Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: Spartacus


Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.

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.


Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in Spartacus, 1960.

Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in Spartacus, 1960.

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.

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  1. Bill Brandt
    Posted August 6, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Just got my Blue Ray movie Robert – I hadn’t seen this in I’ll bet 20 years – or more. The crucifixion scenes were just as upsetting.
    Did not realize that Crassus’ villa was none other than Hearst Castle at San Simeon.
    And a little secret – I can remember driving on the Hollywood Freeway (OK, my parents) and seeing a little Roman building on top of the hill – bet it came from this movie.

    One thing I didn’t like on the Blu-Ray Version – the credits were all from the people who did the restoration – the purist in me doesn’t mind that – it is a beautiful restoration – but they apparently left out the original credits – at least on my copy

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  2. sennacherib
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Spartacus historical note: I don’t remember how well they treated it in the film, but at one time Spartacus and his group could have passed out of Roman territory into the north after having inflicting an impressive last defeat on the Romans. Instead they turned back to their doom and no one knows why. How they would have fared in Germania of course is problematic. To continue the Kirk anti hero theme I think “Lonely are the Brave” is the definitive American anti-hero movie.

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  3. Posted July 29, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I remember that, at the time it came out, The Big Country was ridiculed for the emphasis on BIG, as in the distance shots. Burl Ives was great, as well.
    Another little known Kirk Douglas role I like is in “Story of Three Loves” in which he plays a trapeze artist. That movie, which I love, is out in a nice DVD version now. It’s three stories with a big cast. Ethyl Barrymore plays a great role as a witch.

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  4. kgbudge
    Posted July 29, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I think your list of Kirk-Douglas-driven-by-inner-demons films needs to include In Harm’s Way. The way Douglas’ character is initially built up as rather sympathetic, until he commits a rape, is quite powerful.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink


      You are, of course right. But then I had to limit my remarks to a few films to keep the post at a reasonable length. A few Kirk Douglas films are interesting when Douglas plays a standard nice guy. Interesting because these films, for example, “Strangers When We Meet,” (1960) just don’t work. We keep waiting for Douglas to go full psycho on us, and when he doesn’t we are left confused. As if we’ve stepped into the wrong film. Which in a sense, we have.

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      • kgbudge
        Posted July 30, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Heh. I’m never going to be able to watch Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and see it quite the same way again.

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    • M.R. Smith
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Bad rape/revengescreenplays often start by showing the rapist as a nice guy. (BILLY JACK, LIPSTICK.)

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  5. DavidP
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Hi Robert,

    So how do you feel that “Ben Hur” would have different if Douglas — not Stephen Boyd — had played Messala? I can’t help but feel that there wouldn’t have been enough room on the screen for two mega stars like Heston and Douglas. It’s always fascinated me, along these lines, to learn that an iconic role was almost given to another actor. For example, in “Elmer Gantry” it’s my understanding that the great character actor, Pat Hingle, was poised to get the lead role (played by Burt Lancaster) but lost that part due to an accident in which he fell down an elevator shaft in NYC. Seems like it would have been a totally different movie with Hingle as opposed to Lancaster.

    I also couldn’t help but notice that you didn’t mention the movie that Douglas regards as his favorite, “Lonely Are the Brave.” What a curious choice. I saw that movie as a kid and loved it, but over the years, when occasionally seeing it again (when I’ve become older and wiser?), I can’t help but view the lead Douglas character as a bit of a narcissist — immature and living a dream, even though that character, to be sure, remains sympathetic. It’s also interesting that in “Lonely are the Brave” there is an illegal immigrant angle, but leftist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo didn’t play this up, for this was before open-borders became part of the left’s anti-American manifesto.

    At any rate, so much for my rambling. I’d love to hear your comments.

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    • Barry
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      I do not believe Pat Hingle would ever have played the lead in Elmer Gantry. This is a movie star part that required that kind of presence, empathy and authority. Re Ben Hur. My understanding is that Stewart Granger would have played Messala had he re-upped with M-G-M. He did not.

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      • Larry
        Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        I’m not so sure Pat Hingle would have been so bad. Lancaster was great & Hingle was different, but Hingle had lots of stage experience. It might have been very different with what he might have brought to the role, but a good actor can bring unexpected things to a role.

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        • Barry
          Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          Good or bad isn’t the issue. Getting a studio to sign off on Pat Hingle headlining a big picture when he never headlined anything is and was unlikely. Further a brief examination of Richard Brooks as film director will show that he always had a a big film star, or  more, in his stuff. Beginning with Cary Grant, Stewart Granger, Robert Taylor, Peter O’Toole, Diane Keaton, Warren Beatty, Lee Marvin and Lancaster, anyway, that is the point.

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          • Barry
            Posted July 30, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            Further thought: Elmer Gantry is about sex — and God, more or less, but sex front and center. There have been unattractive movie stars, but Pat Hingle wasn’t one of them. This is a Gable-Lancaster part. Not something for an overweight, awkward guy.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink


      This whole business about one film not being big enough for two mega stars is usually wrong. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster costarred together in no less than six films. Megastars, they fought tooth and nail for every frame, and the films are richer for their star power and rivalry. If Douglas had played the part in Ben Hur I can guarantee he would have been much better than the dreary Stephen Boyd.

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      • M.R. Smith
        Posted July 29, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

        How would Kirl Douglas have handled the repressed homosexual aspect of the story, the HINT that Messala sends Ben-Hur to the galleys because Ben-Hur won’t sleep with him?

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        • M.R. Smith
          Posted July 29, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

          How would Kirk Douglas have handled the repressed homosexual aspect of the story, the HINT that Messala sends Ben-Hur to the galleys because Ben-Hur won’t sleep with him

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      • Barry
        Posted July 30, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Robert —
        Yes, of course, The film world is strewn with multi-star projects. Gable and Tracy. Grant and Stewart,  Newman and Redford, Gable and Lancaster…endless stuff. Add — Hope and Crosby — Astaire and Crosby, etc…

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        • Barry
          Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          More — Randolph Scott and John Wayne, Scott and Joel McCrea,  Preston Foster and Wayne Morris. Not to mention Richard Arlen and Wayne’s brother Chester. Best of all, Jack and Dennis, Two Guys From Milwaukee, on-screen and off.

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  6. M.R. Smith
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    I always find SPARTACUS  pretentious. THE VIKINGS, which also deals with a primative, cruel, barbaric people and era, and which also stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, doesn’t take itself so seriously, is over-ther-top, slightly self-parodying, about how barbaric the Vikings were, and is a lot more entertaining.

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    • Barry
      Posted July 28, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      And nothing’s wrong with Janet Leigh. Although, Tony Curtis is an imperfect fit in this and in Spartacus.

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      • M.R. Smith
        Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:15 am | Permalink

        Janet Leigh was a good actress. Tony Curtis was as American as a hot dog stand and as 20th century as a Coke machine. Because SPARTICUS took itself so seriously, these made problems with his performance. THE VIKINGS was tongue in cheek, he had no problems.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      “The Vikings is” fun and entertaining. But ultimately it’s not really about anything. “Spartacus,” from the brilliant opening credits by Saul Bass, to the genius score by Alex North, to the script, the direction, and performances, is a masterpiece that also entertains.

      Question: If “Spartacus” is pretentious, then how does one label “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

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      • M.R. Smith
        Posted July 29, 2013 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

        Question: If “Spartacus” is pretentious, then how does one label “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
        A Boring mess.

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  7. M.R. Smith
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    I always thought SPARTACUS was pretentious and over-rated.

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  8. Bill Brandt
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    The one thing I always remember about Spartacus – is Simmon’s character gazing up at him on the cross towards the end – the lonely ride out there –

    The movie went way over budget and time to complete – at one point Curtis joked “who do I have to @#$% to get off this picture” and Douglas, offered champagne to the crew with the toast “May the next year be as fun as the first” 

    I agree  – she always was very underrated – told of a story she and the production crew played a joke  on Douglas.

    The story, as told by Simmons in the ICONs Radio Interview, was during the crucifixion scene while lunch was being prepared for the crew, Douglas was left up on the cross while everyone went to eat.
    Jean references that episode here.

    There aren’t many Hollywood actors/actresses I’d like to meet but Jean is one of the few.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 26, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much for the link. Great stuff. As you must know from reading How I Married Karen, I had a huge crush on Jean Simmons after I saw her play Estella in “Great Expectations.”

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted July 26, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

        Robert – I admire her on a number of levels – First, of course, as an actress. But overcoming her battle in the 60s of alcoholism quietly and with dignity. And she stayed in movies nearly until the time of her death. She was a hard working actress in the British tradition.
        I think I first had a crush on her as the school marm in The Big Country.
        If you can hear her interview on the ICONs Radio Interview I recommend it
        BTW in that interview she talks of her movie Great Expectations of having her life saved by John Mills, the actor playing Pip – and (not in that movie) but learning a life lesson from Lawrence Olivier. About not being late on the Set.

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        • M.R. Smith
          Posted July 28, 2013 at 4:18 am | Permalink

          I think I first had a crush on her as the school marm in The Big Country.
          That was a good performance. Remember the scene where she and Gregory Peck are trying to gross each other out?

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          • Bill Brandt
            Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

            There are a lot of stories about the making of that movie. One, the horse that Jean has is her personal horse, Harry-Boy. (sheesh with this level of detail I seem to sound like a stalker but … it just sticks).
            Gregory Peck – a producer, and Wyler had a falling out over a scene – a rift that wasn’t healed for 20 years.
            Katheryn Wyler – in an ICONs interview – said that she felt at times the music was overpowering – such as the climatic ride into Blanco Canyon – and her father always had regrets about not editing it more, but he was off to Italy to film Ben Hur.
            Overpowering music or not, Jerome Moross’ score is still heard over 50 years later.
            I think it is one of the great westerns but I seem to be in the minority 😉

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            • M.R. Smith
              Posted July 29, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

              My father, of blessed memory, called THE BIG COUNTRY THE BIG COMPENDIUM.

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        • Kimosabbe
          Posted October 16, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

          So, after reading these comments I looked up “The Big Country” … and fell in love with Carroll Baker 🙂
          I just started watching the movie online and the scene at the 11 minute mark, where Carroll Baker and Gregory Peck are riding in the open country and force Chuck Connors and his men to move out of the way, reminded me of Robert Avrech’s escape from the Theater parking garage during the 1992 LA Riots!

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