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Spartacus

Spartacus  

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  1. 1. Does Spartacus belong on the AFI list?

    • It could be argued so, master.
      2
    • Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn't it?
      6

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  • Poll closed on 10/04/19 at 07:00 AM

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Amy & Paul fight for 1960's Roman epic Spartacus! They discuss why Spartacus isn't usually considered part of director Stanley Kubrick's canon, learn about Kirk Douglas' heroic efforts to get the film made, and liken the movie to a good casserole. Plus: Thomas Doherty, author of Show Trial, talks about how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was affected by the Hollywood Blacklist.

Next week is Some Like It Hot week - help us come up with a better title for the film! Call the Unspooled voicemail line at 747-666-5824 with your answer. Follow us on Twitter @Unspooled, get more info at unspooledpod.com and don’t forget to rate, review & subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts. Photo credit: Kim Troxall

This episode is brought to you by Sonos (www.sonos.com) and M&Ms Hazelnuts.

Edited by DanEngler

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To give credence to Amy's thought that this is on the list because Trumbo's name is on it - there was a documentary about Trumbo, titled "Trumbo", that came out in 2007 (the year this list was produced). I never saw it, but remember seeing trailers for it in independent theaters, and I remember the trailers felt like they hyped up the importance of Spartacus

It's always hard to guess how influential a documentary that runs in independent theaters is, but my gut is telling me the two are related (this would also track with it not being on the 1997 list). Just based on how easily influenced people are by just name recognition. 

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I had forgotten how much the movie shifts in the middle towards the Roman Republic and its machinations, which is really the more interesting part of the movie.  One thing in its favor compared to Lawrence of Arabia, in terms of specificity is the heart of narrative, you get a better sense of the pulls of political conflict. Though it seems a little lightweight on Caesar switching sides.

As opposed to Lawrence where all tribal disputes are explained with, "He insulted me."

That said, I already gave my opinion on this one, while I still think it's a decent movie, I'm still mostly meh on it.  I don't know if that's just a sign I dislike historical epics of the era (or in general).  It's a lowest-tiered Kubrick to me, and would prefer just about nearly any other one (which is ironic since it really catapulted his career) - both in terms of watching and being on the list.

 

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Amy argued in the episode that she loves the movie because it has so many different influences combining into a whole. I suppose that does make it an interesting film, but I also think that holds it back from being a fully GREAT movie. A good movie, sure, but among Kubrick's filmography I'd have it near the bottom. The movies he had final cut on are just more cohesive artistic statements. I'm fine with taking Spartacus off.

Would people prefer this or Ben-Hur on the list? Between the two I'd probably pick Spartacus.

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I reviewed this film last week, and I'll try not to repeat too much of what I said there.

Ben Hur came out the year before. I prefer it because at least it had spectacle, whereas this film did little for me and didn't seem to bear the mark of Kubrick at all.

Paul is confused why anyone would consider this film Marxist propaganda, but Tom Breihan isn't. After finishing his "History of Violence" series he began going over the top film at the box office of every year, starting with this one. I'll quote him on its politics:
 

Quote

 

All of this is political. Spartacus was a real historical figure, a Thracian slave and gladiator who helped lead an uprising against Rome in 71 BC. He was a leftist hero long before he became the subject of a movie; Karl Marx was an admirer. The novelist Howard Fast started writing Spartacus, the book that was adapted into the movie, in 1950, when he was in prison. Fast had been given a three-month sentence for contempt of Congress—he’d refused to name names when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Fast had to self-publish Spartacus because publishing houses wouldn’t deal with convicted Communist.

And it doesn’t stop there. Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay, had also done prison time for the same reason. Trumbo was a famous victim of the blacklist, one of the Hollywood Ten. He kept writing screenplays while blacklisted, but the movies he wrote—two of which won screenwriting Oscars—weren’t crediting him by name, and he was working for way less money. Spartacus stopped that. Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis decided to credit both Fast and Trumbo, and the movie is widely credited with ending the Hollywood blacklist, something that Douglas has played up ever since. The real truth might be a little murkier, since McCarthyism was already losing its grip on the nation and Trumbo’s family has generally refused to buy into the Douglas narrative. But it’s become part of Hollywood lore anyway, to the point where Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Oscar a couple of years ago for playing Trumbo in a biopic.

In any case, you can see all of this play out in the movie. Fast and Trumbo had both been full-blooded Communists, and Spartacus is a movie that absolutely drips with contempt for the ruling classes. Again and again, the movie draws contrasts. We spend about an hour watching Kirk Douglas beaten down and humiliated again and again, scrunching up his absurdly chiseled face in confusion and anguish at the cruelty of his owners. Pampered noblemen sit in steam baths and decide the fate of people who are living full and vital lives miles away. They buy and sell women just to piss each other off. Douglas and his friends are whipped, branded, and taught to kill each other with businesslike imperiousness. Spartacus and a woman who’s also a slave fall in love, but only after they’re made to mate, like cattle. Deep into the movie, as Spartacus’ rebellion is already raging, someone asks him, “Surely, you know you’re going to lose, don’t you?” And when Spartacus responds, he does it with a sense of historical perspective: “Death is the only freedom a slave knows. It’s why he’s not afraid of it. It’s why we’ll win.” Workers of the world, unite.

 

[...]

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Spartacus’ only victories are moral. Going to war against Spartacus, the Roman dictator Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier, says, “This campaign is not alone to kill Spartacus. It’s to kill the legend of Spartacus.” The existence of the movie proves that he failed. After being defeated, Spartacus says, “Just by fighting them, we won something. When just one man says, ‘No, I won’t,’ Rome begins to fear.” As one of his friends dies, Spartacus warns Crassus: “He’ll come back. He’ll come back, and he’ll be millions.” In the movie’s most famous moment, all of Spartacus’ comrades refuse to give him up. They all say that they’re Spartacus, even though they know they’re daring the Roman forces to execute them. And they’re all telling the truth. They’re all Spartacus. It’s not a moment of individual heroism; it’s the proletarian mass coming together and becoming the hero.

The right-wing weirdos who protested Spartacus had a point: This was a straight-up leftist movie, one that never even tried to hide its politics. They were wrong to rage against it, but they were right about what the movie was. Spartacus dressed itself as an old-fashioned biblical epic, but its story was all about worker solidarity. It romanticizes a whole class of people who don’t even need to discuss a plan with each other before they start killing the people higher than them on the social strata.


 

I find John Wayne's hatred of High Noon far more inexplicable, because most of the things he criticizes about it also occur in Rio Bravo, the movie he made specifically intended as a critique of High Noon. Those interested can read "The Tin Star", the story the film is credited as being an adaptation of, starting here and continuing from the seventh page starting here. The film is much more cynical, especially in its rather opposite ending, but I find it an interesting comparison.

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4 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

Would people prefer this or Ben-Hur on the list? Between the two I'd probably pick Spartacus.

This over Ben Hur any day. I'm not a huge fan of Spartacus but I have liked it every time I watched it. Ben Hur has always felt like homework outside of the chariot race. I think it's kind of strange that they never mentioned Lord Of The Rings as one of the epics on the list because I'd take it over Ben Hur, Spartacus and maybe Lawrence Of Arabia (but, like Lawrence, LotR isn't really American in my mind and doesn't belong on the list).

I think it's kind of weird that, for all the episodes that they've asked "Does X need to be represented this many times?" and the discussion of how many times Kubrick is on the list isn't really brought up (was it in another episode?) Taking it in the direction of "How many movies do we need that were inspired by McCarthyism" seems strange. High Noon, On The Waterfront and Spartacus are all quite different and you could easily watch them without picking up their shared origin.

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I have not seen Ben-Hur.  When the podcast covered it, it was a case of, "I'll watch it if I have time, because being bottom on the list doesn't give me great confidence this will be the movie to change my opinion on a genre that I seem tepid on."

I did not have time. I don't really feel regret not seeing it outside of say comparing Spartacus to other historical epics. Or getting more of the ~reference humor~ parody in Hail Caesar!

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Somehow I never mentally connected the dots between that joke in Life of Brian and Spartacus, but it's pretty obvious now that it's pointed out. I guess I've never watched the two in close enough temporal proximity?

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11 minutes ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

Somehow I never mentally connected the dots between that joke in Life of Brian and Spartacus, but it's pretty obvious now that it's pointed out. I guess I've never watched the two in close enough temporal proximity?

Life of Brian also parodies Ben-Hur quite a bit, so that might be another reason to watch it!

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I had only listened to the earlier parts of the podcast when I commented earlier, so this is a continuation.

"Have you no decency" was completely separate from HUAC. That was the Army's counsel in the senate hearing vs Joe McCarthy. McCarthy was never in the House, where HUAC of course was formed years before he joined Congress. McCarthy's censure did not end the blacklist, because it was a completely separate thing. McCarthy was reacting to cases like the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss to claim that the federal government was infested with Soviet agents, secretly being fed info from Venona that J. Edgar Hoover didn't even tell the President about. HUAC was an amorphous thing going after whatever they people in charge of it decided to dub "Un-American", which permitted it to last a long time and go after different people. For example, Dalton Trumbo started informing the Feds of people who sent him fan mail for his anti-war novel "Johnny Got His Gun" once the CPUSA flip-flopped to support American entry in the war, while Trotskyists and Bundists who continued to oppose that got targeted by HUAC. After the war when Uncle Joe was no longer considered our friend, HUAC changed course, otherwise you probably would have never heard of it.

Barry Marshall won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for demonstrating, on himself no less, that ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori, not stress. Marshall has even said that no medical condition is caused by stress and there are more potential Nobels out there for anyone else who wants to debunk such popular but baseless claims.

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I'm late to the pod this week since I had to wait until Saturday's showing of Spartacus on TCM to rewatch it.  (It's up on WatchTCM for the next two weeks now, in case free availability was a hindrance to anyone seeing it.)

Going along with what FictionIsntReal has said, it was funny to hear Paul say that he didn't see it as Marxist propaganda, because that's all I could see on this rewatch.  (Or at least communist propaganda in general.  I used to know more about the different "isms" specifically, but it's been a couple decades since I read "The Communist Manifesto" and biographies of the early Soviet revolutionaries.  Also, the word "propaganda" is probably a bit too pejorative to really use here, but oh well.)  In particular, the Romans are portrayed as the epitome of ruling class apathy and selfishness, as every one of them makes every single decision out of complete self-interest.  Even Ustinov's Batiatus helps to free Varinia out of greed more than compassion, as he's given a hefty sum of money for his trouble.  His nobility is simply in not reneging on his end of the deal when the money was in hand, as the Cilician pirate captain did.  Gracchus freed Varinia because he had nothing to lose and acts outs of spite to hurt Crassus more than out of compassion to help Varinia.  But I think the story works well because of the influence of these aspects.  As Marx saw, the story of Spartacus is one of class struggle, and having authors with real knowledge of communism like Howard Fast and Dalton Trumbo is what makes the spirit of the story work, in my opinion.  (Somewhat relatedly, back in 2015 I saw a screening of Trumbo at the Egyptian Theater with a friend who identifies as a communist, and at the Q&A after the film, screenwriter John McNamara was almost bragging about how he didn't know anything about Marxism, which was pretty irritating to my friend.  But that's probably why the screenplay for that film sucked, which (a) tanked a film that's full of solid performances and (b) probably explains why McNamara never had a screenplay for any other feature film made.)

On the film as a whole, I also mostly enjoy it, but it feels borderline for inclusion.  It's not a truly amazing film; it's flabby at times, dull at others.  It falls far short of On the Waterfront and High Noon in my book as far as Black List related films, and genre-wise, I don't feel the need to have a sword-and-sandals epic even if this is the best one.  So while I like it, I'm voting no.

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Paul had a couple of lines at the beginning of the podcast about expressing, I guess some confusion that Kubrick didn't consider this one of his films, but did Paths of Glory even though that came before (I mean, he was a director for hire who didn't feel like they got the final word on the final cut they wanted). I think also a side comment about how this one doesn't have the style you'd expect in a Kubrick movie. It does leave not knowing how many pre-2001 Kubrick movies he's seen.

They'rea very different style and often feel less detached from the main characters (though something like PoG still has that amazing long take of the General walking through the trenches. Side note - David Simon of The Wire, is a really big fan of PoG).  I know Michael Philips of the Chicago Tribune is a critic who really loves the ones leading up to 2001 (I can't recall of he was counting Spartacus) and is more tepid on the subsequent films. 

When people talk about not liking his films, I often find myself wondering if the person would prefer his earlier films. I suspect if they like classic films, they probably would, though ironically those earlier films are often seen by people interested in his early films because of his later ones. 

I guess that's a topic that could be discussed when they hit Strangelove though.

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Watching the film in its entirety for the first time, and I realized that it features TWO actors who I constantly mix up with others. The first one: I always forget to distinguish between Tim Curry and Tony Curtis In my head until I watch the film, and remember "oh yeah. it's that guy." Similarly, but perhaps more strangely, the second one: Lawrence Olivier and Sidney Poitier. :)

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