The “sword and sandal” genre of films had a humble beginning in the late 1950s when American strongman Steve Reeves starred in the Italian production of Hercules (1959). This badly dubbed, low-budget actioner sported the magnificent physique of Reeves, lush color cinematography, beautiful women, so-so special effects and some pretty good action sequences. It was an international success, opening the floodgates for a veritable deluge of similar films featuring Hercules, Goliath, Machiste and assorted other mythical strongmen. The vast majority of these films are bad but vastly enjoyable for what they are: micro-budget fantasies with a heavy emphasis on muscles. The cycle ran for several years before finally dying out in the mid-‘60s.
But “sword and sandal” films, with their weird mash-ups of Greek and Roman myths and history, weren’t relegated to Grade Z Italian films. Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s magnum opus, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is still far and away the best of the fantasy oriented s&s films and Hollywood produced its’ share of big budget, historical epics set in ancient times. While not technically “sword and sandal” films, such works as Ben-Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and El Cid (1961), are all grand scale epics which contain some s&s elements.
The genre eventually died out, only to be revived by director Ridley Scott with his Academy Award winning Gladiator (2000), which won six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects and Best Sound. Gladiator, chock full of CGI effects, impressive battle sequences and numerous fights to the death in the gladiatorial arena was a digital bread and circus for modern audiences. The success of the film has led to several other ancient spectacles over the last dozen years including: Troy (2004), Alexander (2004) and 300 (2006), among others. All of these films, given the spit and polish of modern film technology, look great but none of them are fit to hold the cestus of another earlier work which defined the genre and to which they all owe a tremendous debt.
We speak of course of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Originally planned to be directed by Anthony Mann, producer Kirk Douglas fired Mann after a few days of shooting and replaced him with Kubrick, with whom he had worked on Paths of Glory (1957). Although Kubrick himself was disappointed in this saga about the legendary hero (superbly played by Douglas), who led a slave revolt against Rome in 71 B.C., it has come to be regarded as the best of the “s&s” historical epics.
At first glance, Spartacus appears to be an atypical Kubrick film as it is shot in a straight-forward, studio style (indeed, many scenes were filmed on Universal Studios’ back lot) and as such, contains very little of Kubrick’s signature visual flourishes. But from a thematic standpoint, the film fits neatly into the Kubrick oeuvre as it deals with the dehumanization of man (slaves) at the hands of a cold, unfeeling machine (Imperial Rome).
At the beating heart of the film is a spirited, emotionally charged performance by Kirk Douglas, a superlative supporting cast headed by Jean Simmons as the slave girl Varinia (Spartacus’s true love) and Laurence Olivier as the Roman schemer Crassus (Spartacus’s mortal enemy). There are outstanding battle sequences shot on real locations with literally thousands of extras, a strong sense of time and place and a heavy emphasis on sex. This is one of the few epic films in which even the dialogue scenes are fascinating to watch. The palace bath chats between Olivier, John Gavin (Julius Caesar), Charles Laughton and other shrewd Roman politicos are interesting not only because they reveal political motives for wanting Spartacus and his memory destroyed but also because there are strong intimations of homosexuality, especially in the restored sequence with Olivier (whose dialogue was dubbed by Anthony Hopkins) and Tony Curtis.
But the film’s major distinction is the screenplay, adapted from Howard Fast’s novel by Dalton Trumbo (his first work after being blacklisted in Hollywood for several years). The script has a genuine revolutionary spirit that is reflected in Spartacus’s many stirring speeches to his army of followers. Trumbo also establishes, through the words and deeds of Crassus, the true nature of a fascist. Other highlights include Spartacus being forced by his Roman captors to a fight to the death with a fellow slave (Strode), Laughton and slave dealer Peter Ustinov having a gluttonous meal together, Simmons’ nude swim, the fireballs being launched at the start of the start of the enormous battle sequence and the scene in which the Romans try to determine which of the captured rebels is the real and true Spartacus while each man proudly proclaims, “I’m Spartacus!”
Spartacus received six Academy Award nominations including: Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov, winner), Best Color Cinematography (winner), Best Color Costume Design (winner), Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration (winner), Best Editing and Best Score.
After its’ initial release, Spartacus suffered severe cuts and overall dismal treatment over the years. In 1991, a fully restored version was released which brought the film back to glorious life. The Paramount Theatre is proud to present this restored version of Spartacus in the grandeur of 70mm. If you’ve only seen this film on television or DVD, you haven’t really seen it. This format truly brings to life “the power of Rome.”