Thursday, November 27, 2014

AFI Top 100: #81 "Spartacus"

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960)

I'm excited to announce that for the first time since I started this AFI Top 100 countdown back in July, I've crossed off a movie from the list that I hadn't seen before! Is there anything more satisfying than putting down that check!? I'm not sure that there is. This very special movie was Spartacus from 1960, coming in at #81. It was directed (for the most part) by Stanley Kubrick and stars the talented Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.

It was hard not to compare this movie to Ben-Hur, which I reviewed at #100. They came out a year apart, and it's rumored that Douglas was inspired to produce this epic after losing out on the part of Ben-Hur to Charlton Heston. He felt he could make a movie about the Roman Empire that was bigger, better, and much more grand—and he absolutely succeeded.

Spartacus is based on a true story about the eponymous character, a man sold into slavery as a child in ancient Rome who is plucked out of the salt mines to train as a gladiator. He has a major attitude problem, and even though he's never known anything other than chains, his instinct to stick his nose up at his owners is far too powerful. This helps him in the arena as he gains the skills to fight, as well as the respect of the other to-be-gladiators.

What felt like it was to become a 1960s version of Gladiator actually takes a shift pretty quickly, as Spartacus leads a revolt among the gladiators. We never find our characters steeped in the games within the arenas of Rome; instead, they join Spartacus in his violent uprising, freeing any slaves they can find along the countryside and small villages of Italy.

There are many key players here that I feel like I should mention. The political arena of Rome's Senate is littered with familiar faces, like Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton, all fighting for what great or little control they can gather. Oh, and let's not forget Tony Curtis and his infamous "washing Laurence Olivier in the bathtub" sequence. So many incredible gems within this movie that I'd only heard about up until this point. (If you're not aware of Spartacus' significance in historical Gay & Lesbian cinema, it's worth watching just for that—snails and oysters, my friends!)

The story here is just molded really well. All of the characters are interesting, not just Spartacus. He has a believable relationship with his wife, Varinia (Jean Simmons) and it's not a stretch to believe that these thousands upon thousands of slaves would follow him into battle. He faces overwhelming odds, yet we still believe he will come through for his people.

And that's what it comes down to: the stakes for this character are really, really high. Failing means certain death; not just for him, but for every single slave that fought with him. I probably shouldn't compare this to Ben-Hur, because they really are absurdly different, but stakes are what was missing from that movie. No matter how "bad" things got, you just knew that things were never going to get that bad. Most everyone in Ben-Hur would walk away alright—at least alive.

Not here. Instead, Kubrick weaves a story so laced with hope that when he pulls the rug out from underneath you, it is utterly heartbreaking. It's not that you don't expect it... but you can't help but hope against all hope that maybe things will work out. That's the sign of a successful film, if you ask me.

Spartacus lives on today stronger and better than ever. The movie survived the strict censorship board, and while audiences may not have seen every scene intact upon its original release, I can only be thankful that most of the scenes weren't lost forever. We get to enjoy them now.

I didn't know how I'd feel about this movie, because I'd heard so much about it. Bias and expectations can do a number on your final impression. I didn't think it could surprise me, but it did. I found the action realistic, the script intricate, and the acting (from these wonderful actors, by the way!) to be top notch. If you love modern epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, this is the movie that paved the way for all of them. It's simultaneously gritty and extravagant.

Rating:  ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next week for #80, The Apartment  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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