Friday 24 May 2019

Kubism, Part 5:
Spartacus (1960)

Longer, wider and more colourful than anything Stanley Kubrick had done up to this point, Spartacus saw The Kube go EPIC. 198 minutes long! A four-minute rousing Alex North overture! A Saul Bass title sequence! An intermission and entr'acte, whatever that is! A $12 million budget! Super 70mm 2.2:1 Technirama! Between 10,000 and 50,000 extras depending on who you ask! If bigger means better, then Spartacus is The Greatest Movie Ever Made Ever. However, of course, bigger doesn't mean better at all, and Spartacus is in fact pretty rubbs. And here, in the latest instalment of my gentle fondling of Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre, is how and why. Let's fondle!
Spartacus had a difficult birth, and with the benefit of hindsight it's clear it would have taken a miracle for it to grow to be a healthy, bouncing baby Hollywood epic. A passion project for star and producer Kirk Douglas, the film lost original director Anthony Mann after two weeks because Mann kept inserting peas into Douglas' chin-dimple while he was asleep (note to self: check this before publishing). Douglas approached Kubrick, who agreed to direct on the condition that he could extract himself from a five-picture contract he'd somehow got himself into with Douglas after Paths Of Glory. Now maybe I'm being naive, but if the primary reason for a director agreeing to make a film with a star is that he never has to make another film with that star again, chances are the resulting partnership isn't going to be a lusty tumble on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire. More like tumbling into a roaring fire with a skinned, lusty bear.

That's not to say Stan didn't make an effort, and there are a handful of examples within Spartacus of him absolutely smashing it. But (according to Kubrick) Douglas, writer Dalton Trumbo and producer Edward Lewis poo-pooed all his decent ideas because he wasn't yet The Stanley Kubrick. He was just a 31-year-old New York punk splashing about in the deep end of Hollywood, at a point when it was so terrified of the popularity of television it thought it would die if it didn't have a safe pair of hands throwing as much cash at the screen as possible.
The first of Spartacus' three and a quarter hours is pretty patience-testing stuff, especially if you're as swords-and-sandals-phobic as I am. Anyone playing Kubrick Bingo can cross off 'Opening Voiceover' (that's five out of five so far), which introduces us to our titular hero, his perfect white teeth standing out from his mahogany tan and his broad chest glistening like tectonic plates fresh out of the tectonic dishwasher. A slave with biceps of granite but a heart of gold, he's purchased by the deliciously camp Peter Ustinov and forced to train as a gladiator. "You'll be oiled, bathed, shaved and massaged," Ustinov promises him, neglecting to mention that he'll also be repeatedly attacked by massive blokes wielding spiky balls on long chains. Ustinov tests Sparto's intelligence, virility and skipping skills while we meet improbably fit soft-focus love interest Varinia, over whom Sparts moons like a simple puppy whenever he gets a break between training montages.

All of this drags on forever in dire need of a ruthless editor, until at the hour mark the slaves revolt, and it looks like everything's about to get knocked up a notch. It is here that we should spare a thought for actor Charles McGraw, who plays bastard slave trainer Marcellus: in a messy fight scene, McGraw clearly receives a real cut to his eyelid before having his face genuinely smashed into the edge of a cauldron of slop at the hands of an over-enthusiastic Kirk Douglas. We should also pay tribute to the integrity of Douglas' tiny slave underpants, because despite the impressive amount of acrobatics he performs, at no point do his boys leave the barracks. It's a stark contrast to that P.E. class I did in loose-fitting shorts and boxers when I was a kid that has haunted my nightmares for the past 30 years.
Just when it threatens to get interesting, we find ourselves in the Roman Senate listening to Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton parping guffs of political wind at each other. This they do in three camera angles that will be repeated throughout the film's many Senate scenes, making you wonder if the Stanley Kubrick who shot Paths Of Glory with spellbinding ingenuity and chutzpah just set the cameras up in the morning and went home while Britain's acting royalty went at it. In fairness, when Laughton and a shifty-eyed Peter Ustinov get together you could shoot them with a VHS camcorder and it'd still be gold: watching these two waggle their flabby jowls, burble Machiavellian plots and make self-effacing comments about their own repulsiveness ("You and I have a tendency towards corpulence") is arguably Spartacus' greatest gift, and Kubrick knows it.

While old men argue and Tony Curtis looks gorgeous but confused about Laurence Olivier's ruminations on the snail and oyster diet, Spartacus is leading an army of freed slaves across Italy, past an endless variety of unconvincing cycloramas and ambitious matte paintings. For reasons, once he's done this he turns his troops around, heads back the way he came and gets most of them killed when they run into the Roman army coming in the opposite direction. Poor leadership skills, certainly, but at least he does it in an impressive battle sequence that begins with those ten (or 50, who knows) thousand extras being herded around by Stanley Kubrick in a shot so mind-bogglingly wide you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. The battle itself doesn't stand up to Paths Of Glory's No Man's Land sequence, but it does at least contain some fun cross-cutting between both leaders' motivational speeches and an amusing spot of limb-lopping.
The problem with all this is that Stanley Kubrick isn't really interested in widescreen spectacle or billions of men repeatedly twatting each other; he's all about the close-up, the personal, the struggle in microcosm. Sorry to keep banging on about Paths Of Glory (not actually sorry, Spartacus invites comparisons on account of Kirk Douglas leading an army into war and struggling to find a morsel of humanity), but that film used its big set-piece to kick-start the drama that followed, whereas for Spartacus the battle is the drama. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the oft-parodied but beautiful "I'm Spartacus" scene that follows the battle, in which Kubrick wrings eye-moistening emotion from an ostensibly daft gesture of brotherhood (that one guy who isn't claiming to be Spartacus? Maybe you should check him out, Centurion?).
The last half hour is a total downer, challenging you to stay awake while it wraps up its themes in confusing fashion. The script, written by open Communist Dalton Trumbo and based on a book by open Communist Howard Fast, wants to promote the idea of the labouring masses rising up against the ruling classes, but given that the labouring masses all end up hacked to bits or nailed to a cross it's hardly a rousing argument for revolution. The only hope is represented by Peter Ustinov rescuing Spartacus' infant son, but even that just made me wonder if I wouldn't rather have watched an entire film about Ustinov's character: a morally vacuous black market racketeer who, through exposure to politics, becomes a better person and is given a noble conclusion. Plus he's played by Peter Ustinov, who may not have a chin that looks like a small child plunged its fist into a ball of dough, but he can roll his eyes like a total motherfucker.

As humdrum as Spartacus is, we should thank it for girding the Kubrick loins. The realisation that not being in total control leads to colossal dissatisfaction was an immeasurably significant one for Stan, and never again would he allow anyone else to tell him what to do. From here on in he disavowed what Kubrickologist Thomas Allen Nelson called the "trite, simplistic, sentimental morality" of Spartacus and plunged himself into the complex, murky waters of human foibles, emotional subtlety and Peter Sellers fighting his own right hand.
Come back soon (please) for more Kubism with Lolita, a film about a middle-aged man falling in love with a teenage girl, which Kubrick somehow managed to make before Woody Allen got his hands on it.

1 comment :

  1. I must say, I largely disagree - it's by no means perfect but as mental sword and sandals Hollywood epics go, it's basically solid gold.