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Film / Spartacus

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"I am Spartacus!"
"No, I'm Spartacus!"

A classic 1960 film by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas in one of his most famous roles, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov. It was based on the 1951 novel by Howard Fast, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. It was Inspired by... history, and a rather subversive version of the Sword & Sandal movies that preceded it by depicting The Roman Republic as a Crapsack World.

Spartacus is a slave from the last years of the Roman Republic. He escapes and becomes the leader of a slave army that nobly fights the Romans under the evil Roman aristocrat, Marcus Licinius Crassus...

The film was banned in some areas because of violence and sexual content.

A re-release in 1967 cut a lot of the objectionable material, including a dialogue Crassus has with his servant about his liking both oysters and snails. It's especially noteworthy because the audio track for this scene was lost in the 1970s. When Spartacus was restored in 1991 the scene was recreated: Tony Curtis redubbed his lines at the age of 66. Laurence Olivier was dead, but his lines were dubbed by Anthony Hopkins, who received Special Thanks in the restored version's credits.


Definitely an Epic Movie. The filming went on for years — at the time a reporter asked Peter Ustinov's young daughter what he did for a living, and she replied "Spartacus!". Ustinov not only played Batiatus, the owner of the gladitorial school from which Spartacus begins his slave revolt, he completely re-wrote all of Charles Laughton's scenes, after the latter threatened to quit the film over his displeasure with the script — or the weather — or the time of day (Laughton was about as unpredictable and moody as they come). When praised for the script, the credited screenwriter Dalton Trumbo didn't mention that these re-writes (particularly the witty scenes between Ustinov and Laughton) came pouring in.

Spartacus was also a landmark movie for the fact that, along with Exodus, it ended The Hollywood Blacklist period. As per the unspoken rules, no blacklisted screenwriter could officially work in Hollywood, yet Trumbo was blacklisted (in practise, these screenwriters were employed under front names). By publicly crediting him, while he was also praised for Exodus, Kirk Douglas decisively helped in ending the blacklist, once and for all.


For the Starz series see Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Tropes used:

  • Anachronism Stew: This isn't as bad as the historical liberties mentioned in Very Loosely Based on a True Story below, but it is present. Varinia is said to be from Brittania. Not only was Britain not a part of Roman dominion (and would not be for over a century after this time period), no Roman had ever been there, and would not until Julius Caesar landed there decades later.
    • While it is possible (if far-fetched) that there would be British slaves in the Republic through trade with the Gauls, there is no such excuse for Crassus being shown wearing boots in the scene where he kills Draba.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Especially when they are picking out slaves to fight to the death.
  • Artistic License – History: It's a little better than other Roman epics of the time, which isn't saying much but still some facts need to be pointed out:
    • The Roman Senator Gracchus is an In Name Only composite of the famous Gracchi Brothers. This allusion is weird because the Gracchi were Tribune of the Plebes and not senators, furthermore they preceded the events of the film by some 60-70 years. Likewise the film paints Gracchus as a kind of cynical Knight in Sour Armour with some Pet the Dog moments mostly because he opposes the aristocrat Crassus. The real-life Gracchi were more or less Wide-Eyed Idealist of mixed plebian-patrician stock, and their policies while controversial in lifetime informed later Roman politics and were at times supported by patricians, including Crassus himself (who aligned himself to the populares, albeit much after the events of the film).
    • Likewise, Spartacus is notably secular compared to other Hollywood films, mostly because it is set in the pre-Christian period of Rome. But the opening narration states that slavery in Ancient Rome was part of pagan tyranny and would only be cleared when Christianity arrived. Now admittedly this might have been a Censor Decoy (The Hays Code was heavily Catholic-inspired) but it must be stated that slavery in the classical and medieval world continued even after Christianity became the organizing and dominant religion. In the Western Roman Empire, slavery was replaced by serfdom, which is not quite the same thing as slavery but certainly a form of Indentured Servitude. While some parts of Christianity curbed the abuses of slavery, and some Church fathers did criticize the practice, an explicitly abolitionist Christianity would not come into being until the 18th Century. Furthermore, Spartacus and his fellow slaves were themselves pagans and there was no real pagan tyranny because there was no organized pagan belief enforcing common views. Now there are certain pagan abuses that Christianity, and later Islam, clamped down on (infanticide of the sickly, deformed and in the case of the latter, girl-child) but slavery was not one of it.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: Well, slaves, but they were on an even lower rung of society so the principle holds.
  • As You Know: When Crassus, Glabrus, and their companions arrive at Batiatus's school, he greets them by reeling off their names and accomplishments (or the accomplishments of their family members, in the case of the women). Since his guests already know who they are and he obviously knows it, too, it would seem that this is the purpose of the introduction. In-story, he's just sucking up to some extremely wealthy and influential guests.
  • Babies Ever After: The Love Interest escapes alive, with her (and Spartacus') son.
  • Band of Brothers: Spartacus and his army, as he tells them before marching off to face Crassus.
    Spartacus: I do know that we're brothers, and I know that we're free.
  • Black Best Friend: Draba to Spartacus; Draba sacrifices himself rather than kill Spartacus in the ring.
  • Black Guy Dies First: Not how the trope usually plays out, but it happens in something of a Heroic Sacrifice that incites the gladiator revolt.
  • Big Bad: Crassus becomes this in the final act.
  • Birth/Death Juxtaposition: Varinia gives birth to her baby in the middle of the corpse-strewn battlefield.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The slave revolt is crushed and Spartacus is crucified, but Varinia and their son escape to freedom.
  • Bowdlerize:
    • The opening narration references Christianity and that it attributed to Rome's fall. That was forced upon by The Hays Code to make the movie look conservative. They weren't fooling anybody. (Note that the argument that Christianity caused the fall of Rome has traditionally been used as an argument against Christianity. Indeed, Christian leaders of The Low Middle Ages spent some time convincing people that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Rome had abandoned its traditional pagan gods.)
    • Older prints of the film removed all closeups of a dying, crucified Spartacus at the film's end. The Criterion DVD includes this alternate ending as a special feature, with speculation over whether this was done for censorship (to avoid Christian parallels) or artistic reasons (since Kubrick preferred only to show Kirk Douglas in longshot at the end).
  • Broken Pedestal: Julius Caesar starts as Gracchus's protege and an idealistic Republican. But he's disgusted by Gracchus's lack of principals, seemingly putting ambition ahead of Rome's security, and defects to Crassus - helping precipitate Rome's slide towards Empire.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: An Artistic License, but justified, given the historical setting. Captured rebel slaves being crucified is Truth in Television.
    • As for Spartacus himself, contrary to the film's depiction, he was not crucified, as they Never Found the Body.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Draba is hung up in the gladiators' quarters to serve as a warning against rebellion. It has the opposite effect.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Gracchus and Batiatus.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Crassus, in this Sexual Innuendo-laden discussion:
    Crassus: Do you eat oysters?
    Antoninus: When I have them, master.
    Crassus: Do you eat snails?
    Antoninus: No, master.
    Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral, and the eating of snails to be immoral?
    Antoninus: No, master.
    Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn't it?
    Antoninus: Yes, master.
    Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals, hmm?
    Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.
    Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.
    • This is drastically toned down from Fast's novel, wherein Crassus both seduces his male cousin, then rapes his fiancée when she refuses to sleep with him.
  • Determinator: The Romans. Discussed By Spartacus:
    Spartacus: No matter how many times we beat them they just come back with another army.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Spartacus. Right before the battle with Crassus, Spartacus, who seems to realize that they are probably going to lose, says that just by fighting they have won something.
  • Double Entendre: Crassus' infamous "Oysters and Snails" speech, above.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: The Roman ladies who pick Spartacus and the others out for their entertainment specifically ask that the slaves be scantily clad.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Crassus is infuriated by his inability to understand how Spartacus commands such loyalty and love in his followers, when his own power just brings him more distrust and unpopularity.
    Crassus: [mocking] What was he? Was he a god?
    Varinia: He wasn't a god. He was a simple man. A slave... I loved him.
    Crassus: He was an outlaw! A murderer! An enemy to everything fine and decent that Rome ever built! Damn you! You tell me — Why did you love him?
    Varinia: I can't tell you. I can't tell you things you can never understand.
    Crassus: But I want to understand. Don't you see? I must understand!
  • Exact Words: Upon learning that all the surviving slaves are to be crucified, Batiatus reminds Crassus of the latter's earlier promise that he could act as agent in their sale. Crassus retorts:
    I promised you the sale of the survivors and there will be none!
  • A Father to His Men: To the extent that they will say "I Am Spartacus" and accept crucifixion rather than betray him to the Romans.
  • Finish Him!: The order is given after Spartacus loses his duel with Draba when they are forced to fight each other.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Especially for the original audience.
  • General Failure: Glabrus takes the garrison of Rome out to face Spartacus, but fails to take elementary security precautions when he makes camp. Spartacus ambushes and annihilates his army.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
    • Crassus' bisexuality, even in the censored version. Absolutely unambiguous in the restored version.
    • The other is the fact that Gracchus and other sympathetic characters seem to be nonbelievers, and Spartacus and his crew do not make any references to religion. As the only major Roman epic set before Jesus Christ, it also offered a rare, secular vision of the ancient world, which obviously slipped past The Hays Code.
  • Gladiator Games: An impromptu gladiator match at the school touches off the rebellion.
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: Averted. While Rome is shown to act like an empire overseas, conquering other countries and taking home slaves, this is during the days of the Roman Republic. It can be said that this is where a large part of the subversion of preceding Sword & Sandal movies occurs. Depicting the Roman state in a negative light was standard fare — but it was almost always the Roman Empire. What sets Spartacus apart was, quite simply, its assertion that the Republic was just as bad as, if not worse than, the Empire as shown in previous movies.
  • Hard-Work Montage: The training sequences at the gladiator school. And later when the escapees from said school are training their new recruits in warfare.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Batiatus late in the film, though he helps Varinia more out of spite towards Crassus than any noble motives.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The real Crassus was considered a ruthless and predatory landlord who profited during the dictator Sulla Felix's proscriptions (i.e. putting names of people on a list that would purge them so that he can grab their property and money) and was considered a general sleaze. He also reintroduced decimation in the Roman legions which had been discontinued long before. However, in the film he's presented as an elite aristocrat opposed by the plebeian Gracchus (who is an In Name Only take on the real Gracchi). The real Crassus actually did support a lot of pro-plebeian reforms and was quite generous to his friends and clients, much later, after the Spartacus revolts, as part of the Third Triumvirate, Crassus would in fact support the Populares against the Boni, and supported Casear's reform initiatives.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Gracchus states that privately he believes in none of the gods, but publicly of course he believes in them all. He is not portrayed as worse for this, and in fact comes off better than most of the politicians by the end. The film (released in 1960) is probably able to get away with this because he is only referencing the roman pagan gods.
  • I Am Spartacus: Trope Namer.
  • I Just Want to Be Free: The major motivation of Spartacus and his army. They send this as their only demand to Rome after their first victory.
  • Inspired by...: As noted elsewhere on this page, a very loose adaptation of history.
  • Involuntary Battle to the Death: Spartacus and Draba, as detailed above. A second one happens at the end of the film between Spartacus and Antoninus to see which of them will receive a swift death at his friend's hands and which will survive to be crucified.
  • Karma Houdini: Crassus. Though in Real Life, he had a very fitting Karmic Death at the hands of the Parthians.
  • Kubrick Stare: This is the least Kubrickian of Stanley Kubrick's films-he was a hired gun here-but he still got this in. Spartacus gives one of these to the Roman ladies as they are picking out contestants.
  • La Résistance: The army of ex-slaves that Spartacus leads.
  • Manly Tears: Spartacus, during the famous "I Am Spartacus!" scene.
  • Man on Fire: Seen when Spartacus torches Glabrus's camp.
  • Meaningless Villain Victory: Crassus nominally wins, but doesn't feel any satisfaction from it. If anything, succeeding makes him desperately aware of his own vulnerability.
  • Mind Rape: To Spartacus, more than once, most dramatically when Crassus tells him that his wife and son are slaves in Crassus's house.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title
  • More Hero Than Thou: When Crassus has Spartacus and Antoninus fight to the death at the end, Spartacus orders Antoninus to let Spartacus kill him quickly, thus leaving Spartacus for the slow death of crucifixion. Antoninus refuses, and fights Spartacus. Spartacus wins anyway.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Push-up bras and well-coiffed hair in ancient Rome for Jean Simmons.
  • The Mutiny: Spartacus's slave revolt starts out as an impromptu mutiny at the gladiator school.
  • Never Learned to Read: Antoninus is one of the few slaves who can read due to being a singer. The pirates' envoy catches on when Spartacus passes their letter to him.
  • Never Mess with Granny: When Spartacus is recruiting and complains about getting too many women, an old lady, unaware of who he is, is not pleased :
    Old lady: I can handle a knife in the dark as well as anyone. I can cast spells and brew poisons. I have made the death shrouds for seven Roman masters in my time. Have you, you lout? I want to see Spartacus!
  • No Challenge Equals No Satisfaction: When Varinia asks her current master why he doesn't just have his way with her, he tells her he wants her to give herself to him.
  • Non-Action Big Bad: Crassus. He does finish off an already mortally-wounded Draba, but otherwise delegates violence to his henchmen and soldiers.
  • Non-Action Guy: Antoninus, a slave with no combat ability or labor skills, he is instead "a singer of songs" and had worked mainly as a caretaker and tutor for his master's children. At first, the gladiator-soldiers mock him, but when Spartacus asks for one of his songs, they are all moved by the beauty and emotion it invokes, reminding them why it is worth fighting to be free.
  • Not Afraid to Die: After Tigranes Levantus of the Silician pirates tells Spartacus that his army of former slaves will surely lose, he asks him if he is still going to fight Rome. Spartacus retorts that to the slaves, death equals freedom so they don't fear it, which gives them edge in the battlefield.
  • Off Screen Moment Of Awesome: Spartacus's defeat of Glabrus; we only see its aftermath, with Glabrus's force already destroyed. Ditto the Battle of Metapontnum; we only see Spartacus's triumphant entry into the city.
  • One-Word Title: Only One Name Protagonist Title.
  • Order Versus Chaos: How Crassus justifies his dictatorship, though it's obviously a front for his megalomania.
  • The Queen's Latin: A typical instance of this trope, with the Romans all played by Brits and the slaves all played by Americans, except for Jean Simmons, which is why Varinia is said to be from Britain.
  • Rated M for Manly: Gladiators! War!
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Gracchus, with his plebeian sensibilities, is somewhat sympathetic towards the rebels, if only with the ultimate goal of upstaging Crassus.
  • Remake Cameo: An inversion of this happens in the Japanese dub used for the HD home video release for Blu-ray: Julius Caesar is voiced by Rikiya Koyama in the movie. In the Japanese dub of Spartacus: Blood and Sand he voiced the titular Spartacus instead.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: In a sense it could be a rather extreme version
  • Scary Black Man: Draba, for the Roman nobles after the arena fight.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: How the visiting nobles get a fight to death arranged at the gladiator training camp. It's explicitly against their policy (because it would be terrible for morale). Backfires spectacularly when the gladiators start rioting in outrage after the fight, kicking off the slave revolt that makes up the main plot.
  • Sex Slave: Varinia and the other girls at the gladiator school are this. Besides doing the domestic chores, they are given to the gladiators as rewards.
  • Skinnydipping: Still more Fanservice from Jean Simmons.
  • Single Tear: From Spartacus at the end of the I Am Spartacus scene.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Varinia gives birth to her and Spartacus' son just before he gets crucified. At least she and their son are free.
  • Spiteful Spit: Spartacus spits Crassus in the face when he demands that he answer him when spoken to.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Varinia drops her robe when she's sent to Spartacus's cell as a reward. Later we see her get out of a river she'd been bathing in the same way.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The real Spartacus and his rebellion wasn't nearly this idealistic.
    • The biggest difference being that Spartacus, instead of being a slave from birth sold into gladiator school, was in fact an ex-soldier (more precisely, an auxiliary, which was a non-citizen soldier in the Roman army) who was sent to a gladiator school as a punishment for deserting from the army.
    • Also Crassus, though as ruthless as most Roman higher-ups, was neither this psychotic nor was he in charge of Rome at this point. He is portrayed as the pre-eminent man in Rome who uses the slave revolt to launch a coup d'etat when he was really just one of many wealthy and ambitious aristocrats. In fact he was snubbed afterwards and not awarded a triumph for his victory, but only the lesser honor of an ovation (the Romans didn't consider slaves a Worthy Opponent). He didn't even become consul (a bit like prime minister, but more like chairman of the board, and the consulship was always shared with another consul) until after the war. Oh, and Spartacus' men were not crucified because they refused to hand him in, the Romans always planned to kill them all as a very clear example (this was standard to deter further revolts).
    • The movie prior to the I Am Spartacus speech is loosely based on a true story and the moment that word is uttered (in the movie only, not in actual history books)... Spartacus died in the battle. Yeah, anything after the speech never happened.
    • The entire character of Gracchus is made up. There were two brothers named Gracchus who were important figures in Roman history, but they were tribunes, not senators, and died more than 50 years before the Spartacus revolt.
    • In reality, Spartacus's chief lieutenant Crixus broke from Spartacus and led a large faction of his army on a desultory march against Rome. Dalton Trumbo's original script depicted this, but either Douglas or Kubrick removed it from the final film, where Crixus is a loyal follower.
  • Young Future Famous People: A twenty-year-old Julius Caesar has a few brief scenes in which he does almost nothing. In Real Life Caesar was an officer in the legions at this time though it is unknown if he directly participated in the Great Slave War (as the Romans called Spartacus' rebellion).


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