I thought today would be quite fitting to review this classic film seeing as its main star, Kirk Douglas turns 100. Douglas had many great films but it is inarguable that his most memorable is in fact Spartacus, released in 1960 by Universal and directed by the legendary and controversial Stanley Kubrick.

The film is not solely notable for its quality but also for the political circumstances surrounding it. The film’s screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, a brilliant writer but also a noted communist and labour activist (the screenplay was also based off the novel that was based off the real Third Servile Revolt led by Spartacus written by Howard Fast, also a member of the American Communist Party).

Before 1947, Trumbo was one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood but once he was put on trial by HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) he became a pariah in Hollywood and started writing under various pseudonyms. Using a writer like him during McCarthy era America could pose several risks for Douglas, but he used him anyways.

Writing under the pseudonym Sam Jackson, Trumbo completed the film and delivered to Douglas a terrific screenplay. Back on the set, Douglas had fired the original director, Anthony Mann, replacing him with Stanley Kubrick, a notably adversarial and cold director.

Infuriated by Kubrick’s constant rewrites of the script, Trumbo promptly quit. In a courageous gesture, Douglas knew the only way to get him to return was to give Trumbo on-screen credit. Trumbo accepted and returned, knowing this would end the Hollywood blacklist that forced him and many other Hollywood writers into the shadows.

The movie did just that when it was released and attended by President Kennedy himself, who crossed the picket line of right-wing groups protesting the movie to go see it, effectively ending the blacklist. This story is immortalized by the 2015 film Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston playing Trumbo, I highly reccomend it; future movie review perhaps?

The film follows our title character, Spartacus (Douglas) and his slave revolt against the Roman empire in the first century BC. After having biting a guard, Spartacus is tied to a rock at the mine he works at and is sentenced to lay there until his death. Spotted by slimy Roman businessman Lanista Lentulus Batiatus (portrayed by Peter Ustinov), he is purchased and taken to Capua be trained in the art of killing to become a gladiator.

The story truly takes a turn when while fighting in the arena in front of Crassus (portrayed by Laurence Olivier), a sociopath Roman senator who is aiming to rise the ranks in Rome and become its dictator, Draba, a fellow gladiator and slave, decides to spare Spartacus upon having the opportunity to kill him and attacks Crassus instead. Draba is then killed by a guard and Crassus.

This brutal killing and disregard of human life prompts Spartacus to start his slave revolt against the massive Roman empire and the corrupt senators that are behind it.

For a 1960s film, the ending is very unconventional (Spolier!). Spartacus is left to be crucified after having been identified, denied victory with only the hope from Varinia (a slave and Spartacus’ love interest in the story) that his ideas will survive in the lives of his newborn son and fellow soldiers.

Throughout the picture, we can see glimpses of Trumbo and Fast’s ideologies. For one, there is the idea of Spartacus as the “people’s hero” and more notably, the famed “I am Spartacus” scene. During the McCarthy communist witch hunts both Fast and Trumbo refused to out their fellow communist comrades and this scene comes as an ode to that and a jab to those who so dogmatically ran the HUAC.

The film itself is relatively political as I have outlined and the first time I watched Spartacus it went way over my head. It was made in a tumultuous time of still rampant anti-communist rhetoric and a budding civil rights movement. In that context, the film’s social commentary is strong, latching onto concepts of slavery as a criticism of the treatment of African Americans.

Other than the politics surrounding the film, which I have abundantly touched upon, this film also mixes style with its substance with superb acting, set design and some meticulously choreographed fight scenes (all culminating with the climactic defeat of the slave army).

Despite some small flaws (like the length, which makes for poor pacing at times) and some undeveloped subplots, Spartacus is a film worth watching not only because of its aesthetic but also because of its themes and the history that surrounds it. That is the stuff of Hollywood legends. So to commemorate Mr. Douglas’ 100th birthday, I recommend you sit back and slap on this epic classic.

 

Feature Image courtesy of Univseral

It’s always struck me that for as long as “big summer tentpole movie season” has been a thing, it generally starts on or around my birthday. It’s probably only contributed to my raging sense of self-entitlement that every year Hollywood seems to present me with a bright, shiny gift of special effects and noise. This year in particular seemed to have me in mind, with Gareth Edwards much-publicized Godzilla remake/reboot/apology/do-over hitting screens. I suppose I should thank Edwards for giving me such a nice gift, though not because the movie’s good, but because it should be piss-easy filling up a column talking about everything wrong with it.

The film stars Aaron Taylor Johnson as a military bomb disposal expert (who spends most of the movie with this flat, confused look on his face that kept reminding me of Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) whose crackpot dad is trying to prove that the government is hiding something at the site of the nuclear plant he used to work at, before it was destroyed under mysterious circumstances. Of course, he proves correct, and the duo are captured trying to break in. By -astonishing- coincidence, this happens on he same night that MUTO, the monster that destroyed the plant, finally re-awakens and escapes. Mankind’s only chance for salvation is Godzilla, who has apparently just been chilling in the ocean for the past few decades not bothering anyone and doing crossword puzzles, and the Big Guy emerges from the ocean to save the day. Now, if we just saw him get to do more of the saving, we might have had a decent movie on our hands.

Godzilla posterThe movie has a lot of problems, but when watching it, the one that came back at me most, that had me sighing with frustration constantly, was the very overt sense that Gareth Edwards just wasn’t that interested in making a monster movie. We’re constantly cutting away from the action, seeing the aftermath of rampages, or returning to the human characters, to the point that the first hour and a half is one long exercise in blue-balling. When Godzilla finally makes his triumphant grand entrance (no less than almost halfway into the damn movie) and lets out a triumphant roar, we immediately cut away to Johnson and co-star Elizabeth Olsen’s kid watching it on TV. The film keeps denying us any kind of significant monster action. Not even fights, just basic scenes of destruction and chaos as some overgrown blob of CGI smashes stuff, is that too much to ask? You could call it a bold directorial choice, but you could call walking into a biker bar dressed like Twilight Sparkle bold too and I seriously wouldn’t advise either.

Perhaps if the human characters were at all interesting and likable, I wouldn’t mind watching them rather than thousand-foot tall atomic monstrosities wrestling to the death (I mean, hypothetically) but what we get instead is a collection of mostly dead-eyed homunculi. Johnson spends most of the movie wandering around with his mouth ajar, constantly in the middle of the action and usually for contrived reasons. Bryan Cranston is the closest you can call a standout, but sadly he isn’t in much of the movie. Ken Wattanabe plays the token-est of token Asian characters, unable to say even the simplest thing without pumping it so full of mystery and woe that he sounds like a raving crackpot most of the time, like Emmet Brown if he were half-asleep and drunk.

As a general moviegoer, Godzilla often left me frustrated or outright bored, often denying me the effects-driven spectacle I came here for in favor of bland characters doing uninteresting things. As a hardcore fan of the Godzilla franchise and character, though, I’m even less charitable.

Godzilla ATJThe Big Guy’s gotten a new origin, one that completely strips him of any previous role or symbolism. Rather than being created by atomic testing, a true monster of mankind’s own creation, his existence is now entirely natural. Godzilla, the film now tells us, is from a time when the Earth was far more radioactive than it was now, a species that went dormant after retreating from the surface to get closer to the core’s radiation. The only one left, our hero, was awakened in the 50s by atomic submarines. Any and all connection to atomic testing (which we learn were actually attempts to kill it), and Godzilla’s role as a symbol of man’s nuclear folly coming back to haunt them, gets chucked down the tube like a used condom.

Now, the nuclear allegory is something that’s grown more and more distant since Ishiro Honda’s original film, but to completely strip away that aspect of the character feels inescapably wrong to me, especially in light of the new role haphazardly thrust upon him. When someome pushes him onscreen, Wattanabe will usually slur something about him existing to “restore balance”, of course without explaining why, or what the “balance” even is. Is Godzilla a savior? A giant, green guardian angel? Sure, it’s been done before, but when mixed with his new origin as a natural organism, something just doesn’t seem to work. If he’s a natural organism, why is is role to safeguard mankind? Maybe if the film had stressed his ambivalence more, treating humanity as a nuisance at best, and avoided painting him as a hero towards the end, the film overall would have felt less ideologically muddled. He needed to step on more people is the best way to put it.

When Godzilla finally actually gets going, and the film decides we’ve been patient enough to actually see some monsters fighting, it works. Even if we’re still constantly cutting back to Kick-Ass defusing a bomb or whatever, I’d even call it enjoyable. But it takes so damn long getting there, and the violent changing of gears in Godzilla’s role and origins seems spectacularly mishandled when you think about it too hard.