AFI #81: Spartacus

The term epic is defined as heroic, majestic, impressively great. An epic motion picture is one that spans generations like The Godfather or one that is grand in scope and story. Spartacus is without question an epic motion picture, and not just because it’s more than three hours long. Typically an epic also involves a hero who achieves greatness and for me the character Spartacus embodies the term. And while Spartacus the film is perhaps an hour or so too long, Spartacus the character is one of the greatest in film history.

The film was made in 1960 and directed by Stanley Kubrick who would go on to make such classic films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Until Spartacus I think the epics were a bit corny and it’s easy for me to compare Spartacus to Ben Hur (which readers of this blog will remember I did not like). While Ben Hur (#100 on the AFI list) was poorly acted and the plot was ridiculous, Spartacus kicks it up a notch with tremendous acting by Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar for his role). The plot tells the story of the Roman slave Spartacus, who leads a slave uprising and eventually takes on the Roman army in a deadly battle for freedom. And while the story doesn’t end well for the slaves, I like the realism there and of course the legend of Spartacus becomes more powerful than the life itself. I wasn’t around in 1960, but I bet Spartacus was considered trailblazing in its time. Just think…only a few years later Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. These were not simple Hollywood stories, but rather the start of a new era of film making and it’s easy to see why Kubrick was so influential.

I am surprised Spartacus didn’t even get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, even though it won the Golden Globe for best picture. Awards (and lists like AFI for that matter) are so darn subjective. Interestingly, the film that did win the best picture Oscar that year (The Apartment) is next on the AFI list so I’ll get an immediate comparison.

Kind of lost in the story is the fact that it’s based on actual history. Spartacus lived from around 109-71 B.C. and did indeed lead a slave rebellion against the Romans. In fact, Spartacus himself is referenced throughout literature, film and pop culture and is often considered one of the greatest heroes in human history. It’s interesting that so many of our heroes are forced into action because of oppression. I suppose the reason I’m not a hero, for example, is because I have such an easy life in comparison to men and women like Ghandi, Joan of Arc and MLK. I wonder if being a hero is something we’re all born with but it only comes out in dire circumstances? Hope I never have to find out if I am Spartacus!

Next up: The Apartment

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