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Dalton Trumbo vs. Stanley Kubrick: Their Debate Over The Political Meaning of Spartacus

by Duncan L. Cooper

In his "Report on Spartacus", Trumbo complained bitterly about the rewriting of many of his slave story scenes by persons unknown without his knowledge or consent. He felt these rewrites were responsible for the slow turn in the script from his concept of the Large Spartacus to the opposing concept of the Small Spartacus. Still blacklisted and working on the film in secret, he was unable to be present on the set or on location during the shooting of his scenes. Trumbo speculated that most of these rewrites had been done on the set at the last minute as part of a covert campaign by Stanley Kubrick to radically alter the nature of the script.

Actually, it appears that most of these rewrites were done by Howard Fast, in collaboration with Kubrick, at Kirk Douglas's request. But whatever their differences with Trumbo over the development of the slave story, it is difficult to believe that Fast or Kubrick could have been willing participants in the gross distortion of history which Spartacus became. The hallmark of Kubrick's conception of the film was fidelity to a bitter realism which spared the illusions of neither the left nor the right. In response to Michel Ciment's question as to whether there was any relationship between his interpretation of antiquity in Spartacus and his brief parody of the inauthentic Hollywood sword and scandal epics of the 1950's in A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick replied:

"None at all. In Spartacus I tried with only limited success to make the film as [historically] real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. History tells us that he twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country. But he didn't, and instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. What the reasons were for this might have been the most interesting question the film might have pondered. Did the intentions of the rebellion change? Did Spartacus lose control of his leaders who by now may have been more interested in the spoils of war than in freedom? In the film, Spartacus was prevented from escape by the silly contrivance of a pirate leader who reneged on a deal to take the slave army away in his ships. If I ever needed any convincing of the limits of persuasion a director can have on a film where someone else is the producer and he is merely the highest-paid member of the crew, then Spartacus provided proof to last a lifetime."

In Spartacus, Kubrick wanted to graphically illustrate the violence, brutality and corruption of both the masters and the slaves, thus forcing the audience to choose between them. During the course of shooting he submitted a list of some seventeen "gory shots" to be included in the film's battle scenes. Only a handful were approved by Kirk Douglas and actually shot, and even those were censored later. By revealing the terrible sacrifices which any war imposes on the combatants, Kubrick hoped to raise the question of whether even a noble goal like freedom can justify the human cost. His intent may have been to counteract Trumbo's glorification of the slaves' rebellion, but he could not effectively do so without recounting the fundamental truth about the events of the Servile War, a truth which other members of the film's executive committee seemed quite willing to set aside.

Trumbo, for his part, fought stubbornly for his conception of the Large Spartacus, which he believed was an accurate reflection of history. Nevertheless, his passionate, eloquent arguments were undermined by his own insistence on the inevitability of Spartacus's defeat once the chance of escape from Italy was blocked. Paradoxically, this insistence derived from Trumbo's own reluctance to confront another reality: the fact that the failure of revolutions often derives as much from the weaknesses and mistakes of the revolutionaries as it does from the supposedly overwhelming strength of their opponents.

It thus appears that the main issue dividing Trumbo from Kubrick was not the question of whether or not to downplay Spartacus's military victories, but rather whether or not to identify the slaves' own incapacity to cope with their newly won freedom as the ultimate cause of their defeat. This question of the 'relative immaturity' of the masses as they jump from one era of history into the next during a revolution is the theme of Arthur Koestler's novel about Spartacus entitled The Gladiators. At the same time that Kirk Douglas's company. Bryna Productions, was beginning work on Spartacus, another film company was preparing their own film about Spartacus based on the Koestler novel. That film, to be directed by Martin Ritt and starring Yul Brynner as Spartacus and Anthony Quinn as Crassus, was also being scripted by a blacklisted screenwriter, Abraham Polonsky. In fact, Polonsky's script was sent to the same distinguished British actors Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov at the same time as Trumbo's. Fortunately for Douglas, the British actors chose the Trumbo script based on the Howard Fast novel, Nevertheless, Ritt and Brynner forged ahead with their plans and Douglas was able to quash their project only by getting into production first with an unfinished script in which the slave story and the main character were still only roughly drawn. Later, as that story was being reworked and rewritten, Kubrick wanted to introduce some provocative ideas from the Koestler novel into their Fast-based script.

Unfortunately for Kubrick, Trumbo was unalterably opposed to these changes. In his memo, "The Sequence on Vesuvius: Notes," he made the point of distinguishing the first longstanding campaign by the film's executive committee to diminish the military stature of Spartacus from a subsequent campaign orchestrated by Kubrick personally to diminish the moral stature of the revolt as a whole:

"Thus was the first campaign against the stature of Spartacus defeated. Then I began to see a second campaign to diminish the character get under way, directed, my dear Stanley Kubrick, by you. Stanley read Koestler. Koestler is a man who was for years bewitched by the idea that he was going to make a revolution, that he was going to lead the dear people in a vast freedom movement. But the revolution didn't come off because the people, in their immense stupidity, didn't see fit to follow Mr. Koestler. Koestler has spent all the years of his life since that fatal moment of rejection by the people in denouncing the common herd which had so little comprehension of his excellence as a leader. His thesis is simple: the people are stupid, corrupt and altogether responsible for their own miseries. Leaders, on the other hand, are the elite of mankind. tragically frustrated, tragically pulled down and destroyed by the decadence and vulgarity of the very rabble they sought to lead to freedom. Thus Koestler has rationalized the stupidities of his own youth by placing them on the backs of the gross mob which refused to recognize his virtues.... The point is not whether the Koestler theory is philosophically or historically right or wrong: it is rather that all theories are debatable, and that the Koestler theory is directly antipathetical to the theory of the script of Spartacus ... I think it is dead wrong to transmit any part of Koestler into Spartacus. Nevertheless, the Koestler theory still pops up, not as a "conspiracy" but as a conviction on Stanley's part, and I think we must accept it, or reject it, since it is impossible to compromise with it."[1]

Specifically, Trumbo was attacking Kubrick's proposed version of a plot enhancement to the film which may be described as "The Rebellion of Crixus" leading up to "The Hanging of Crixus." History attests that Crixus was one of the other leaders of the slave rebellion. He appears to have led a group of 20,000 to 30,000 slaves in a breakaway movement from the slave army. He and his men were quickly annihilated by the Romans, placing Spartacus and the remaining slaves in an almost fatally weakened position. In the proposed script change, Spartacus learns of the plot to split the slave army and, despite some personal misgivings, hangs Crixus as a traitor.

Kubrick, following Koestler's novel, The Gladiators, wanted Crixus's rebellion to be motivated by a desire to remain in Italy in order to pillage and loot its cities. Trumbo, following Fast, wanted to ascribe to Crixus the noble but suicidal goal of marching directly on Rome in order to overthrow the entire slave system. Neither Kubrick nor Trumbo seems to have disagreed with the fundamental premise here: that Spartacus resorts to the execution of Crixus in order to abort his rebellion and maintain unity. Neither of them seems to have been bothered by the fact that, in both novels, Spartacus refuses to take such repressive measures and Crixus does lead a successful but ultimately abortive breakaway movement.

Trumbo argued for the greater drama inherent in his version of this script change, referring to the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky:

"Let us remember that the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky was more dramatic than the conflict between, let us say, Lenin and the Tsar. Why, because Stalin and Trotsky had the same objective, while Lenin and the Tsar had different objectives. Because war between brothers is more dramatic and more tragic than any other kind.

"The way I have written the part is this: Spartacus and Crixus share the same goal (freedom). They differ as to how they may reach their goal (escape via Brundisium versus the capture of Rome). Their conflict is of the highest moral order, it is a classic tragedy. Spartacus [ultimately] is compelled to execute Crixus for the good of the whole."[2]

In arguing for Crixus as a left wing extremist rather than a bandit, Trumbo is trying to avoid the second big question surrounding the idea of revolution, a question posed at the time of his writing by the revelations of Khruschchev's secret speech: Granting for the moment the possibility of overthrowing the old order, would the new state of affairs be any better? Isn't there a strong tendency for the leaders of the revolution to simply supplant the old rulers as a new exploiting class, to appropriate for themselves the lion's share of the spoils of victory and to establish a ruthless dictatorship to protect their newly won gains? This issue had already been raised in the film in the scene in which Spartacus intervenes to prevent Crixus from fighting two captured Romans to the death as a gladiatorial pair. The continuation of this conflict between a Crixus, who wants to use his power for his own self-aggrandizement, and a Spartacus, who has a vision of a new harmonious way for people to live together, would have added another, deeper dimension to the otherwise superficial, starry-eyed portrait of the internal politics of the slave community which the film provides.

Trumbo goes on in his Notes to make an eloquent but unconvincing plea to eliminate the use of any of Koestler's ideas in the film. His summary of Koestler's position in The Gladiators is fair, but his attempt to explain that position by using a personal attack on Koestler's supposedly frustrated elitism, is not. In fact, as Koestler wrote in Part Two of his autobiography, The Invisible Writing, it is the slave army, "the amorphous, inarticulate, semi-barbarian horde which is the real hero of the book, milling down the highways of Italy, sacking its cities, defeating the disciplined legions of Rome."[3] Like Fast, Koestler pays tribute to the slaves by asserting "the fact that the Slave Army came within an ace of conquering Rome and thus altering the whole course of subsequent history".[4]

Then why did the Revolution go down to defeat? For Koestler, Spartacus is a victim of the 'law of detours,' which compels the leader on the road to Utopia to be 'ruthless for the sake of pity.' He is 'doomed always to do what is most repugnant to him, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it, an abstract and geometrical love. But Spartacus shrinks from taking the last step - the purge by crucifixion of the dissident Celts and the establishment of a ruth-less tyranny - and through this refusal he dooms his revolution to defeat. In Darkness at Noon the Bolshevik Commissar Rubashov follows the 'law of detours' to the end only to discover that "reason alone was a defective compass which led one such a winding twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist."[5]

In rejecting Koestler, Trumbo ignored the fact that Howard Fast also attributed Spartacus's defeat to the moral weakness of the slave class as a whole, caused by a lifetime of ruthless repression. In a heartrending scene late in the novel, an old slave woman tells Crassus. "Spartacus said to us: Rise up and be free! But we were afraid. We are so strong and yet we cower and whimper and run away." Thus, as Fast wrote, " The masses of slaves who peopled the Roman world, would not or could not rise up and join (Spartacus)," thereby dooming his revolution to defeat.

For Trumbo, on the other hand, it was the strength of Rome rather than the weakness of the slaves which made Spartacus's revolution impossible. He wrote:

"Koestler was interested in the weaknesses, the vices, the degeneration and demoralization of the slaves, our interest is in showing their strength, their increasing morale and unity to the very end, when the last of them is crucified, Stanley has said that he wants Crixus as a raider because he wishes to show the demoralization of the slaves. This would be valid if our story established that the demoralization of the slaves led to their defeat. But in our version the demoralization of the slaves could not possibly lead to their defeat because a hundred thousand of them stood to the death in defense of their freedom and of each other. The slaves in our story were defeated by Rome, not by their own weaknesses. Koestler may be right that they were actually defeated by their own demoralization and inability to cope with freedom, but so he was right only for Koestler's book. . . the one they couldn't make a movie of. He is wrong for our book ... the one we are making a movie of ... the slave demoralization [is] derived from an historical point of view which is highly dubious, since it discounts altogether the fact that Spartacus and a hundred thousand men could scarcely be expected to defeat Rome and the Roman empire and the known world. That was why Spartacus lost ... not because the slaves are too stupid to be free; and that is what we're dramatizing in this script. Not the reverse."[6]

In contrast to Trumbo's defeatist attitude, Fast, along with Koestler, took a more hopeful, positive view of Spartacus's real chances of winning. In Fast's novel, Crassus confesses to his peers:

"You will hear it said that the Servile War was a small thing. It's quite natural that such a view should be taken, since it profits Rome little to tell the world what a job we had with some slaves. But here, on this pleasant terrace at the home of my dear and good friend Antonius Caius, with the company we have, we can dispense with legends. No one ever came as close to destroying Rome as Spartacus did. No ever wounded her so terribly... If Spartacus ever had under his command anything like the three hundred thousand men he is supposed to have led, then we would not be sitting here today on this pleasant morning at the loveliest country home in Italy. Spartacus would have taken Rome and the world too. Others may doubt that. But I fought him enough times not to doubt it. I know. The whole truth is that the mass of the slaves of Italy never joined Spartacus. Do you think if they were made of such mettle we would be sitting here like this on a plantation where the slaves outnumber us a hundred to one? Of course many joined him, but he never led more than forty-five thousand fighting men, and that was only at the height of his power. He never had cavalry such as Hannibal did, yet he brought Rome closer to her knees than Hannibal ever did, a Rome so powerful it could have crushed Hannibal in a single campaign!"[7]

Trumbo really wants to have it both ways. His reliance on the overwhelming power of Rome to explain Spartacus's inevitable defeat contradicts his insistence on emphasizing his protagonist's heroic military accomplishments. How could Spartacus's revolt have shaken Rome to its very foundations, as Trumbo maintains, if in fact it was doomed from the very beginning? If there never was any real chance of winning, then why bother dwelling on Spartacus's victories as a symbol of hope in the first place? Isn't the actual message of the film basically true, that in history 'almost' doesn't count and nice guys finish last?

Blaming the failures of modern revolutions on the power of hostile capitalist powers has become a standard practice for left wing apologists who refuse to criticize or even acknowledge the shortcomings or crimes of the regimes they defend, and Trumbo is here falling into that same trap in his analysts of the failure of a revolution from 2,000 years ago. His insistence that Spartacus be described as the sole, absolute leader of the revolt, rather than the spiritual and intellectual soul of a collective leadership: his anxiety to avoid at all cost the question of the corruption and degeneration of the leaders of revolutions; and his inadvertent justification of Stalin's purge of the Old Bolsheviks in order to preserve unity by referring to the assassination of Trotsky as the dramatic result of a conflict between two brothers who basically shared the same goals (!) but espoused conflicting strategies to reach them, all point to Trumbo's own elitist, authoritarian leanings and indicate that his analysis has more in common with Koestler's than he would like to admit. Where Trumbo and Koestler really differ here is on the moral question of whether and to what extent the end justifies the means. Similarly, Fast and Koestler share the same basic analysis of Spartacus's defeat; but for Fast the glass of human liberation was half full while for Koestler it was, and would always remain, half empty.

Far from espousing an elitist position, Koestler's main thesis in Darkness at Noon, the novel he wrote immediately after The Gladiators, was the rejection of self-appointed revolutionary vanguards for whom the end justifies the means. In The Gladiators, Koestler was merely trying to use the utopian community founded by Spartacus as a laboratory model for an isolated socialist revolution in a backward, underdeveloped country like Russia. His slave heroes cannot be expected to understand the sacrifices which Spartacus demands of them any more than the Russian peasants could understand the collectivization of agriculture or forced march industrialization. But Spartacus has too much compassion for his followers to choose Stalin's course, to use brutal repression to force upon them the measures which he knows can alone avert disaster, and he thereby dooms his revolution to certain defeat.

The point of this story is, or should be, that despite the tremendous power of Rome, Spartacus nearly did manage to destroy it. That he should have failed is hardly surprising; the fact that he came as close as he did is what is so miraculous. In contrast to Koestler's (and Kubrick's) pessimism, Spartacus's revolt signifies that no pyramidal structure of oppressive power can remain standing for long, once a sufficient number of people are determined that it should fall. Spartacus's defeat may have helped to temporarily turn the Roman slaves' aspirations in the otherworldly direction of Christianity, but, in the end, it was the constant resistance of runaway slaves, rebellious peasants, and native peoples which finally bankrupted and then destroyed the Roman Empire. Their rough-hewn determination to win freedom remains as alive today as when Spartacus's revolt began 2,000 years ago.

Koestler's views may well have been too extreme to fit into a film of this sort, but Kubrick's desire to confront the real moral and political dilemmas inherent in any violent social change, to recognize the temptations to personal aggrandizement that inevitably attend the rise to power of a new, previously downtrodden class, to depict the real political conflicts within the slave camp paralleling those on the Roman side-in a word, to inject some political realism into the film could have made Spartacus a much more deeply probing political work rather than the vaguely leftist fairy tale most of it became.


[1] Dalton Trumbo, "The Sequence on Vesuvius: Notes," pp. 2-3;

[2] Trumbo, op. cit. pg. 5;

[3] Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing, pg. 326;

[4] Koestler, op. cit.. pg. 322;

[5] Ibid.. pg. 327;

[6] Trumbo, op. cit. pp. 4, 6;

[7] Howard Fast, Spartacus. pp. 168-69 &192-93.

Copyright ©1996 Duncan L. Cooper All Rights Reserved