May 18, 2011

Queer Review: Spartacus (1960)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Dalton Trumbo. Based upon the novel by Howard Fast.
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis

Although he later to try and distance himself from the film, auteur Stanley Kubrick - who would later go on to direct such revered classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining - got his start by directing the epic Spartacus. Unfortunately, none of the talent he would demonstrate in later movies is on display here and Spartacus ends up being less an epic adventure and more an epic time waster.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglass) is a slave training under the auspices of Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to become a Gladiator when Varinia (Jean Simmons), the slave woman that he had been in love with, is sold to Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). This event serves as the impetus for a slave revolt that threatened to destroy the Roman Empire.

The Queering
Spartacus was made at a time when Hollywood was still competing with television for ticket sales and was clearly designed to show off the new technology of Panavision. There are some really nicely shot scenes of vast crowds and armies marching across the wilderness. Unfortunately, great cinematography does not make a great movie, otherwise we would have winner here.

It is hard to tell where exactly things go wrong as there is some great talent both behind and in front of the camera. A good place to start would be the romance between Spartacus and Varinia which causes proceedings to grind to a halt every time the two start looking at each other sappily. Then there is the epic battle scene which fails to get the blood pumping. Worst of all, Spartacus himself is so poorly developed by the screenplay that he never warrants much interest beyond a shrug, even when he is dying all Christ like on a cross.

The most interesting scenes are those that offer a behind the scenes look at the corrupt political maneuvering that was going on in the Roman senate while Spartacus was carrying out his revolt. These scenes are not only highly topical considering todays current political climate, but also have an authenticity about them that the rest of the film sadly lacks. There are also several blatant swipes at McCarthyism which should not come as a surprise considering that screenwriter Donald Trumbo had been blacklisted at the time.

I would like to point out that there is one queer scene of note. That is the scene where Crassus uses veiled references to make a failed pass his manservant Antonius (Tony Curtis). This scene was cut in the original 1960's release but later restored in the 1991 edition. If one wishes to see it, one can have fun sitting through all 3 hours and 16 minutes of the restored edition or one can watch the clip below.

Of little interest outside of anyone with a strong interest in film history or films with queer subtexts.

The Rating


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