A slave leads a rebellion against the Roman Empire. Story inspired by actual events. [Dir: Stanley Kubrick/ Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis/ 196 min/ Action-Adventure/ Anti-Slavery]
This is a “big” picture, one of those epic spectacles made to bring the early television audiences of the 1960s back into the theaters. The cast includes some of the best acting talent of the day, and the sheer number of actors and extras is astounding. Also in the plus column, some of the action scenes are remarkably realistic.
It tells the story of Spartacus, a slave trained as gladiator who leads other slaves in a nearly successful rebellion and escape from the pre-Christian Roman Empire. The rebellion ultimately fails, but as Spartacus says, rebellion against oppression is always valuable in itself as an affirmation of human dignity regardless of whether it is ultimately successful. The events depicted teach a useful lesson in how force begets more force.
In particular, it is the cruel conditions of slavery and the associated abuses that cause the slave rebellion; the rebellion in turn fills the slave-owning populace with fear; the people, in their terror, turn all power over to a dictator to keep order; and having crushed the rebellion, the dictator then naturally turns his new power against his enemies, rounding up all people who oppose him. In the end, it’s clear that slavery for even a few is literally incompatible with freedom for anyone.
This enjoyable (if long) antislavery film is one of the few movies to really do justice to the word spectacle. Ideally, it should be viewed on the big screen, as so much of the experience is visual. Indeed, it won three of its four Academy Awards for visual achievements.