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Spartacus

Year: 1960
Production Co: Bryna Productions
Studio: Universal
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Dalton Trumbo
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton

This film is a very interesting blend of old and new Hollywood. It has the spectacular proportions and Cecil B DeMille-esque showmanship or Cleopatra or Ben-Hur – including the sweeping score and square-jawed hero in Kirk Douglas – but Kubrick always stood apart from the mainstream when it came to narratives.

Despite the heroics, there's no nick of time victory or last minute salvation, and despite the staginess of the matte painting backgrounds and Biblical epic stylings of movies from the period (Ben-Hur came out a year earlier). Spartacus (Douglas) and his forces face an almost impossible battle, and it doesn't sugar-coat his ultimate fate.

If you don't know much about the movie, you'll realise Ridley Scott's Gladiator is actually something of a remake, telling the story of a young man in an outlying district of the Roman empire trapped in a life of slavery.

When he's condemned to death for attacking a group of centurions, a passing slaver (Ustinov) buys him instead. Taken to a gladiator camp, Spartacus is taught in the ways of combat for the entertainment of the elite, and he falls quietly in love with servant girl Varinia (Simmons).

But when his cruel masters push him too far, Spartacus fights back. His fellow captives break out of the camp and flee into the country where he starts to lead a revolt again the Roman government.

As the political machinations in Rome see rulers rise and fall, all of them supporting and double-crossing each other to feather their own nests, Spartacus hatches a plan to make it to the coast where they intend to hire pirates to ship them out of Italy and freedom from Rome for ever.

Like other films of the period, it has the requisite amount of romance, drama and war. Spartacus is part hero, part cowboy, all chin and jaws, and Kubrick surrounded him with some of the greatest British thespian talent of the day including Ustinov and Olivier as the scheming General Crassus.

That it doesn't end how you think it will is a testament to either the brave script by Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted in the McCarthy era) or the studio who took a risk on such a downer ending, but all the other trappings of the genre and period are a great part of your movie education, especially if you can manage to see it on the big screen.

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