October 6, 2020

Spartacus' Jubilee

On October 6, 1960, exactly 60 years ago, Stanley Kubrick's film "Spartacus" premiered in New York.

When I was in 3rd grade, I read Giovagnoli's Spartacus, written back in 1874. The novel sunk into the soul so much that even in our boyish fights I tried to use the "tactics of the Horatii against the Curiatii", which Spartacus used while still a gladiator. And what was my joy when, about six months later, the film "Spartacus" was released on the screens of Soviet cinemas. Naturally, the boys and I went to watch it, especially since I told them the content of the novel and thereby advertised the film. To be honest, at first I was a little discouraged: the action in the film was different from that described in the novel, there weren't many heroes, in particular, Valeria, etc. But the boys liked the movie: there were plenty of sword fighting, and what else do 10-year-old boys need.

Much later, as a full adult, I found out that the literary basis of the film was a completely different novel, albeit with the same name. The novel by Howard Fast, an American writer of leftist convictions, who was in the Communist Party for several years, for which, in fact, in 1950 he was imprisoned for 3 months, where he began to write a novel. The novel was published in 1951, and in 1953, Howard Fast was awarded the Stalin Prize for this novel. For several years after that, Fast was the most published American writer in the Soviet Union. True, in 1956, in protest against the invasion of Soviet troops into Hungary, the writer left the Communist Party, for which he instantly appeared on the list, if not banned, writers, then at least not published. His next publication in our country appeared only in the late 90s of the last century.

The script for the film "Spartacus" based on Fast's novel was written by another "Member of the Hollywood Blacklist" - Dalton Trumbo, just like Fast, who served in prison for his political and moral convictions and for more than 10 years was forced to lead a semi-legal existence in the United States: to live in the country it was possible, but his name could not be mentioned. The film "Spartacus" became for Trumbo a certain kind of border: for the first time since 1947, he reached an agreement with the producers that his name would be publicly indicated in the credits. True, the same agreement stipulated that Trumbo would write the script in just two weeks, since the Universal Pictures film company and Kirk Douglas personally were eager to get ahead of the launch of the production of the Spartacus film, which was planned by another film company - Alciona Productions.

The film was initiated by Kirk Douglas. Actually, he was eager to star in the film "Ben Hur" by William Wyler. But Wyler offered him only a minor role, in Douglas's opinion. And then he put all his efforts into making a film from the history of Ancient Rome and playing the main role in it. Subsequently, Douglas admitted that his wounded desire to "wipe Wyler's nose" looked very childish, according to the principle "I'll show you later."

However, at that moment it was not enough for Douglas even to play the main role. He needed minor and even episodic roles in "his" film to be played by well-known actors. To this end, he offered each actor to get acquainted with a separate version of the script, in which the role offered to the actor looked quite solid. And Dalton Trumbo had to write all these options.

In the end, Trumbo's patience ran out and he refused to write countless screenplays. And Kirk Douglas has threatened to terminate the agreement to mention Trumbo's name in the credits. (However, many believed that Douglas used these disagreements only as an excuse not to indicate the name of the disgraced screenwriter in the credits, since he was very afraid of harming his own film career.) But Otto Preminger found out about this. And he invited Dalton Trumbo to write a script for the film "Exodus" he had conceived on the condition that Trumbo's name would still be indicated in the credits. After that, Douglas's threats to Trumbo became less significant. As a result, in the period from October to December 1960, two films were released in American cinemas, in the credits of which the name of the disgraced screenwriter was openly indicated. And this is considered the end of the Hollywood Blacklist and the beginning of the end of the McCarthy era in general.

However, McCarthy's supporters did not give up so easily. Due to the mention of Trumbo's name in the credits, the right-wing leader in Hollywood, actor John Wayne, who became famous for his roles in Westerns, having watched the film on a preview at the DeMille Theater in New York on September 22, 1960, even before the film was released on screens, he named the film " Marxist propaganda ". And this despite the fact that even before the release of the film on the screens, the film company Universal Pictures cut a large number of scenes from the film, which it considered permeated with communist or subversive ideas. However, one of the final scenes of the film, called "I am Spartacus", was preserved. In it, as you know, the Romans, who captured the soldiers of the army of Spartacus, demand to hand over the leader, for which the issuer is promised the preservation of life. In real history, there was nothing like this. Howard Fast and Dalton Trumbo simply drew a direct parallel to the Anti-American Activities Commission's hearings, which similarly required them to hand over like-minded people. And this scene, the meaning of which was absolutely clear to everyone, simply infuriated the fans of McCarthy's ideas. Incidentally, Stanley Kubrick was against filming this scene, but Kirk Douglas insisted.

The characterization of the film, sounded from the lips of the actor, considered the national symbol of the United States, provoked a campaign of booing and picketing of the film by people of anti-communist convictions. The Catholic National Legion of Decency was especially violent. This campaign posed a real risk of failure at the box office. However, John F. Kennedy, who had recently been elected to the post of President of the United States, after watching the film, called it a very good picture and thereby saved it from booing and failure.

Dalton Trumbo was not the only cast member with whom Douglas had serious friction. The film was originally directed by Anthony Mann. But Douglas quarreled with him. And he didn't just quarrel, but fired. Douglas later attributed Mann's dismissal to the fact that he was too obedient to the stars involved in the film. (Douglas himself scored these stars.) After that, the position of director was offered to David Lean, but he refused. Laurence Olivier was the next replacement candidate. But he had a major role in this film, and he, fearing not being able to cope, also refused. And then the director's console was offered to Stanley Kubrick.

The choice fell on Kubrick because three years before "Spartacus" he and Douglas collaborated very successfully and fruitfully on the set of the film "Paths of Glory." However, at "Spartacus" the collaboration of these two great filmmakers was accompanied by violent scandals. The scandals were so violent that at the end of filming, both went to treat their nerves to psychotherapists. And Douglas later openly regretted firing Mann.

For Kubrick, the main problem was that he got involved in the work on the film when the script was already completed and he could not make any changes to it. According to Kubrick, the film's script was filled with pretentious moralizing. That is why, despite the film's success in many ways, Stanley Kubrick never named it among his best works. Moreover, he actually gave up on this film. And that is why, in the future, Kubrick agreed to make films only on the condition that he had complete control over all aspects of the film's making, including script development.

Be that as it may, three months after the premiere, Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" received 6 Golden Globe nominations, of which it won one, but then the most important - Best Motion Picture. In the Best Director nomination, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association chose the work of Jack Cardiff in the film "Sons and Lovers" over Stanley Kubrick. Shortly after the distribution of the Golden Globes, the distribution of the Oscars began. Here "Spartacus" also received 6 nominations, but all in the secondary categories. And won 4 of them.

In Europe, Stanley Kubrick's film was only nominated for Best Film from Any Source at the British BAFTA Awards. But British film academics preferred Billy Wilder's "The Apartment". True, the competition was terrible: "Hiroshima mon amour" by Alain Resnais, "Inherit the Wind" by Stanley Kramer, "L'avventura" by Michelangelo Antonioni, "La Dolce Vita" by Federico Fellini, "Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows)" by François Truffaut and others.

Reviews of film critics for the film "Spartacus" were rather restrained. The caustic and obstinate film reviewer of The New York Times Bosley Crowther did not fail to pour out a lot of bile in his review of this film. ""Spartacus," is a modern-day cinematized expansion of that lush and perfervid schoolboy's speech. For it is bursting with patriotic fervor, bloody tragedy, a lot of romantic fiddle-faddle and historical inaccuracy.Also, it is pitched about to the level of a lusty schoolboy's taste. ...It is a spotty, uneven drama in which the entire opening phase representing the basic-training program in a gladiatorial school is lively, exciting and expressive, no matter how true to history it is, and the middle phase is pretentious and tedious, because it is concerned with the dull strife of politics.... Apparently, too many people, too many cooks had their ladles in this stew, and it comes out a romantic mish-mash of a strange episode in history. The performances are equally uneven."

Perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the film was given by Roger Ebert. In a 1991 review, he gave the film 3 out of 4 stars. He noted the inevitable and inherent disadvantage of almost all historical films, which is that the initially dominant visual component - makeup, costumes, scenery - becomes obsolete over time. And the fact that at the time of the release of the film on the screens arouses admiration of the audience, after 30 years can cause laughter. In addition, Ebert noted: "Perhaps the most interesting element of “Spartacus” is its buried political assumptions. The movie is about revolution, and clearly reflects the decadence of the parasitical upper classes and the superior moral fiber of the slaves. But at the end, Spartacus, like Jesus, dies on the cross. In the final scene, his wife stands beneath him and holds up their child, saying “He will live as a free man, Spartacus.” Yes, but the baby’s freedom was granted him not as its right, but because of the benevolence of the soft-hearted old Gracchus. Today, that wouldn’t be good enough."

The evaluation of the film "Spartacus" by moviegoers is reflected in the following data. With a budget of $ 12 million, it grossed $ 90 million at the box office. Moreover, 60 million of them were received outside the United States. And, perhaps, the greatest contribution to this financial success of Stanley Kubrick's film was made by Soviet cinema goers, as 63 million of our compatriots watched the film in cinemas (including me and the boys). As for the ratings of modern moviegoers, 67% of IMDB and Kinopoisk users gave this movie ratings from 8 to 10.

With that said, FilmGourmand rated Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" at 8.194, placing it 478th in the Golden Thousand.