We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
2. Spartacus, 1960
He wanted Hur.
More than anything, Kirk Douglas yearned to play Ben Hur. But director William Wyler had another actor in mind for Hollywood’s most coveted role. Adding insult to injury, Wyler offered Douglas the mustache-twirling role of Hur’s enemy, the villainous Messala. His pride wounded, Kirk Douglas refused to play a supporting role — not even to Charlton Heston, Hollywood’s supernova star.
Years later, Douglas confessed: “That was what spurred me to do it [Spartacus], in a childish way—the ‘I’ll-show-them’ sort of thing.”
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovich Demsky, an impoverished Jewish kid who remained angry and resentful of authority his entire career.
Classic movie lovers tend to think of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift—the Method Actors crew—as glamorously angry young men who brought a modern sensibility to the staid Hollywood acting style. But in truth, Kirk Douglas was the pioneering angry young man. On screen and off, Douglas had not a chip on his shoulder, but an entire mountain.
Douglas is Hollywood’s true post-modern anti-hero. He is at his best when he’s playing inflexible characters, men driven by inner demons so profound that creation and destruction become inseparable. Think of his no-holds-barred performance as Midge Kelly, the ruthless boxer in Champion (1949), who smashes friendship and love in pursuit of the title. As Jonathan Shields, the movie producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Douglas seems to channel David O. Selznick and Robespierre to create, perhaps, the most honest and compelling portrait of a Hollywood monster this screenwriter has ever seen.
In Detective Story (1951), Douglas loves his angelic but slightly tarnished wife, played by the luminous Eleanor Parker—a criminally underrated actress—with such ferocity that death is the only possible release.
In Billy Wilder’s brilliant and deeply relevant Ace in the Hole (1951), Douglas gives us a portrait of an amoral reporter that remains, even in this jaded and cynical age, a soul-shattering experience.
As Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956), director Vincent Minnelli said that “Douglas was the only possible choice to play Van Gogh because of his physical appearance, and then for his great violence because Van Gogh, like Douglas, was very fierce in his loves and hates.”
In 1957, Stanley Kubrick asked Douglas for a favor: to play the lead role of Colonel Dax, an idealistic army lawyer among a nest of corrupt French army officers who sacrifice the lives of their men as heedlessly as if they were gambling in a casino. For them, war is nothing but a fraudulent business enterprise and death just another stepping-stone in their careers. The script is unrelievedly cynical, and no studio would agree to finance a film that openly embraced pacifism unless Kirk Douglas — box-office magic — played the lead role. Douglas admired Kubrick, perhaps seeing in the fierce young director a reflection of his own independent, anti-establishment personality.
After Wyler spurned him for Ben Hur a few years later, Douglas optioned his friend Howard Fast’s best-selling novel Spartacus, hired the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the script, and called in his favor to Kubrick, asking him to direct the film. Kubrick was less than eager to take it on.
In fact, Anthony Mann was the first director on the project. But after a few weeks of production, Douglas, the star and producer of the film, grew dissatisfied with Mann’s work and fired him. Kubrick and Douglas also replaced a German actress named Sabine Bethmann, who played Varinia, the slave who loves Spartacus.
Kubrick dumped all of Bethmann’s footage, correctly sensing that the love story was the hook that would allow audiences an entry into Spartacus’ martial heart. Kubrick and Douglas wisely hired Jean Simmons, such a fine actress that she is taken for granted by those who should know better, to play the crucial role. Not surprisingly, Simmons brings an almost unbearable intensity of tenderness to the blood-soaked landscape.
Spartacus is justly famous for the shocking—for their time—violence of the gladiator matches, the impeccable choreography of the last battle scene, and the technically slick performances of the distinguished, high-profile male Brits: Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton, all skilled actors who chew up the scenery with proper relish.
But for this viewer, it is the near-silent sequences that make Spartacus such a memorable film. Forced into gladiator school, Spartacus learns the art of killing even as he becomes aware of and falls in love with of Simmons’ Varinia, the slave who serves food and is then served up as a sexual companion for Spartacus, a baffled virgin. Those who are about to die are treated like captive animals whose sexual needs have to be properly channeled.
Jean Simmons has a delicate touch in the manner in which she makes the brutalized yet painfully innocent Spartacus aware of the possibility of love. Acting is reacting, and her reaction shots are a marvel of naturalistic minimalism. Simmons whispers her dialogue even as her dark eyes blaze.
Douglas’ marvelously baroque, over-the-top acting contrasts beautifully with Simmons’ more restrained style. As Spartacus rages, Simmons soothes with her feathery yet precise diction, controlling the very space between her words. Theirs is a delicate balancing act in which two very different acting styles end up finely complementing one another.
Their relationship becomes the moral context of the movie. Yes, war and bloodshed are the way to freedom—pacifism is blessedly absent from this film. But in the end, as Spartacus and his thousands of followers are crucified along the Appian Way, it is the image of Jean Simmons cradling her son by Spartacus that holds out the promise of freedom.
When we were working on A Stranger Among Us, legendary director Sidney Lumet told me more than once that for a film to work, the audience has to feel a “core of truth” from the protagonist and in whatever love story is unfolding. If the audience senses that they are being manipulated into a by-the-numbers romance, they will check out emotionally. Over and over, Sidney emphasized the need for narrative truth.
Spartacus is famous for the final battle set piece, which involved some 10,000 extras. It is also known for the rousing “I am Spartacus” sequence that makes the audience participants in the martyrdom of Spartacus and his followers — a martyrdom that, in contrast to all other Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics of the period, is not based in religious doctrine, but is purely political.
But the beating heart of this harsh but unbearably beautiful film lies in the intimate love story between Spartacus and Varinia.
Karen and I wish all our friends and relatives a lovely and inspirational Shabbat.