So after watching Ben-Hur again I had a hankering for another epic or two.
Godard once said the best way to criticize a film was to make another film, which is pretty much what happened with Spartacus. Kirk Douglas coveted the starring role in Ben-Hur that won Charlton Heston an Oscar, so he bought the rights to Howard Fast's novel and produced it at Universal for himself to star in. After a few days of shooting he fired director Anthony Mann and hired Stanley Kubrick, on the basis of their prior collaboration on Paths of Glory. Kubrick later virtually disowned the film since he was a director-for-hire, but it was an essential step in his path towards artistic freedom and autonomy. Certain scenes, like the training sequence in the gladiator school, or the climactic battle scene, are reminiscent of later Kubrick imagery in Full Metal Jacket or Barry Lyndon.
Compared to Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, the direction in Spartacus is substantially more modern, with a greater emphasis on fluid camerawork, long takes, and location shooting. There's also a refreshing dash of violence, with a shot in a battle scene of Douglas chopping a guy's arm off with a single slice of his mighty sword. The script, by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, is better too - more complex and literate, with more interesting dialogue. And it's hard to go wrong with a cast that includes Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov.
Where the movie doesn't hold up as well, ironically, is in Spartacus's personal relationships. The scenes between Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons as his love interest are as turgid and forced as any other Biblical epic. And can someone tell me why Tony Curtis is in this movie? For someone who was a big star at the time, he's given virtually nothing to do except participate in Olivier's "Snails and Oysters" speech and battle Spartacus to death at the end of the movie. What should be a heartbreaking scene between two comrades pitted against each other is robbed of its power - give this scene to the character played by John Ireland, who fought alongside Spartacus from the very beginning, and you'd have something - but for Spartacus to battle the singer of songs? And while Kubrick does bring a dash of fresh air to his direction, you can also tell that he's bored in big chunks of the movie. I can just see him rolling his eyes in any scene involving Universal contract hunk John Gavin as the least charismatic Julius Caesar in cinema history.
All of the major epics of this period focus on the same basic conflict - the individual vs. the power of the state, be it the Roman Empire or Egypt of the Pharoahs. Spartacus takes this conflict and provides a protagonist who doesn't just give in to the whims of fate or a deity, but takes revolutionary action into his own hands; and yet, even then his fate isn't truly under his own control, as Spartacus and his army remain pawns in the rivalries of the Roman power elite. As a result the film has a specifically mid-20th-century leftist feel to it, but one that still resonates today.