IT'S FITTING THAT this 1960 epic begins with Kirk Douglas biting his guard's leg. That image prepares us for the next three-plus hours of his clench-jawed gravel and glower as the rebellious slave who leads a crusade for freedom against the legions of the Roman Empire. I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of those choppers.
directed by Stanley Kubrick with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, and Laurence Olivier runs October 6-12 at Egyptian
If Spartacus fought Gladiator's Maximus, who would win? Maximus, certainly, and not just because Spartacus would be 300 years old. The tensest fight in Spartacus is the one we see the least of: between the slats as Douglas nervously awaits his own match next to the man who'll be his killer or victim. While Russell Crowe's morose general seems invincible in battle, Douglas' sweaty slave can obviously lose, and the trident thrusts remind us of his mortality.
Despite the melodrama, Jean Simmons' glamorous hair, and Tony Curtis' Bronx vowels, Spartacus credibly transports us to the first century BCE. "Behold the power of Rome," says Laurence Olivier's Crassus as his crimson legions march to crush the rebellion, and we swoon—not for Olivier's commanding voice, but for the sheer drama of 70mm wide-screen Technicolor. Next to 8,000 extras forming a phalanx on the Spanish plain, Gladiator's digital effects are just a cartoon.
Spartacus also generally lives up to the challenge of conveying complex politics without losing us. Charles Laughton's Senator Gracchus describes republican Rome as a rich widow. Even the dimmest viewer understands when he adds, "Crassus dreams of marrying the old girl—to put it politely."
Director Stanley Kubrick later dismissed his one hired job, saying, "It had everything except a good story." Too flawed for such a notorious perfectionist perhaps, but the restored 1991 print offers a long, good time. Even after 40 years, Spartacus still has a fighting chance with an audience.