
The film’s sexual politics are most contradictory when it comes to the treatment of homosexuality. References to Crassus’s apparent bisexuality were cut after intervention from Universal Pictures, first appearing in a restored 1991 version.49 However, although the production team’s desire to put such a character on the screen challenged the sexual norms of the time, Crassus’s sexuality is also shown as part of the depravity that condemn him and his society to ultimate failure. Urbainczyk argues that, “with his English accent and bisexuality, Crassus represented degeneration and helped audiences, at least in the US, know where their sympathies should lie”.50 Spartacus was at least willing to discuss homosexuality, but only as something dangerous and un-American.
Challenging Hollywood’s cultural politics
In 1947, President Harry Truman presented his “Truman Doctrine” to the US Congress. Under the pretext of “supporting free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”, it intensifed the Cold War by promising aid for anti-Communist forces around the world. Truman’s aim to crush the danger of Communist-led insurgency in post-war Europe, particularly in Greece, as well as in the colonial world.51
This new, expanded imperial role for the US was reflected in Hollywood. A proxy war was fought on cinema screens, with “the Commies” metaphorically represented by aliens in science fiction films, Native Americans in Westerns and even by giant ants in the “big bug” movie, Them!. However, not all these films were straightforwardly reactionary, even if, as film historian Peter Biskind notes,
“most stressed the virtues of conformity and domesticity”.52
Yet, under the relatively benign presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower, 1950s Hollywood stressed consensus rather than open ideological conflict. There were some overt, anti-Communist films such as The Iron Curtain and My Son John, but these “pleased neither the public nor the critics and did badly at the box office”.53 Popular cinema preferred people to come together, like the jurors of Twelve Angry Men did under the watchful jurisprudence of Henry Fonda.
Nevertheless, as Biskind explains,
“as the 1950s got ready to become the 1960s, the seams started to show. Something wasn’t right. Nowhere was this change more evident than in the movies”.54
Spartacus was a challenge to the old consensus politics. Despite utilising the relative conservative form of the “sword and sandals” historical epic, it challenged existing orthodoxies. Spartacus may have had, as classic film expert David Blakeslee remarks, “massive sets, abundant pomp and pageantry, portentous dialogue and the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’.” Yet, simultaneously the film displayed an “underlying tone of subversion and challenge to popular mores and conventional power structures.55 Blakeslee contrasts Spartacuswith the previous year’s Ben-Hur, as “a film much more compatible and even subservient to cultural authoritarianism”.56 Writer Tom Breihan puts it more succinctly:
“In some ways, Ben-Hur is the culmination of a whole wave of religious epics, the pinnacle of a lineage that includes huge 1950s hits like The Ten Commandments and The Robe. Spartacus is something else. It’s a movie about class struggle”.57
Nowhere is Spartacus’s sense of solidarity clearer than the “I’m Spartacus” scene—a scene that, incidentally, Kubrick dismissed as “sentimental trash”.58 Here we see a hint of a different form of collective narrative. Normally, film assumes an audience which is both passive and atomised. We watch on as individual heroes and villains act upon the world. Whether it is Batman or Erin Brockovich, what happens in films is usually shaped by the acts of individuals, often acting alone. However, as one former slave after another stands up in solidarity with their leader (and with one another), we see and can identify with collective action. This moment is fleeting, and the camera soon swings back to Kirk Douglas’s dimpled chin, reminding us that the title of film we are watching is not “The Collective Slave Struggle” but instead is named after one individual man. Nonetheless, we do get the sense that things could be different.
A similar critique could be levelled at Ken Loach’s excellent Land and Freedom, set during the Spanish Civil War. In the “collectivisation scene”, perhaps the most effective scene in film history, Republican militants discuss amongst themselves how to take their revolution forward. Action is driven not by the thoughts and deeds of a single person, but by discussion, which ultimately results in a majority decision. This again, however, is just a single scene, albeit one that lasts over 10 minutes. The film’s story is mediated through the ideas and experiences of one man, a British volunteer in the Republican forces called David Carr. Of course, these sorts of limitations are, in some senses, inherent to how we experience film—to a degree, it is a reformist medium that encourages us to sit back and watch the adventures, decisions and impacts of other people.
Despite all this, Spartacus spoke to the prevailing mood of the need for change. This mood has not gone away. As such, Blakeslee argues,
“It’s a film that speaks to us today, in an age when wealth, privilege and access to power are increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few, to the detriment of the many”.59
In his 2014 book about the making of Spartacus, Douglas reflects on the lasting relevance of the film in the context of the Arab Spring and the other great wave of revolts that followed the 2008 financial crisis: “The fight for basic human freedom depicted in Spartacus is going on all over the globe”.60
Individual versus collective solution
The most interesting aspect of the film’s politics is perhaps the question of what sort of solution to oppression it suggests. Is it the triumph of one man, as suggested in the film’s title? Or is it the more collective response shown in the “I am Spartacus” scene, which, as Breihan says, “is not a moment of individual heroism, but the proletarian mass coming together and becoming the hero”.61 This is the centre of Trumbo’s distinction between large and small Spartacus, but it also reflected a more general discussion taking place in wider society.
Small Spartacus represented the hope that Kennedy, the new, young and modernising president, could deliver the reforms being demanded by growing movements against oppression. According to this view, the problems in society are not systemic and thus can all be solved by having the right person at the top.
Indeed, as an individual hero, Spartacus himself cannot stand for a collective solution. Rosenbaum comments:
Spartacus may be a charismatic proletarian hero, but he’s also a teacher and father figure who makes all the basic decisions—moral as well as practical—for the slave rebellion as a whole. He clearly doesn’t qualify as a cell member.62
Spartacus does not want social revolution, but freedom for himself and his love. He wants freedom undisturbed from tyranny, and is prepared to fight tyranny if it comes between him and freedom. He trusts his own abilities, and can therefore shake off the yoke of slavery. In short: he is an American.63
It is significant that the corrupt Roman senators are all played by British actors and that the rebellious slaves have bought into the American dream. Indeed, seeking to head off attacks for his use of a blacklisted screenwriter, Douglas issued a statement calling the film “an American statement by an American film company about the cause of freedom and the dignity of man”.64
Large Spartacus, on the other hand, stressed the need for an independent mass movement. Strong leaders are good, but social power lies in classes, not individuals. Small Spartacus took a hit in Dallas, Texas, in 1963 with the assassination of Kennedy. The movement was sustained as large Spartacus took to the streets, first against racism and increasingly against the Vietnam War. Although Spartacus’s protagonists are atomised slaves, the film made a clear overture to workers and collective struggle. Breihan argues:
The story was all about worker solidarity. It romanticises a whole class of people who don’t even need to discuss a plan with one another before they start killing the people higher than them in the social hierarchy.65
The slave army sometimes acts as a prototype of a workers’ council: “The rebels are harbingers of the coming classless society. They were something that the world had not yet seen. They were as people could be”.66
In a discussion towards the end of the film between Spartacus and Antoninus, the character played by Tony Curtis, Antoninus asks, “Could we ever have won?” Spartacus replies: “Just by fighting we won something. When just one man says, ‘No I won’t!’, Rome begins to fear. We were tens of thousands.” For this reason, Spartacus is necessarily about more than just one man. As Crassus declares, the Roman military campaign against the slaves “is not alone to kill Spartacus. It is to kill the legend of Spartacus.” He is not afraid of future individual leaders inspired by Spartacus, but by the mass uprisings that may follow in this one’s wake. Indeed, even the failure of Spartacus’s slave army points to the need for a collective response, as Urbainczyk notes: “Spartacus fails because the other slaves of Italy do not rise up. Rejection of slavery in one city will not work”.67
It is strange that an art form as collaborative as film has given birth to the “auteur theory”, which ascribes artistic success to individual genius. When we examine the final film, it makes little sense to talk of Douglas’s Spartacus or Trumbo’s Spartacus—and still less Kubrick’s Spartacus, since he later disowned the film. Far more than a novel or a painting, a film is the product of the collaboration and conflict between a wide range of people, who may well be trying to pull it in quite different directions. Even if it were possible for a film to have been solely created by a single talented individual, it is still ultimately a product and often the property of a large film company. Against the wishes of Douglas, Trumbo and many others, the film that was shown in New York in 1960 was the corporate Spartacus that had been approved by Universal Pictures.
For all the film’s weaknesses, there is much to love, both politically, and artistically. Spartacus is a film that constantly breaks stereotypes and defies expectations:
“Even the ending was daring. The crucified hero is denied a conventional victory, and has to be consoled with the hope that his ideas will survive”.68
It is also testimony to the writers’ continued belief that ideas and movements are more important than individual leaders. As Paul ruefully comments,
“Disagreements among the filmmakers splintered key elements of Spartacus’s heroic characterisation, meaning that the finished film offers only unsatisfactory glimpses of the more complex epic hero lurking behind the scenes”.69
Well, that’s as maybe—the Spartacus that was never made may be even better than the one that we have—but even the fact that the film can still provoke this sort of debate after six decades is testimony to its lasting greatness.
Although Spartacus was used by some to confirm Cold War prejudices, it also contained the essence of revolutionary change. Biskind notes that a film’s success is “mediated by mainstream institutions like banks and studios.” These “transmit ideology in the guise of market decisions: this idea will sell, that one won’t. The old figure of speech, ‘Will it play in Peoria?’, masks a multitude of ideological sins”.70Regardless of the different machinations behind the scenes, Spartacus did “play in Peoria”, making $60 million at the box office and achieving huge popularity. Its time had come. The political and artistic potential that was yet to come was already palpable in 1960 when Spartacus was released. Radical change was on its way, and the film is infected with the germ of this change. It is right that we remember Spartacus as the film that broke the blacklist and contained that famed scene with its extraordinary depiction of solidarity. However, we should also see in it the portent of much greater things to come.
We can learn a number of lessons from watching Spartacus, and I will set out three of them here. Firstly, every work of art is a product of the time in which it was created. Films are not just the product of the individual genius of their writers, directors and producers. They also come out of a particular political moment. As Marx says,
“People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.71
Without McCarthyism, without a resurgence in trade union fights and without the incipient movement against racism, Spartacus may have existed but not in the same form. All art reflects the political discussions prevalent at the time when it was made.
Secondly, despite this, the contributions of individual writers and producers do make a difference. This may seem to contradict the first point, but there is in fact a dialectical relationship. People make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. In 1960, the conditions were ripe for a film such as Spartacus to have mass appeal, but this does not mean that anyone was going to make it. Frank Sinatra had also tried to produce a film, The Execution of Private Slovik, which was to be directed by Albert Maltz, another of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Sinatra, who was part of the Kennedy election campaign at the time, came under pressure to cancel the production. Douglas persisted where Sinatra allowed his film to be smothered by the Democrat establishment.72
Thirdly, although the discussion about large and small Spartacus may seem esoteric, it touches on our general reaction to art and politics. “Large Spartacus” is, in effect, a call for mass action. Of course, it is unclear how much this ideal can be realised using the traditional format of a film named after a great hero who will change everything for us. Art in general, and film in particular, stands apart from its audience. They show something on the big screen, we consume. Large Spartacus challenges this, especially in the “I’m Spartacus” scene, which at least opens the possibility that art can be communal and actively involve its audience.
Having said all this, what ultimately matters is the audience response. Some left-wing critics have expressed disappointment at the film’s message. Breihan argues,
“In Spartacus, the hero fails to learn any personal lessons, except perhaps the one about the futility of his own fight and the one about how it is worth fighting anyway”.73
Similarly, Urbainczyk claims,
“Just as the Romans nailed up the slaves’ bodies on crosses, the film holds up the consequences of revolution for us to shudder at, and we do”.74
There is some truth to this, but Bornost argues that her pessimism is excessive: “Millions of people have seen the film and read from it a different message—people can rise and fight for their freedom, even if the chances seem bad”.75 As Breihan concedes:
The knowledge that some people do rise up and fight for their freedom is what viewers remember from the film, and what readers remember from Fast’s novel and from Plutarch’s Life of Crassus. That is the legacy of the story of Spartacus, not that he ultimately failed but that he dared to fight.76
1 Thanks to Bridget Anderson, Richard Donnelly, Carol McGuigan and Tash Shifrin who commented on earlier versions of this text and made very useful suggestions. Special thanks to Stefan Bornost to sending me a copy of his unpublished manuscript on Spartacus. All errors are, of course, my own.
2 Time Magazine, 1960.
3 Crowther, 1960.
4 Douglas, 2012, p156.
5 Urbainczyk, 2004, p118.
6 Basketer, 2005.
7 Bornost, n.d., p10. The translations from Bornost’s manuscript are my own and so are any mistakes and misinterpretations.
8 Stone, 1973, p80.
9 Schulte, 2005.
10 Schulte, 2005.
11 Fast, 1990.
12 D’Amato, 2010.
13 Urbainczyk, 2004, p96.
14 Douglas, 1988, p304.
15 Marx, 1861.
16 Marx, 1865.
17 Urbainczyk, 2004, p12.
18 Urbainczyk, 2004, pp10-11.
19 Urbainczyk, 2004, p9. In Stalinist East Germany, this monument was open to the public, but it is now behind locked gates in the private garden of a luxury flat complex.
20 Urbainczyk, 2004, p131.
21 Urbainczyk, 2004, p11.
22 Urbainczyk, 2004, p109.
23 Smith, 2014, p187.
24 Bornost, n.d., p10.
25 Bornost, n.d., p13.
26 Breihan, 2019.
27 Douglas, 2012, p157.
28 Smith, 2014, p189.
29 Douglas, 2012, p156.
30 Urbainczyk, 2004, p126.
31 Urbainczyk, 2004, p109.
32 Cooper, 1996.
33 Urbainczyk, 2004, p129.
34 Herr, 2000, p12.
35 Cooper, 1996; Paul, 2013, p203.
36 Douglas, 2012, p22.
37 Douglas, 2012, p13.
38 Cited in Paul, 2013, p175
39 Bornost, n.d., p13
40 Douglas, 2012, p156
41 Douglas, 2012, p157
42 Douglas, 2012, p157
43 Douglas, 2012, p157
44 Douglas, 2012, p157
45 Kelly, 2008, pp78-79.
46 Faulkner, 2020.
47 Paul, 2013, p178.
48 Bornost, n.d., p16.
49 See Douglas, 2012, p143.
50 Urbainczyk, 2007.
51 Truman, 1947.
52 Biskind, 1983, p4.
53 Biskind, 1983, p3.
54 Biskind, 1983, p356.
55 Blakeslee, 2011.
56 Blakeslee, 2011.
57 Breihan, 2019.
58 Reid, 2020.
59 Blakeslee, 2011.
60 Douglas, 2012, p171.
61 Breihen, 2019.
62 Rosenbaum, 1991.
63 Bornost, n.d., p17.
64 Wyke, 1997, p65.
65 Breihen, 2019.
66 Bornost, n.d., p9.
67 Urbainczyk, 2004, p110.
68 Ebert, 1991.
69 Paul, 2013, p205.
70 Biskind, 1983, p5.
71 Marx, 1937.
72 For more information, see Douglas, 2012, pp152-155.
73 Breihan, 2019.
74 Urbainczyk, 2004, p122.
75 Bornost, n.d., p17.
76 Urbainczyk, 2004, p130.
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Phil Butland is a British socialist who lives in Berlin and is the joint speaker of the Die Linke Berlin Internationals group. He is the commisioning editor of theleftberlin.com and curates the CinePhil film blog at https://cinephil.home.blog