The original director Anthony Mann was sacked after having difficulties with the star and producer Kirk Douglas. Douglas insisted on the young Stanley Kubrick after his experience of working with him in Paths of Glory (1957).

SK was born in New York in 1928. Became an apprentice photographer for Look magazine 1946-50. Made his first film in 1950. From 1974 SK has lived and worked in England in order to have complete independence from Hollywood. Since he insists on complete control over every aspect of his films he could not work for a major film studio. SK has had no direct experience of war (other than living through the Cold War of the late 1950s to the late 1980s - see Dr Strangelove) yet he has made 4 films about war: Fear and Desire (1953) about the assassination of a general by a lieutenant in order to seize a plane to escape; Paths of Glory (1957) about the court martial and execution of three French soldiers in WW1; Dr Strangelove (1964) about an accidental nuclear war between the US and the USSR; and his Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket (1987). Some of his other well known films include Lolita (1962) based on a novel by Nabokov, Spartacus (1959) about a slave revolt in ancient Rome, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) about man's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, A Clockwork Orange (1971) about violence in modern society, and Barry Lyndon (1975) his historical drama and The Shining (1980) his horror movie.


The Novel

Howar Fast, Spartacus (1952) (London: Panther, 1959).

The Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo (1906-)

Left-wing writer and filmmaker who transferred Fast's 1952 novel to screen. Howard Fast was a member of Commuist Party 1944-57, quit after invasion of Hungary, novel was popular in left-wing circles in America. War correspondent in the Pacific during WW2. Special consultant to United Nations Conference in 1945. Active in communist circles in LA and California in 1940s. Wrote screenplay for war movie Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944). Wrote powerful anti-war novel and later film, Johnny Got his Gun (1970). Member of Hollywood Ten investigated by McCarthy inspired House Un-American Activities Committee looking into commuist inflitration of government and film industry (suspected corruption of Amerian values, fifth column), imprisoned in a Federal Prison in Kentucky for not cooperating with HUAC (i.e. for not dobbing in his mates), and banned for 12 years for suspected communist activities in film industry. Accused of soliciting membership of Communist Patry in California, trying to form trade union on movie lots. Forced to write under assumed names (Sam Jackson) or used wife's name. Won Oscar as "Robert Rich" in 1956 for best screenplay for The Brave One. Liked to write his scrips in the bath, chainsmoking, with typewriter on tray. Douglas helped break the ban by adding DT's name to the credits (British cast refused to keep DT's name a secret) and for this audacious act the American Legion (veterans association) picketed the opening of the film in LA.



  • Spartacus (Thracian gladiator slave) - Kirk Douglas
  • Varinia (German slave) - Jean Simmons
  • Crassus (Senator, leader of aristocratic faction)- Laurence Olivier
  • Gracchus (Senator, leader of popular faction) - Charles Laughton
  • Antoninus (slave poet) - Tony Curtis
  • Lentulus Batiatus (slave trader) - Peter Ustinov

SK claims this is not a good film (because he could not control it from the very beginning!) but it is a superior epic and perhaps one of the best films about the ancient world. It is based upon a true story of a slave revolt, led by the Thracian gladiator slave Spartacus, which threatened Rome about 74-70 BC. S is a slave who is taught martial skills at Lentulus's gladiator school in order to be sold and then to entertain the Roman crowds in the Colliseum in fights to the death. S is a born revolutionary whose fierce belief in freedom and human dignity compells him to rise up in revolt against the oppression of slaves like himself. His personal revolt ends up as an Italy-wide rebellion of slaves who form a slave army to challenge the authority of the slave owners and the Roman state (represented by Crassus, Gracchus, Caesar).

In a speech given shortly after the theatrical release of the film DT stated the theme of the movie: to be the struggle for "human freedom" against an dictatorial society dominated by aristocratic elites:

Human freedom - the need to secure it, the obligation to defend it, the resolution to die for it - this is the great theme of our time. This is the theme we have sought to dramatize for you in Spartacus. Our film is the story of men and women who opposed totalitarianism with the burning dream of freedom. Men and women who truly believe that any dangerous (? word not clear) is tenable if brave men will make it so and who in the end prefer to die as free men than to live as slaves. Such must be the choice of free men, whether in the 1st century BC or in the 20th AD. For it seems to be a law of nature, or of history, that men who prefer slavery to death inevitably get both. (From Criterion edition of Laser Disc)

One reason SK did not like the film was his rejection of the left-wing romanticism of Trumbo with regard to revolution and armed conflict. SK's cynicism regarding the capacity of individuals (whether poets like Antoninus or warriors like Spartacus) to undergo personal transformation and to do good in an uncaring universe was severely limited in this film. The weaknesses of Trumbo's script were noted by a British critic Peter John Dyer:

... Dalton Trumbo' highly emotional brand of left-thinking goes back to Roosevelt and the New Deal. The result ... is preordained. Freedom is represented by eve of battle visits to the troops, nude bathing scenes, babies, aged peaseant faces, trysts in forest glades, Super Technarama-70 rides across sunset horizons, and a heroine shot in romantically gauzy close-ups; its intercommunication with art by one of those brotherhood relationships between the poet Antoninus and Spartacus which can only be sundered by death and a fervent kiss; and Rome by a bisexual dictator who inquires of the body slave bathing him whether his taste runs to both oysters and snails. (quoted in Norman Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (New York: Continuum, 1989. New expanded edition), p. 71.)


Joseph Vogt, " The Structure of Ancient Slave Wars," Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man, trans. Thomas Wiedemann (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974).

Keith R. Bradley, Slavery and Rebellion in the Roman World, 140B.C.-70 B.C. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Michael Grant, Galdiators (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).


  • The "Hollywoodisation" of Spartacus's fate. Historians believe he was probably killed in battle and his body never found by the Romans. In the film S is crucified like Christ.
  • The magnificently staged gladiator bouts and large-scale battle scenes (filmed outside Madrid using 10,000 extras including 8,000 Spanish soldiers) in which Roman units arrange themselves like pieces on a chess board prior to battle. Note these recurring themes in SK's work: symmetry and chess. Film cost $12 million to make and was most expensive film made to that date.
  • The triangle of leading male characters: the autocratic aristocratic general and senator Crassus who wants to defend "Rome" at any cost; the corrupt, demagogic, lover of luxury, Senator Gracchus who is a friend of the Roman poor; the "freedom loving" slave rebel Spartacus who rises above his own concerns to liberate all the slaves of Italy.
  • The competing interpretations of Spartacus as "large" or "small": the "small" Spartacus who starts a jail break, is concerned only with his own "freedom" and being with Varinia, has no idea of military strategy or a broader concept of "freedom". The "large" Spartacus (favoured by DT), who launches a popular uprising against the Roman state in the name of liberating all slaves, who is intelligent, a clever military strategist, a wise leader of his people.
  • The theme of slavery - DT "attitudes about slavery is what our story is about".
  • The theme of the lives of ordinary people: DT wanted to balance scenes of the Roman elite with scenes of the slave leadership, and scenes of the lives of ordinary working Roman citizens with that of ordinary ex-slaves. Several scenes of the latter were cut (the slum street scene in Rome).
  • The anachronistic ideological motivation of Spartacus who fights for "freedom". The political philosophy of natural rights and individual liberty which was used to undermine the legitimacy of slavery is a product of the 18thC Enlightenment and the revolutions it engendered (the American and French Revolutions). S acts more like a Lafayette or a George Washington (or perhaps DT had Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao in mind) than someone with the values of the first century BC.
  • The influence of contemporary events on Dalton Trumbo's view of history and the nature of "freedom": black Americans and the civil rights movement in the 1950s, opposition to the McCarthy persecutions, opposition to the Cold War between the Soviet Union and USA (especially threat of nuclear anihilation); the the movements against colonies and the emergence of independent nations in the Third World (especially Patrice Lamumba in Africa and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba). Compared rise of Imperial Rome with rise of Imperial America as a result of WW2. Defeat of popular slave revolt important stage in aristocratic revolution, rise of Crassus and Julius Caesar to dictator and then emperor.
  • DT's idea of revolution and resistance to oppression. Idea that maltreatment provokes S into spontaneously resisting oppression, that a man of action is converted into a man of thought. Idealised image of the revolutionmary hero: a Roman Che Guevara?
  • The scenes restored in the 1991 restored version: e.g. some violence in the gladiatorial bouts, but especially the bath scene with Crassus and Antoninus talking about the relative merits of eating snails and oysters (a veiled reference to bisexuality). The American censors helpfully suggested using the words "artichokes and truffles" as a less offensive alternative.
  • The depiction of violence. DT regarded the gladiatorial contest between Draba and S to be "the finest scene of a killing ever shot." DT's concern that they had to show the violence of slavery but not revel in depicting it. Compare SK's intention to shoot 17 violent scenes showing brutality of both sides, but over-ruled by KD and DT who wanted to romanticise slave's revolt.
  • Compare this film with William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959) starring the poltically conservative Charlton Heston, and the spate of Biblical epics made in the 1950s. Is it a Marxist retort to Cecil B. DeMille's Cold War defence of the values of Christian America? First secular film about Ancient Rome with focus on politics and not religion. Rivalry between DT and makers of Ben-Hur - DT believed BH would show Rome in its "gross" imperial self. DT wanted to show life of ordinary Romans and slaves - "history from below". Wanted to show "ugliness" of escaped slaves, due to their harsh treatment. Wanted to show role of women as wives, cooks, mothers, and warriors in S's army.
  • Note Trumbo's reference to the HUAC investigations: General Crassus crushes the slave revolt and warns that "In every city and province, lists of disloyal have been compiled".
  • The possible influence of Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky on SK's battle scenes.
  • The many different versions of the film: cuts were made because it was too long (SK had at least 6 hours in one cut), the preview release was 202 mins, the uncensored release was 189m, the censored release was 182 mins, the cut 1967 version was 161 mins, the 1991 restored version was 186mins. There were 4 different endings of the film: one version cut the crucifiction scene at the end because of pressure from the Catholic League of Decency.
  • The promotional posters which depict a naked classical warrior with arm raised high & holding sword, another with wrist and chain with chipped or broken sword in style of Picasso's fallen warrior in "Guernica". Slogan "Spartacus - Rebel Against Rome".
  • The opposition to the film (and Exodus also written by DT) by the American Legion (conservative veterans association) which sent letter to 17,000 "posts" (branches) advising memmers "Don't See Spartacus!" because of its use of black-listed screen writer. Story of Pres. Kennedy sneaking out of the White House to see it privately and giving it his blessing.
  • The passages or "unacceptable elements" in the film which the Hayes Code enforcers objected to: the depiction of Crassus as a pervert (being bisexual); the scanty costumes of the slaves, the "leering" at women of Batiatus, the use of the words "damn" and "eunuch", the nude bathing, the reference (cut) of milk stains on Varinia's clothing when breast-feeding Spartacus Jr.
  • The use of British actors to play members of the aristocratic Roman elite. Slaves were to have American or "foreign" accents. Exception British Simmons as Varinia (originally offered to Ingrid Bergman).
  • Laurence Olivier: starred as and directed film Henry V (1944); used role as Crassus as a trial run for role of Coriolanus at Stratford-on-Avon which he played when filming finished, wanted to direct film himself.