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Who Killed Spartacus?

How Studio Censorship Nearly Ruined
Braveheart of the 1960's

by Duncan L. Cooper

In October 1961 Universal Pictures premiered an historical epic entitled Spartacus. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas in the title role, and based on a novel by Howard Fast, the film purported to tell the true story of a gladiator 2,000 years ago who led a mighty slave uprising which almost succeeded in overthrowing the decaying Roman Republic and its ruthless slave empire.

In many ways the film represented a breakthrough for left wing themes in Hollywood cinema after a decade of McCarthyite repression, not only because of its revolutionary political message but also because screenwriter Dalton Trumbo received official credit for the screenplay under his own name, thereby effectively breaking the blacklist which had been in effect in Hollywood throughout the Fifties. Efforts by right wing columnist Hedda Hopper and the American Legion to promote a boycott of the film failed when newly elected President John F. Kennedy publicly endorsed the picture after attending a Washington screening and Spartacus went on to become an international box office smash, capturing the Golden Globe Award as the Best Dramatic Film of 1961.

However, as author Howard Fast told The New York Times some years later, "A number of my books have been made into films, but none of them have been done complete justice." In the case of Spartacus, despite the extensive contributions to the film's screenplay made by Fast, for which he has never received the credit he deserves, an enormous gap exists between the vision of Spartacus which emerges from his novel and the one projected by the film. Using the little that is known about Spartacus as a springboard, Fast molded the gladiator rebel into a truly mythic hero, a messianic figure engaged in an epic revolutionary struggle to overthrow the Roman Empire in order to restore a legendary Golden Age of primitive tribal communism said to have existed in some distant epoch prior to the advent of human exploitation. For Fast, strict adherence to the known facts was less important than the timeless moral truth of the legend of Spartacus which was implicit in them. By contrast, the film, following a more conservative reading of the extant facts, reduced Fast's gentle, Christlike character to a brawling animal who slowly develops into a likeable tough and then gradually into a sensitive human being and democratic leader. Instead of Fast's visionary who, through the force of his charismatic personality and military genius, was able to weld an amorphous mass of "slaves, deserters and riff-raff "into a force which managed to defeat nine of Rome's best trained armies and nearly toppled the empire itself, the film presents us with a 'good man,' a capable leader for whom everything seems to come easy, but whose revolt founders in an orgy of torture and death almost before it has barely begun. The escape to freedom of Spartacus's wife and newborn son in the midst of the ensuing carnage offers the audience but a few scant rays of hope for the future, especially when one considers that the Roman Empire managed to hang on for another 500 years.

Because of this gap some admirers of the film believed cuts imposed by Universal Pictures and the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency had reduced its image of the legendary giant, Spartacus, down to midgit-sized proportions. These cuts included some gory shots of arms, legs, and heads being cut off in battle, a lengthy scene of a man being drowned in a pot of soup, a shot of blood spurting onto Laurence Olivier's face as he slashes the neck of the dying Woody Strode, and the subtly bisexual 'Oysters and Snails' seduction scene between Olivier and Tony Curtis. It was thought that these cuts, totaling about five minutes, might also include at least one battle scene depicting a significant victory for the slave army, the lack of which was made more evident by, numerous lines of dialog throughout the film which referred directly or indirectly to many such victories, The lines from Spartacus's speech to the assembled slaves on the beach "We've travelled a long ways together. Fought many battles. Won great victories" -- and his lines to Varinia -- "But no matter how many times we beat them, they always seem to have another army to send against us. And another." -- are but two of the most pointed examples.

Thus when it was announced in September 1990 that Universal Pictures was going to release a fully restored version of the film with five minutes of censored footage reinserted, many fans of the film dared to hope that perhaps now, after thirty years, the authentic, unexpurgated, legendary Spartacus might finally appear on screen. The statements of the restoration producers Jim Katz and Robert Harris, in which they touted their restoration as "a film with "an entirely different tone, ...a completely different film [from] the version we're used to," further raised hopeful expectations.

Spartacus already had a lot going for it, including magnificent performances by Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Oscar-winner Peter Ustinov, some deeply moving scenes from the pen of Dalton Trumbo, magnificent camera work by Oscar-winner Russell Metty, brilliant editing by Oscar nominee Robert Lawrence, a stirring musical score by Oscar nominee Alex North, and, of course, the masterful direction of Stanley Kubrick. These elements, combined with Howard Fast's heroic theme of mankind's age-old quest for freedom, make Spartacus on many levels a powerful, moving epic whose impact has been multiplied several fold as a result of the meticulous work by Robert Harris in restoring the film to its lavish new 70mm format.

Unfortunately, since almost all the outtakes, trims. and censored scenes from the film were junked by Universal in 1975, there was very little the film's restorers could do beyond reinserting about five minutes of lost footage to bring Spartacus back to its 197-minute pre-censorship version. Thus, in terms of actual content, the restored version is still basically the same film which audiences saw during its original run in the early 1960s. A few censored scenes have been restored, notably the surprisingly innocuous 'Oysters and Snails' seduction scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis, the two quick shots showing the blood (and the terror) on Olivier's face as he stabs the mortally wounded Woody Strode to death, and a longer version of the devastation scene following the film's final battle. On the other hand, several important scenes between Senator Gracchus, the fictionalized leader of the Roman plebeians played by Charles Laughton, and his protege, the young Julius Caesar, remain missing despite Harris's heroic efforts to find them. These scenes defined Gracchus's political identity through a sometimes hilarious depiction of his corrupt relationship to his constituents, the common citizens of the fourth ward. They also explained the real motivation for Caesar's crucial defection to Crassus and the patricians late in the film, namely, Gracchus's own defection to Spartacus.

Even more disappointing, Harris failed to discover any trace of even one lost battle scene depicting a major slave victory over the Roman legions. Thus, both the real and the legendary historic stature and achievements of Spartacus and his movement remain as absent from the restored version of the film as they were from the original, censored version. This film provides as much dramatic comprehension of the real events of Spartacus's rebellion as Mel Brook's "Springtime for Hitler" did for the Second World War. If there were a Memorial Society for the Preservation of the Historical Legend Of Spartacus, then its members would be demanding that Universal Pictures include in all its advertising for Spartacus a sort of Cinematic Surgeon General's label:"CAUTION: Viewing This Film May Be Hazardous To Your Full Appreciation of the Myth Arising Out of the Actual Historical Events."

Studio Censorship: The Hidden Cost of Breaking the Hollywood Blacklist

But if blame must be assigned for this dishonest film, this travesty of historical truth, then very little of it would fall on the shoulders of Stanley Kubrick. The then-thirty-one-year-old Kubrick had very little control over the content of the film, all final decisions being made by Executive Producer Kirk Douglas, subject of course to the veto of Universal Studios. It is not surprising that, despite the support and assistance which he did provide to the restoration, Kubrick has never retracted his public disavowal of Spartacus. "I am disappointed in the film," he mused rather wistfully, "it had everything but a good story."

In fact, the evidence indicates that Kubrick himself was only too willing to portray the violence, corruption and moral degeneration which inevitably results from a long, drawn out, bitterly contested class war. He may have hoped to temper screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's adulation of the working class and enthusiasm for violent revolution with the ironic fact that revolutions often fail much more because of the moral weaknesses and corruption of the revolutionaries that as a result of the supposedly overwelmingly superior strength of their adversaries. Lacking the authority to make final decisions, Kubrick engaged the other members of the film's executive committee -- screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Executive Producer Kirk Douglas, and Producer Edward Lewis -- in a running, sometimes acrimonious debate through four versions of the script over what final form the film should take.

Nor can blame be assigned to Kubrick's predecessor, the studio's original designee to direct Spartacus, Anthony Mann. Deservedly respected for his epic westerns and film's noire, Mann supervised, along with Douglas, the four months of pre-production preparations for the film and presumably participated in the complete rewrite of the script which was done in the Fall of 1958. Unfortunately, after two weeks of shooting the powerful opening Death Valley Mines Sequence still in the film today, Mann was fired, probably because of "creative disagreements" with Douglas. He went on to make such critically acclaimed films as the medieval epic El Cid and the sword and sandal blockbuster Fall of the Roman Empire, both of which are justly famous for their tremendous battle scenes. As Spartacus producer Eddie Lewis remarked in an interview, "If it had been up to Tony Mann, we would have used up ten reels for the final battle."

As his western film's attest, Mann believed, far more than Kubrick, in mythic heroes as the proper subject for film and was in fact, a perfect choice to direct this ancient "western in togas". For Mann, the western "has the essential pictorial is legend -- and legend makes the very best cinema; it excites the imagination more...legend is a concept of characters greater than life." His creative philosophy meshed neatly with Fast's conception because he believed that "the nobility of the human spirit...this is what drama is. This is what pictures are all about. I don't believe in anything else." As for strict historical accuracy, like Fast, Mann believed that "the most important thing is that you get the feeling of history. The actual facts, very few people know." [1] Thus, the soon-to-be creator of El Cid could hardly have had any difficulties with presenting on screen the story of another larger-than-life legendary hero of old.

Neither can screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be saddled with the responsibility for the film's failure to live up to the novel's potential. While altering much of the book's plot and character development in order to conform to the needs of a cinematic treatment, he nevertheless insisted, through five versions of the script, on retaining Fast's basic historical conception of Spartacus's nearly successful revolutionary challenge to Imperial Rome.

Neither can fault be found with executive producer Kirk Douglas. In his autobiography, The Ragman's Son, he described his personal conception of the historical Spartacus, based on his reading of the Fast novel.

"Spartacus was a real man, but if you look him up in the history books you will find only a short paragraph about him. Rome was ashamed; this man had almost destroyed them. They wanted to bury him. I was intrigued with the story of Spartacus the slave, dreaming the death of slavery, driving into the armor of Rome the wedge that would eventually destroy her." [2]

In his recent comments on the film's laserdisc recording, Douglas repeatedly stressed his determination to portray on screen the story of "a slave whose vision of freedom almost overthrew the Roman Empire." Special consultant on Spartacus Saul Bass has confirmed to this author that during the whole time he worked on the project there was never any doubt or wavering about this point in the minds of Douglas, producer Eddie Lewis, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo or any of the other members of the production company. As the shooting of the picture came to a close all the key promotional materials produced for the film: the thumbnail plot summaries, the comic book, the historical pamphlet, the study guide, the souvenir book, the Soundtrack Album Program Notes, the coming attractions trailers, the Bantam paperback edition of the Fast novel...all told the same story of a slave revolt against Rome which won victory after victory and all but overthrew the Empire itself.

Unfortunately, the three principle filmmakers had to contend with the interference of their primary financial backer, Universal Studios, whose head, Ed Muhl, had some very different ideas, leading to what Trumbo described as "a basic conflict of opinion about the dimensions of Spartacus and his struggle, a conflict which has been in evidence from the earliest beginnings of the project". Originally Muhl never really conceived of Spartacus as a "spectacle" or "blockbuster" but rather as an intimate film costing between $3 and $4 million. A personal friend of Trumbo's and the man who officially broke the Hollywood blacklist, Muhl too wanted to make an exciting, historically accurate film. He was particularly fascinated by the struggles between the liberal and conservative Roman senatorial factions, transparent analogues to contemporary American politics which the writer had injected into the script. But, as he told this author: "Deep ideas are nice to have in a picture. But what counts is audience appeal."

In response to the Douglas concept of Spartacus, Muhl remarked: "it's understandable that Kirk would want to build up his own part but that's not what the picture was about", concluding: "We did what was possible under the circumstances...You know that phrase, 'the art of the possible'". His attitude probably hardened when late in 1959 persistent rumors of new Hollywood hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee began to surface and when a full-scale right-wing attack on the film began after it was revealed by Walter Winchell that blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo was the author of the screenplay. Thus, despite the fact that Spartacus was the first truly independent production bankrolled by Universal, in the end Muhl's cautious approach prevailed because he and the studio still held the trump card: the legal right to make the final cut.

Although Douglas still claims that Spartacus represents the fulfillment of his personal vision, the actor/auteur was ultimately forced to go along with most of Muhl's program because, by insisting that Dalton Trumbo be given official credit for the screenplay, he had set the picture on a perilous collision course with the Far Right and the Hollywood blacklist. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Ragman's Son:

"That night it all suddenly became very clear. I knew what name to put on the screen [as the author of the screenplay]...The masquerade was over. All my friends told me I was being stupid, throwing my career away. It was a tremendous risk. At first nobody believed me...Otto Preminger called me from New York...He was amazed that I was using Dalton Trumbo's name openly. Soon after he held a press conference announcing that Dalton Trumbo would be the writer of Exodus. I wasn't thinking of being a hero and breaking the blacklist...I was just thinking of how unfair for someone to say, 'Put my name on it. Let me get the credit for someone else's work.'"[3]

Douglas and Trumbo were well aware of the risks involved if Spartacus did not earn back well over the $12 million the studio had invested in it. As Trumbo wrote in one of his letters, "If the film had failed, neither I nor any other blacklisted writer would ever have been able to work again." Therefore, as Trumbo himself acknowledged, in the climate of the late fifties, the characters in Spartacus had to espouse ideas far less radical than he would have liked, in order to save the film from destruction at the hands of both conservative and liberal anti-communist critics. As he told David Chandler in an interview:

Trumbo: "You see, the bloody fight to express ideas, even mild ones, is really recurrent and it will happen again in a different form, maybe more severely, maybe less severely. The pressure is always on and we writers do discipline ourselves, we do censor ourselves. For example, you know how carefully I have to write a script, particularly if my name is going to be on it.
Chandler: I thought you were very bold in Spartacus.
Trumbo: Well, I thought I was very restrained....because I realized that a thing which any other writer would say and would never be thought of or analyzed or would never be significant or noticed, when I say it, it becomes highly significant--smuggling in propaganda and doing all sorts of things, so you see I consider this a very mild script.

If Trumbo himself saw the necessity of engaging in a degree of self-censorship in order to break the blacklist, it is easy to understand how Ed Muhl could insist on toning down the film still further in order to play safe, even if it meant seriously weakening its overall dramatic impact by reducing the legendary stature of its main protagonist to run-of-the-mill proportions. Thus, as the July 26, 1960 screening of the film for the press approached, Universal unilaterally eliminated some crucial dialogue and battle footage which dramatized the legend of Spartacus from the Final Preview Version as part of a series of 42 wide-ranging studio cuts and trims made according to Muhl, "for content, not for length." Ten days after the press screening, following eight months of deliberation, Universal finally took the plunge and, spurred on by a favorable ruling from the Screenwriters' Guild, announced that Dalton Trumbo would receive credit as the sole author of the Spartacus screenplay. Universal thereby became the first major studio to openly and (as events would prove) successfully challenge the blacklist. However, with these last crucial cuts the whole basis for the legendary heroic Spartacus of Fast, Trumbo, Mann and Douglas had now been eliminated from the film.

The Battle Over the Script: Dalton Trumbo's Struggle For the Large Spartacus

Despite his perhaps understandable determination to exercise extreme caution, it was Trumbo, along with Fast, who fought most consistently for a film which would remain faithful to the essential message of the novel: man's potential capacity, in all ages, to rise up and overthrow tyranny and oppression. From the very beginning of his work on the film, Trumbo waged a stubborn, heroic campaign to include scenes, or at least a battle montage, which would depict some of Spartacus's great victories over the Romans. On the advice of Howard Fast, he added an enormous five page montage to his first draft script of July 15, 1958. This montage, narrated by the Roman Senator Gracchus, traced the whole course of the war, including many of Spartacus's most important victories. Similarly, on Fast's recommendation, the relatively brief treatment of Spartacus's first victory over Glabrus and the garrison of Rome was greatly expanded at an estimated cost of $300,000, to a major sequence encompassing four scenes. At the same time, the final battle was de-emphasized: the audience was to hear the sounds of battle but not see the action. The emphasis would be placed on the bloody aftermath. Following the novel, the idea appears to have been to underscore Spartacus's many great victories but to downplay his final defeat.

Other forces were at work however as the film moved towards production. By the third draft (known as the Final Screenplay) of December 9, 1958, the huge battle montage had disappeared and the Glabrus battle had been reduced to a narration, while plans were underway for a detailed rendition of the final battle. To counterbalance this, the story was now told in flashback and opened with a speech by Crassus to his staff officers in which he refers to nine Roman armies destroyed by Spartacus during the course of the war and warns of the possible fall of Rome.

Because the filmmakers had to finish the Roman sections of the script first in order to attract the great British actors and then to rush into production in order to beat another film company which was also preparing a film about Spartacus based on Arthur Koestler's novel, The Gladiators, the slave sections of the script were still unfinished and in need of extensive rewriting when shooting began on January 27, 1959. Thus, by the end of May 1959, as the script was again being revised, Trumbo was able to insert first one and then four of his proposed battle montages depicting seven or eight slave victories. These montages were calculated to lend credibility to a new Kubrick inspired plot change in which the overconfident slaves throw away their chance to escape on the waiting pirate fleet and instead decide to try to overthrow the whole slave system by marching on Rome. Trumbo believed these battle montages were crucial to the success of the film. In a memo from this period, he wrote:

"And this brings us down to a basic conflict of opinion about the dimensions of Spartacus and his struggle: a conflict which has been in evidence from the earliest beginnings of the project. Through three versions of the script I have fought against the idea of diminishing the scope of Spartacus' activities, against shortening to the point of absurdity the length of time in which he held the field, against the idea that he was a mere escapee who won a few encounters against provincial garrisons instead of a great military leader who for four years running defeated the finest legions and the greatest armies Rome could put in the field against him. You cannot have a Roman story in which Spartacus motivates the actions of the most powerful men in Rome and shakes Roman society to its very foundations, and then go to a Spartacus story in which Spartacus is merely the head of a large gang of runaway convicts. Thus far the larger concept of Spartacus' power and ability, and of the scope of his military ventures, has won through; not I feel because I really convinced anyone of the dramatic necessities of my view, but rather because it takes nine months to make a baby and a man who has to stay in the field for nine months obviously has to be doing something."[4]

Unfortunately, Trumbo was still blacklisted while working on the film. His work on the screenplay was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood, but the pretense had to be maintained that Edward Lewis was writing the script. Trumbo was literally banned from the lot, unable to be present on the set when last minute changes were being made to the script and, generally speaking, frozen out of the decision-making loop. In another memo, he complained bitterly about the changes in the script which had been forced upon him while production was underway:

"It is almost a year now since I began to write this script. Since then I have turned out hundreds upon hundreds of pages and well over 200,000 words. In its more primitive stages, before the underlying theory of the script was challenged, before an unremitting attack on the political meaning and the intellectual content of every scene was begun, the script was able to attractive five top stars, several millions of dollars from a studio, and even to generate a little excitement, a certain enthusiasm.

"Since that time I have written ceaselessly to try to make the script as good as at least a few people thought it was in those first remote days of its conception.... Many scenes have been improved. Other scenes, I regret to say, have been diminished ...

"For the past three months the script has been written by a committee rather than by a writer. Everything has been thrown at me: hostile Koestlerian ideas derived from quite another book: rhetorical speeches and character gems from the newly discovered Fast script which should have been read months and months ago; psychiatric observations which I have found to be of immense value; the rival opinions of actors: the director's opinion (possibly correct) that the words don't matter anyhow so long as they're simple, and that any attempt with speech to provoke thought or illuminate intellectual, political, or moral concepts simply confuses the audience: a widespread conviction that complexity has no place on the screen, and that simplicity is best brought out by action alone: every possible attempt at swift and easy solutions to the problem of a script which is essentially complex and therefore is bound to have a certain complexity of motives (as you have discovered in ten versions of the climax) ...

"I have gone through a process of inquisition on this script that rivals any torment devised by a committee of Congress. The difference is that one can tell the committee to go fuck itself and stop the ordeal, whereas considerations of friendship, mutual respect, professional obligation, and ... forgive the words ... artistic commitment and devotion, prevent such an escape from present circumstances.

"I am prepared to admit that democratically the votes of a fulltime actor, a full-time director, and a full-time producer are worth three times the dissent of a fulltime writer. They are also worth three times the vote of a competent secretary, which is what I have lately become.

"[However], there are moments in the history of the drama when the vote of one full-time writer outweighs and outnumbers the votes of any three who are so fully occupied in other professions that they are for the present, unable themselves to do the writing. . .

"[Since] it is as necessary to you -more necessary!- as to me that the script be finished on a crash basis ... if there is no better method, let us go back to the old fashioned idea that by and large the best man to invent a story and write a script is a writer."[5]

Working on the film in secret from his home, locked out of the real decision-making process during the last months of principle shooting, reduced as he described it "to the role of a competent secretary", Trumbo was finally smuggled onto the studio lot to view the film's first rough cut. What he saw provoked in him such a negative, "almost physical reaction" that he rushed home and over the next seventy-two hours wrote an eighty page, three part "Report on Spartacus." In it he summarized what he called "The Two Conflicting Points of View on Spartacus" which had underscored the entire debate over the last year. Then, in a section entitled "Scene-by-Scene Runthrough," he analyzed all the film's weaknesses caused by innumerable on-set rewrites, done without his knowledge or consent. He pleaded to be allowed to write a series of retakes which he said would either make or break the film.

For want of a better term, Trumbo labelled the Two Conflicting Points of View on Spartacus as "The Large Spartacus" and "The Small Spartacus." The fundamental premise of the Large Spartacus was that Spartacus's revolt was a major rebellion which shook the Roman Republic to its very foundations, that involved a series of brilliant slave military campaigns and the defeat of the best Rome had to offer, and that was finally only put down by the overwhelming, combined might of three Roman armies. The premise of the Small Spartacus was that the revolt was more on the scale of a jail-break and subsequent dash to the sea, that during its course there were no important slave victories over the Romans, and that it was put down by only one Roman army.

Trumbo then listed an entire series of other conflicting conceptions about the picture and its main character which flowed from these basic premises. He made it clear that he believed that only one of these conceptions could be right and that the right choice was the Large Spartacus. With considerable justification he asserted that the conscious intention of the executive committee had been, through all three preliminary drafts of the screenplay, to construct a film around the concept of the Large Spartacus. In his view, the basic problem with the film was a slow turn toward the Small View through the endless rewrites of the Final Screenplav after shooting had begun. He pleaded with the committee to embrace the Large Spartacus "without any reservations ... otherwise we shall be utterly lost."

After reading the Report, when asked by Kubrick how Trumbo had liked the film's first rough cut, Douglas replied, "He didn't like it! And he's right." Douglas still refers to Trumbo's Report as "the most brilliant analysis of movie-making that I have ever read." Much to Kubrick's chagrin, Douglas and Lewis decided to significantly revise the film even though this would entail considerable additional expense. All the key players' contracts were extended and a number of revised or new scenes containing Large Spartacus dialog were shot starting in November 1959. These included the two scenes with the pirate envoy Tigranes Levantus (Herbert Lom), Spartacus's speech to the gladiators after their return to the gladiator school, his speech to the assembled slaves on the beach near Brundisium, and the last dialog and confrontation between Spartacus, Antoninus, and Crassus.

On the question of the battle montages, however, Trumbo apparently failed to fully persuade Douglas and Universal. Just at this time, August, 1959, more money had been obtained for battle scenes from Universal and the decision had been made to move the production to Spain to shoot the final battle as well as a number of other scenes with the help of the Spanish army. The question was whether or not the battle montages showing the slave army's victories were also going to be shot. According to Spartacus editor Robert Lawrence , "the idea [of shooting full blown additional battle scenes] was discussed, but it was never actually done" because the money was not forthcoming from Universal. In fact, as part of the agreement of August 4, 1959 between Douglas' company Bryna Films and Universal Studios, six days of these slave victory scenes were to filmed in Spain as part of a total of twelve days of battle scenes at an estimated cost of half a million dollars. However, when Douglas came back with Trumbo's proposals from his Report on Spartacus for a large number of additional scenes to be shot in Spain, the deal was renegotiated. The new agreement of October 21, 1959 called for a total of twenty-two days of shooting in Spain the following month at an estimated cost of nearly a million dollars. However, the number of shooting days for battle scenes was cut down to six, enough to accommodate the final battle but not the early slave victories. The studio argued ingenuously that if the slave victory scenes were too good they could detract from the impact of the final battle. But if they were lackluster, then they would detract from the quality of the picture. Instead, Douglas had to fall back on the idea of using a brief animated "battle map" to dramatize these slave victories.

In an Appendix to an Outline of the scenes to be shot in Spain, Trumbo made a final plea for the shooting of full scale battle montages:

"During the march from Luceria to Metapontum a dozen important battles were won by Spartacus and the slaves. I understand that a map is to be used, with some pictorial device superimposed to indicate the sequence of victories. Not knowing exactly how it is to be done, I have not indicated battle montage or explosive physical scenes to indicate these victories [in this outline]. These are left to the invention of the director. But I think they should be taken into serious consideration, for we should let our audience know that a sequence of victories rather than two battles produced the slave threat to Rome."[6]

In fact, in December 1959 a significant amount of battle footage did become available for additional battle scenes when Kubrick returned from Spain with film of the final battle. The studio execs were awed by what Douglas described as the "incredible footage of the [final] battle, so wide that he [Kubrick] had to shoot from half a mile away". However, they rejected the accompanying close-in fighting scenes as "boring and conventional" and ordered a series of retakes featuring gory shots of severed arms, legs and heads. Still more footage became available in early February 1960 when the great stuntmanYakima Canutt finished directing five days of these retakes plus numerous additional fighting scenes featuring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, John Ireland and Nick Dennis. To round out the final battle, two more days of battle scenes were shot in mid-March including several retakes with Kirk Douglas. As Spartacus editor Bob Lawrence told this author:

" We had maps with battles and maps without battles because some people wanted one kind and some people wanted the other. We had hundreds of feet of [additional] battle scenes. But some people wanted it in the picture and some people didn't."

The Battle Over the Editing: Kirk Douglas' Struggle to Rescue The Legend from the Censors

Evidence collected by the author over the last few years strongly suggests that despite Douglas and Trumbo's determination to build Spartacus around the concept of The Large Spartacus, during and after the editing process Universal Studios deliberately censored this film's explosive historical content in order to keep it within the confines of the implicitly established mass media limits of acceptable political discourse circa 1959. Despite the vigorous objections of Douglas, Kubrick, and Trumbo, Universal's unwillingnes to confront the prevailing political myth of the inevitable failure or degeneration of social revolution resulted in the elimination of nearly a dozen dialogue and action sequences which fostered the hope that Spartacus's rebellion might actually have succeeded in destroying Rome. These cuts included such slave victory scenes as the "Battle of Luceria", the "Battle Map Metapontum" and the lengthier "Battle of Metapontum". Four additional sequences were slated for elimination but later restored thanks to the determined resistance of the filmmakers and the fortuitous opposition of the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. (For details see the author's "Spartacus: Still Censored After All These Years", Cineaste, Summer 1995, or Internet Movie Database ). Unlike the other conventional cuts imposed on the film by the studio censors for language, sex, violence, and nudity, these political excisions were intended to eliminate Trumb's whole concept of the Large Spartacus and replace it with the "Small", or at best the "Medium" Spartacus. So bitter did the struggle between Douglas and Universal Studios head Ed Muhl over the final content of the film become that Muhl agreed to speak with this author only on the condition that, conflicts between the personalities involved, now thirty years in the past, would not be discussed.

The picture went through sweeping changes during the editing process, particularly in the section between the beginning of the slaves' trek across Italy and the end of their victorious march at the seaport of Brindusium. According to supervising editor Irving Lerner, the struggle over the final content of the film became so intense that Universal executives, in an unprecedented move, periodically came right into the editing room and ordered him to reinstate or delete individual scenes, overriding Douglas' instructions. As a result, a number of scenes, particularly those featuring Charles Laughton, went in and out of the picture several times. The process of arriving at a final cut on which Lerner, Douglas, Kubrick and Muhl could even temporarily agree dragged on for so long that Lerner was finally forced to walk off the picture in order to begin directing his own film, STUDS LONIGAN.

In January 1960 the filmmakers made their opening move. They inserted a six second battle scene, the "Battle of Lucaria", depicting Spartacus's first great victory over the legions, into the film following the first big slave march from Mt. Vesuvius to Luceria. At the same time they decided to go ahead with the Battle Map using the rejected battle footage from Spain as well as titles naming the sites of a series of great slave victories. To this end they inserted a ten second sequence, probably containing more Spanish battle scenes, titled "Battle Map Metapontum", following the second big slave march from Luceria to Metapontum.

There is also some evidence suggesting that following Canutt's five days of shooting in early February, the filmmakers decided to use a much longer battle map montage in place of the Battle of Lucaria and the Battle Map Metapontum. In a post-production scheduling memorandum dated February 12, 1960 to Universal studio head Ed Muhl, Universal creative head Mel Tucker, Spartacus producer Eddie Lewis and editor Bob Lawrence, Universal Editorial Department Chief Sid Lund requested that "In addition, the number, design and timing of the map inserts for the battle sequences should be finalized as soon as possible." However, the evidence indicates that the studio quickly changed its mind and that by the beginning of March the filmmakers had been forced to drop the lengthy battle montage in favor of the ten second battle map. The "Battle of Lucaria" also disappeared as part of a series of sweeping changes in the film between the beginning of the slaves' victorious campaign at Mt. Vesuvius and their arrival at the sea.

Nevertheless, six weeks later, following the screening of the now edited film for Universal President Rackmil and other top executives from New York, the filmmakers were once again able to turn the tide and proceed with the insertion of one major battle sequence ending with a great slave victory into the middle section of the film, between the ten second Battle Map Metapontum and the triumphal March into Metapontum which followed. This sequence, for which composer Alex North wrote a pencil sketch score entitled Battle of Metapontum, is cited in the post-editing April 13, 1960 Revised Music Notes with the annotation, "Not in as yet."

Over the next six weeks a number of cut scenes and sequences were reinstated in the picture and the revised film was screened again for the top Universal publicity people and their wives at the end of May. These reinserted sequences included the crucial Balcony Scene in which Gracchus permanently alienates Caesar by suggesting that, judging from his unprecedented record of success, Spartacus might well defeat Crassus and perhaps take Rome itself, a prospect which he frankly prefers to the death of the Republic at the hands of Crassus.

However, during this same period the Battle of Metapontum was either cancelled or deleted from the film. Finally, as the July 26 date for the press screening approached, the studio unilaterally eliminated the Battle Map Metapontum and the Balcony Scene from the Final Preview Version. With these final cuts, the elaborate constellation of remaining scenes in the film which delineated the figure of the Large Spartacus became almost invisible to the casual viewer. The result was not only a depressing film, but in large sections, a boring one, lacking in dramatic tension.

The Plot Fizzles

Trumbo and Douglas ultimately failed to save any of the scenes depicting Spartacus's great victories from the studio censors. Thus, despite all the dialogue which Trumbo was able to insert in the retakes, pointing in the direction of the Large Spartacus, the action, which is the crucial element in a motion picture, still carries the day for the Small Spartacus. In fact, the picture of the slave revolt which finally emerges is almost exactly what Trumbo characterized as the Small View, namely, "a jailbreak followed by a simple dash to the sea", rather than "a series of brilliant slave military campaigns, the defeat of the best Rome had to offer." Just as Trumbo predicted, the result was a film which, despite a promising beginning, was ultimately a failure. It is a film about the life of a "man who led an inspired crusade for freedom against the most powerful state on earth, defeating in bloody battle nine of its best trained armies" in which barely one of those defeats is ever shown. It is as if the filmmakers had set out to make a twelve million dollar epic on the life of Napoleon in which the only major battle the audience ever sees is ...Waterloo.

Most of the middle section of the film is dull, flat, and boring, containing mostly filler, richly deserving The New York Times' Bosley Crowther's flat pan, summarized in the Times' standard television capsule review as: "Overcooked, overstuffed and overlong." And this written by a sympathetic critic who hastened to add: "But visually striking, often gripping. Best single element: The Alex North score." The banality of most of the film fully justifies Kubrick's own disavowal of it.

The only even slightly exciting scene in this section of the film is the first battle in which Spartacus triumphs over Roman might as he leads a successful attack on the camp of Glabrus and the garrison of Rome. But it is a battle without combat. Except for two Roman soldiers going down in flames at the outset, there are no scenes of violence in it at all - no fighting, no killing, no bodies, no Roman soldiers in evidence whatsoever. From all appearances, the slaves overrun a Roman camp which is virtually deserted and already in flames. The scene seems designed by a poverty row producer, with all the punch of a made-for TV movie. Violence, particularly successful violence by the oppressed, has been written out of it.

Following this first (and last) slave victory, the film degenerates into boredom. The audience has been primed to cheer the hero and hiss the villain, but it never gets that opportunity, at least not until the end of the film when the denouement is a fait accompli. What it does get is scene after scene of walking, talking, more walking, more talking. some verbal accounts of unseen actions and then ... still more talking. Yes, there is the visually striking sequence of thousands of slaves flocking to join the slave army as it marches across Italy. The warm affection of the audience for the main characters and the anonymous members of the slave horde continues to grow while the Roman politicians plot and maneuver. But by the time Varinia finishes breasting the waves and informs Spartacus that she is pregnant, the camera cuts to the slaves on the march and then ... nothing happens, the audience has likely fallen asleep, to reawaken. perhaps, when Tigranes delivers his message of doom, perhaps not until the climactic battle scene, perhaps never.

This was clearly not the story Trumbo wanted to tell. In the first scene between Spartacus and the pirate envoy Tigranes, his dialog is calculated to create the suspense needed to sustain the second half of the film. Can Spartacus and the slaves hope to overcome the formidable natural obstacles which block their path, can they survive the lethal dangers inherent in "fighting a major battle in every town." Isn't their cause, in fact, doomed from the outset, or can they somehow make it to the sea and freedom? If they do, it will be a miracle. And that's what Trumbo was saying, that Spartacus's heroic campaign was a miracle of the human spirit.

For Trumbo, the rest of the film was to consist of scenes alternating between the love story, the slave community, and the Roman political struggle, with all this punctuated by a series of bitter battle scenes and successive victories for the slaves over larger and larger Roman armies. Somehow, despite the tremendous, power arrayed against them, they actually succeed in reaching Brundisium and, hopefully, freedom.

But again the intervention of Crassus, the outsider, frustrates their plan, precipitating a crisis. Crassus bribes the pirates and the slaves are left in the lurch. They must now face the greatest test of all, the combined might of three Roman armies. The crisis is resolved in the final battle in which the slave army, despite heroic resistance, is finally destroyed. The aftermath of the battle reinforces the bond between the slaves and the man who has led them through this epic struggle when the survivors, refuse to betray Spartacus to the Romans at the cost of their own lives.

This was the epic plot line for which Trumbo was fighting, not the bland Hollywood pablum we have today. Even worse, the consequences of failing to heed his advice were just as fatal for the development of the film's main character as they were for its storyline.

The Main Character Flops: In Which A Primitive Rebel
Attains Middle-Class Respectibility

Trumbo saw Spartacus at the outset as almost an animal, an angry, brawling, rebellious slave, reacting to insult and abuse with primitive violence. The time bomb within him finally explodes in the revolt of the gladiators. Like Fast's character, Spartacus experiences personal growth as he rises to leadership of the rebellion and deepens his romantic relationship with Varinia. Gradually he begins to understand the hopes and needs of others, and finally identifies himself with the yearning for freedom of humanity as a whole. Through this character development, Trumbo wanted to make Spartacus into a spokesman for, and a living symbol of, man's passion for freedom. As he conceived it:

"We have given Crassus a love of something much bigger than himself: an emotion: his love of Rome. It is for Rome (and his concept of himself in relation to Rome) that all his thought and energy is expended. Just so Spartacus must have a love. an emotion, that transcends himself and Varinia: his hatred of slavery, his passion for freedom for them all. We have given Crassus his passion: but the Small Spartacus has denied Spartacus his passion."[7]

Unfortunately, despite the success of his Report in persuading Kirk Douglas to authorize a number of slave story retakes, Trumbo failed to make Spartacus's ideals apparent through his dialogue. Kubrick's preference for a more visual conception of the character, combined with his perhaps understandable desire to put some limits on Trumbo's predilection for left wing polemics, produced a political film with scarcely any politics in it. As one writer put it, Spartacus seems so oblivious to the cause for which he is fighting, freedom, that when he finally speaks up for it, the audience is almost surprised.

In the field of action, the elimination of almost all violent conflict from the film served to frustrate Trumbo's purpose and seal the fate of the Large Spartacus. In the early parts of the film Trumbo was able to develop his character from a violent, primitive rebel into a charismatic leader with a warm, loveable personality. But what is missing, what is lacking, in most of the later sections of the picture, is the original Spartacus, that angry rebel against injustice. Where is the mine slave who hamstrung an overseer with his teeth, the gladiator who fought desperately for life in the arena, the enraged rebel who drowned his gladiatorial trainer in a vat of soup, bashed in the brains of one guard and stabbed another in the throat? Where is the anger and the passion that are the character's defining qualities, his very raison d'etre? They have all but disappeared.

How could this have happened? The opportunity for Spartacus to demonstrate his hatred of injustice, his passion for freedom, only presents itself in moments of confrontation. But, beginning with its purely symbolic version of the attack on Glabrus's camp, the film eschews all truly violent confrontation, and thus the character never gets that opportunity. The fact that Spartacus never draws his sword in anger for nearly two full hours, from the breakout at the gladiators' school until late in the final battle, demonstrates the degree to which the heroic gladiator has been emasculated in this film.

What, then, is left of the character? In attempting to develop Spartacus into the dialectical opposite of Crassus, Trumbo succeeded, perhaps through no fault of his own, in nearly turning him into his rival's mirror image. Instead of fighting arms in hand, alongside his men, he rides in on a horse after the battle is virtually over, or watches from afar until a dire emergency forces him to join the fray. He sets tasks for others to perform while he does virtually all the thinking. His followers obey him without question. His affair with Varinia becomes equally conventional. In sum, Spartacus has risen from his lowly status as a primitive rebel to attain, dare I say it, middle class respectability!

Of course, neither Dalton Trumbo nor Stanley Kubrick intended to turn Spartacus into a Hollywood cliche, a studio formula. His character was supposed to develop from a primitive rebel into a mature, democratic leader, not into a military strongman or a corporate executive. But without something substantial for the character to do, his persona simply withers on the vine. His rival, Crassus, becomes a much more compelling personality almost until the film's final conflict.

The Film Builds to a Shattering Anti-Climax

How this final battle was handled forms a veritable line of demarcation between the two conflicting viewpoints on Spartacus because, by this time, with the near demise of the main character, the slave army itself has become the main protagonist of the story. Either we view the slaves fundamentally as the pathetic, innocent victims of a cynical Roman genocide and thereby perceive Spartacus as a benighted Pied Piper unwittingly leading them to their doom; or we view them as fallen heroes, warriors in a noble cause who, through their heroic sacrifice, have transcended their own time and place to reach immortality.

Trumbo, of course, fought for the second, heroic alternative. He initially argued at length in the August 1959 revision of the script's first draft against actually showing the final battle. The audience, he said, will already know the outcome and what really counts is the battle's aftermath. Once the decision had been made to eliminate the battle montage showing Spartacus's victories, however, it was inevitable that the final battle scene would have to be filmed since, without at least one major battle, this epic story of a bloody slave revolt would have become a complete bore and a surefire bomb at the box office.

Thus, while continuing his fight to insert battle scenes or montages into the film, Trumbo also struggled to make the facts surrounding Spartacus's defeat into an even greater measure of his power and greatness. In the actual historical events, Crassus, after suffering several defeats at the hands of the slaves and even resorting to decimating his own troops, was forced to write to the Senate requesting the recall of his main political rival Pompey from Spain and Lucullus from Thrace. The clear implication was that without them he could offer no guarantees about the outcome should Spartacus choose to march on Rome. Later, however, when, as a result of divisions within the slave army, his fortunes began to improve, and word reached him that Pompey had crossed the Alps into Northern Italy, Crassus, "more forward to fight than became a prudent commander," threw caution to the winds and decided "at considerable risk" to precipitate a decisive battle with Spartacus before Pompey arrived on the scene to rob him of all the glory. As a result of this brash initiative, he came perilously close to being defeated by the slaves since during the battle he was forced to take the rare and unusually desperate action for a Roman commander of exposing his own person on the front lines in order to rally his faltering men "although he was considered even by his friends to be a brave man anywhere but in the field."[8] But Crassus "had good fortune" because, as Spartacus and the slaves "made straight for Crassus, charging through arms and wounded men" the heroic slave leader was crippled by a dart in the thigh and, while defending himself to the last, fighting on his knees, was cut to pieces. The ancient writer Athenaes says flatly that if Spartacus "had not been killed in this battle with Crassus he would have caused [the Romans] no ordinary sweat as [the slave leader] Eunus did in Sicily" where, half a century before, revolting slaves had held half the island for perhaps ten years against eight Roman expeditions.

Taking a few liberties with history, Trumbo insisted that the slave army be overcome by the combined might of the three Roman armies of Crassus, Pompey and Lucullus, rather than that of Crassus alone. His objective was to make clear to the audience that, had the armies of Pompey and Lucullus failed to arrive in time, Spartacus would actually have defeated Crassus and perhaps taken Rome. The feelings and actions of all the main characters - and most especially of Crassus - in the concluding section of the film are predicated on this fundamental premise.

The dialogue which Trumbo wrote to precede this final battle was meant to lend credibility to this idea. Following Trumbo's original Final Screenplay, the first rough cut of Spartacus was constructed in the form of a flashback from the eve of this battle, with an opening scene which now appears late in the film as Crassus and his aides gallop on horseback into the Roman encampment. Once inside his command tent, Crassus greets his waiting staff officers, receives their briefing on his army's readiness, and surprisingly informs them that all dispositions are to be changed. He then launches into a summary (known as the film's Original Prologue) of the course of the war up to this point. His words are the film's definitive statement of the historic stature and accomplishments of its main character:

"Nine Roman armies have been destroyed by Spartacus because they went out to fight slaves. Unless I am able to persuade you that the enemy we engage tomorrow is as formidable and skillful as any that you have met in your entire military career ... then we too shall be defeated. And our defeat will mean the fall of Rome.

"The question is this: Why has a rabble of slaves been able to destroy the best troops the world ever saw? To answer that question you must understand that rabble. And most particularly, you must understand the man who commands them."

Informing his officers that he has been diligently collecting information about Spartacus since the outbreak of the slave revolt, Crassus starts to recount what he knows of the life of the slave leader, beginning with his years spent as a youth in the Libyan gold mines. The scene then shifts to the mines and the film's story begins. Late in the film, the action returns to the command tent as Crassus finishes his account and dismisses his staff.

During the rewriting and reediting process which followed the acceptance of Trumbo's Report, it was decided to eliminate the flashback and open the film by going directly to the mine scene using a new voiceover prologue. The film's original opening was shifted and combined with its continuation late in the picture. At Trumbo's insistence, Olivier also returned to shoot some new lines for this scene referring to the anticipated arrival of the armies of Pompey and Lucullus.

However, even as other new scenes containing Large Spartacus dialog were being filmed, all the "nine Roman armies" dialog from the Original Prologue was eliminated from this scene. Reportedly this was done not out of any desire to reduce the stature of Spartacus, but simply in the normal course of editing. It was felt that the story told up to that scene could stand on its own without hitting the audience over the head with a verbal recounting, even by Laurence Olivier. During further editing, however, that story was deprived of its essential element: the battle montage showing the destruction of those nine Roman armies. The result was a complete reversal of the tone and meaning of the film as it builds to its climax. Instead of tense expectation on the part of the Romans, we get the smug assurance of easy victory.

Without Crassus's warning of possible defeat, most of the suspense is lost. The result is almost a foregone conclusion. All the time, money, and effort expended to film the final (and only real) battle in Spartacus are largely wasted because, just as Trumbo predicted, the audience knows perfectly well what the outcome is going to be before the battle has even begun. In this context. Crassus's references to the 'legend of Spartacus' become ludicrous, almost sarcastic. The attempt to make the battle more exciting by making it appear that the slaves are winning during its opening moments falls flat because there are no close-ups of Olivier reacting with fear as his battle plans go awry when the slaves put his advance guard to flight, break through the lines, and engage his legionnaires one-on-one. The appearance of the armies of Pompey and Lucullus almost immediately after the fighting has begun quickly squelches any hopes that somehow the slave army might still win.

Trumbo's three Roman armies idea was a dramatic device, completely devoid of any historical validity, designed to explain to the audience how the heroic slave army, led by a man of genius like Spartacus, fighting in such a noble cause, having destroyed nine Roman armies in a series of brilliant campaigns, could still finally be vanquished. Unfortunately, the elimination from the film of any depiction or even mention of these nine Roman disasters made this device backfire. Instead of serving as a measure of Crassus's fear of the slave army, the vast extent of the forces he mobilizes against it simply underscores the overwhelming superiority of Roman military power, a power which no rebellion, no matter how inspired, can long hope to challenge. This fatalistic vision is the very inverse of the theme of the novel and of Trumbo's script as well: that no empire, no matter how powerful, can ultimately prevail over the force of humanity's passion for freedom.

The Props Are Knocked Out From Under the Film's Greatest Performance

The elimination of the battle montage together with the film's Original Prologue not only gravely weakened the dramatic impact of the final battle, it also thoroughly undermined the motivation for Olivier's brilliant portrayal of Crassus in the aftermath of the conflict. Crassus embodies the delusions of grandeur of the decadent Roman aristocracy based on its conquest of most of the known world, as well as its deep-seated fear of the human spoils of those conquests, the slaves. This fear remains repressed only so long as the victims passively accept their fate. As soon as some form of rebellion or resistance develops, however, this fear surfaces and, with it, both a real vulnerability and a ruthless determination to crush any form of opposition. This guilt-based fear is part of the explanation for the paradox of how a military power which had conquered most of the known world could have nearly been destroyed by an army composed of the most pathetic victims of that conquest.

To salve their guilty consciences, the slave owners also believe in the natural superiority of the Roman people over other races, as evidenced particularly on the battlefield. For them power becomes its own moral justification. The idea that the slaves could be superior to the Romans in this or any other field is particularly threatening.

Moreover, a class of slave owners whose entire existence is bound up with the violent conquest and enslavement of other peoples, and with the exaction of obedience through intimidation, must inevitably lose touch with the ability to give and receive genuine human warmth and affection. The terrible price for their grandeur is the loss of the power to love or to be worthy of love. For love, as Varinia reminds Crassus, cannot be compelled by force but must be given freely. It cannot be bought but can only be given in exchange for itself.

Thus, although not a physical coward, Crassus freezes in guilty terror when Draba (Woody Strode) launches his desperate suicidal attack early in the film. He cannot even rise from his chair or draw his dagger to defend himself from an unarmed gladiator until the man is already half dead. He shrinks from the horrible truth about himself and the system of power he worships that is inherent in Draba's rejection of the role of executioner. Even as Draba lies dying, Olivier plays Crassus as a shaken, almost terrified man. His fear re-surfaces when Antoninus, faced with his sexual advances, rejects him and escapes to join Spartacus. Similarly, Gracchus's speech to the Senate, warning of Crassus's intention to establish a dictatorship, frightens him with the realization that all his fine speeches about restoring the ancient traditions of Rome are just a cover for his own ruthless ambition.

All these barely concealed anxieties finally come to a head during the final battle. In history, although Crassus was sent with an enormous force of at least ten legions against Spartacus, "his mission was not an easy one and he was frequently outgeneraled by the slave; but after suffering several humiliating defeats he destroyed the main body of Spartacus's troops." Unfortunately, just as Crassus feared, Pompey arrived from Spain in time to wipe out a small band of fugitives from this battle and used this feat to claim that while Crassus had defeated the slaves in a pitched battle, he had finally ended the war for good. Pompey celebrated a magnificent triumph for his victory over the rebel Sertorius in Spain and was elected consul although he was not even yet a member of the Senate. Crassus, however, had to be satisfied with the lesser honor of an ovation for his dearly bought victory over the slaves and was even forced to swallow his pride and seek Pompey's support in order to be elected second consul with him. Moreover "military defeat at the hands of a slave brought a stigma which Crassus could never forget and which darkened his mind for many years to come."[9]

Following this historical interpretation, Trumbo intended the final battle to be the traumatic event which triggers the deep fear inside Crassus which has emerged periodically earlier in the film, sending him into a wild rampage of senseless cruelty and a pathetic attempt to compete with Spartacus for the love of Varinia. But the film fails to realize Trumbo' s intention because there is nothing in it which would convey the idea that Crassus had experienced any fear whatsoever during that battle. In fact, while this battle is filled with close-ups of Kirk Douglas as Spartacus directing his army and then participating personally in the fighting, the feelings and reactions of Crassus in the person of Laurence Olivier are virtually absent from this climactic confrontation between the film's two main antagonists.

During the shooting of the retakes following Trumbo's Report, two new reaction shots of Crassus and his staff watching the final battle were filmed: the first coinciding with the slave army igniting their flaming, rolling barricades, thus upsetting the Roman battle plan: the second with the arrival of the armies of Pompey and Lucullus, turning the tide against the slaves. But, in contradiction to the filmmakers' express written intentions, the mid-range rather than the close-up versions of these shots were used, completely obscuring the anxiety filled emotional reactions of Crassus (revealed only by close inspection) to these two decisive turning points in the battle.

Here Trumbo missed a golden opportunity to characterize the real motivation for the fear which Crassus expresses during the rest of the film. Instead he spent all his efforts in a futile attempt to include some lines by Crassus about the heroism of the slave women and the love between the slaves. Trumbo believed the message of these lines was crucial to the entire picture and was horrified when, without his knowledge, they were cut from the script.

"I cannot find words to tell you my horror that Olivier's lines relative to the slave women fighting alongside their men and dying in the battle, and to the quality of love among slaves which is to him, such a profound mystery, were not even shot.

"If, after all the effort that went into the writing of what could have been an absolutely superb moment ... a moment essential to the intellectual and spiritual comprehension of what this film is about... if these were cut from the script before shooting, and if no one consulted me about the cut (which no one did) then I charge bad faith . . . bad faith in relation to me, bad faith in your obligation as artists to the medium that feeds you. And I say, you don't deserve to have a good film.

"For the cutting of these lines before they reach film represents a final and irrevocable step in the total elimination of women from this film; the total downgrading of the moral and heroic quality of the slave rebellion: in the castration of Spartacus as a character of any consequence in the film: in an obsession with the Small View of Spartacus as almost to represent a conspiracy, a vulgar conspiracy to kill any distinction which this film might have had.

"If we have these lines on film they should by all means go back into the picture.... If we do not have them.. . well, I become physically ill. Worse. . . I feel like a prisoner who wants to kill the person responsible, who wants to yell for help ... and can do nothing about it except type more words ... words that have lost all meaning ... words that die in the void like an idiot's dream shouted from the bottom of a cistern. I mean that."[10]

Fortunately, Kubrick did embrace the visual ideas in Trumbo's script and preserved much of what he was trying to convey. His images of peace and serenity on the faces of the dead slaves as the camera pans across the battlefield, their bodies locked in a last embrace, powerfully conveys their nobility, their courage, and the love they felt for one another to the very end.

Trumbo's intention was that Crassus, having come face to face with the incredible heroism and nobility of the slaves in their finest hour, becomes frightened and angry. Confronted by the slaves' deep love for one another, Crassus recoils from his painful recognition of the stark contrast between their simple humanity and the emotional barrenness of his own life, an awareness he has tried unsuccessfully to suppress through a compulsive struggle for material wealth and political power. His victory has not brought him the renewed peace of mind he so desperately sought. In Trumbo's Large Spartacus view of the film, Crassus also senses that, without the arrival of Pompey and Lucullus, he might well have been defeated by the slaves. Thus, Crassus desperately struggles to rid himself of his new sense of the criminal illegitimacy of the social system he has just barely managed to preserve. His fears lead him to try repeatedly to regain his sense of legitimacy, but to no avail, leading to greater excesses of irrational cruelty.

He tries to make the slaves betray Spartacus but they refuse at the cost of their lives. He tries to force Gracchus to aid him in establishing his dictatorship by pacifying the supporters of Roman democracy, but Gracchus chooses suicide instead. He tries to win the love of Varinia, using the wealth and security he can provide, but she rejects him and escapes with Spartacus's newborn son to freedom. In his final confrontation with Spartacus, Crassus is forced, at least momentarily, to lose all his delusions of grandeur, as he stands frightened and deeply wounded by the utter contempt in which Spartacus holds him.

Unfortunately, without the battle montage, the dialog from the film's Original Prologue, or at least the close-up versions of Crassus's reaction shots during the final conflict, there is no real basis for any fear of defeat on the part of Crassus either before, during, or after the battle, which would explain his almost panic-stricken attempts to regain his sense of identity in its aftermath. Olivier's brilliant performance has thus been robbed of all psychological motivation at key moments late in the film, and seems more a melodramatic sop thrown to the audience as consolation for having had to watch Spartacus's dream of freedom crushed under the iron heel of Rome.

Trumbo's single-minded concentration on trying to reinsert Crassus's lines expressing his lingering fear as he surveys the dead slaves resulted in a lack of attention to Crassus's much more palpable fear of Spartacus and the slaves while they were still alive. This misplacement of emphasis probably stemmed from Trumbo's own confusion about the primary cause of the terror inspired by the slave revolt within the Roman ruling class. His emphasis on the moral and psychological threat, rather than on the actual physical danger of destruction, flowed from his underlying belief that, short of a general uprising, the 100,000-man slave army never had any real chance of ultimately winning. Trumbo made this explicit in the dialog which follows, as he engaged in a futile effort to transform the film's depiction of the slaves' crushing defeat into some kind of moral victory.

As Spartacus is raised up on his cross:
Crassus: I want no grave, no marker for him. His body's to be burnt and his ashes scattered in secret.
Caesar: Did you fear him Crassus?
Crassus: Not when I fought him. For I knew he could be beaten. But now I fear him. Even more than I fear you.

Unfortunately, these lines turn human reality (and history) on their heads. It was the terrible fear inspired by Spartacus when he was alive that remained in the minds of his adversaries for generations after his death. This emphasis on the moral, symbolic dimension of Spartacus's challenge flows from the film's hidden message of nonresistance and otherworldly resignation which is already apparent in the Prologue. There it is asserted, against all historical evidence, that it was the rise of Christianity (and not the continuation of the heroic struggle begun by Spartacus) which was destined to overthrow the pagan tyranny of Rome.

The Epic That Almost Was

Like Spartacus's rebellion itself, the film about his life was an enterprise that came heartbreakingly close to succeeding. It is excruciatingly frustrating to consider that the re-inclusion of just a few seconds of rejected battle scenes and excised dialogue could have changed the whole tone of this film, tying all its contradictory elements together into a coherent, magnificent whole. However, we cannot blame the film's restorers for failing to bring the Large Spartacus back to life, since the crucial missing scenes which might have been restored were presumably lost forever when Universal junked all the film's outtakes and deleted footage in 1975.

Nor can the ultimate responsibility for the failure of Spartacus to realize its full potential be placed on the shoulders of the film's Executive Producer and star, Kirk Douglas. Douglas was deeply affected by Fast's novel. He identified personally with Spartacus and the oppressed slaves in their revolt and he accepted as essentially true the picture Fast painted of Spartacus as a towering genius whose rebellion nearly destroyed the Roman Empire. He wanted his film to become a personal declaration of principle: an American statement by an American film company about the cause of freedom and the dignity of man. In this he succeeded, and, in so doing, made himself into a living symbol of those ideals around the world, travelling in the early Sixties as a goodwill ambassador for America on behalf of the State Department ad the U.S. Information Agency.

Nor can we really judge Universal Studios' Ed Muhl too harshly. Like Trumbo and Douglas, Muhl recognized what a tremendous risk they were taking in attempting to break the blacklist using the most expensive film ever made in Hollywood. Realizing that Spartacus had to walk a fine line between a watered down version of the same old democratic political clichˇ s and a left wing message too strong for the palates of even the liberal critics, Muhl felt compelled to censor Trumbo still further, after Trumbo had already censored himself, even at the risk of badly damaging the film's artistic integrity. Despite Bosley Crowther's shockingly harsh review in the New York Times and some other mixed notices, Muhl still succeeded in making Spartacus into an intelligent epic with a clearly defined left wing theme by a previously banned writer which became a smash success at the box office, thereby effectively breaking the blacklist.

The real blame for the failure of Spartacus to reach its full potential as a sophisticated historical epic must fall on the shoulders of the anti-communist McCarthyite right which was engaged in a rear-guard action to preserve the blacklist and was thus hell-bent on destroying this film, either by preventing its production altogether, or, failing that, by torpedoing its chances for commercial success through politically motivated negative reviews and noisy public protests. It was this unrelenting attack from the right while production was in progress which forced the studio to reshape Spartacus into a film which was far more about Gracchus's effort to preserve the Romans' republican democracy than it was about Spartacus's struggle to destroy their slave system.

But the historic legacy of Spartacus, and the underlying theme of both Fast's novel and Trumbo's screenplay, went far beyond this. At their core they affirmed a faith which, in the wake of Vietnam and Afghanistan, we know remains true today: that oppressed peoples can rise to challenge even the most seemingly all-powerful empire . . . and win. Sadly, the film Universal ultimately produced, delivered, with heartrending power, the very opposite message: that those who dare to rebel will inevitably be crushed. All that the audience is left with is some faint hope for the future as Varinia and her son escape to freedom. Rejecting Trumbo's explicit advice in his "Final Retakes," Universal produced a film which pleads with the audience to remember the truth about what Spartacus dreamed of, while burying the truth about what he actually did.

Fortunately, through the continued worldwide popularity of Howard Fast's magnificent novel, the historic legacy of Spartacus, his ideals, his achievements, his myth, have managed to transcend this film's shabby compromise with history and continue to serve as a source of hope and inspiration for all those who still believe in the struggle for freedom.


[1] Quoted in Martin M. Winkler, "Mythic and Cinematic Traditions in Anthony Mann's El Cid," Mosaic, 26.3 (1993), pp. 89-111; esp pp. 102,104,108,109;

[2] Kirk Douglas, The Ragman's Son, pg. 304 ;

[3] Kirk Douglas, The Ragman's Son, pp.323-4;

[4] Dalton Trumbo, "The Sequence on Vesuvius: Notes," pg. 2;

[5] Dalton Trumbo, "Last General Notes on Spartacus," pp. 1-2 & 5;

[6] Dalton Trumbo, "Spartacus: Material to be Shot in Spain," pg. 31;

[7] Dalton Trumbo, Report on Spartacus, Section 11, pp. 46-7;

[8] Plutarch, Life of Crassus;

[9] Joseph Ward Swain, The Ancient World, Vol.2, pp.304-5

[10] Dalton Trumbo, Report on Spartacus, Section II, pp. 46-7.

The author wishes to thank the following people for their help and support in his research efforts. Without them this article could not have been written. Bob Taylor of the Performing Arts Research Center at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library; Jim Carleson of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming: Martin Winkler, Chairman of the Classics Department, George Mason University; Harry Miller, Reference Archivist at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, State Historical Society of Wisconsin; and especially David Beyer, graduate research assistant at the Wisconsin Center, whose tireless efforts unearthed virtually all the documents on which this article is based. The author also wishes to gratefully acknowledge the continued support and encouragement of his editor at Cineaste, Gary Crowdus, and to thank his wife Rachael for putting up with eight months of listening to his theories about Spartacus.
Copyright ©1996 Duncan L. Cooper, All Rights Reserved