What is certain was that until that point in my life, nothing equalled the awe with which I encountered Spartacus—the man, the book by Howard Fast, and the movie by Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas. The film came to me first, for when I did finally sneak away from parental control and see an adult movie on my own, this was where I went. The proportions of the 70mm screen were enough to blow me out, and the graphic, rousting depiction of the social and political ramifications of the slave revolt of Spartacus in 73AD gripped me utterly. Nothing could have been further from the dreary spectacles of the past—this seemed more like grim realism, combined with huge action scenes and a large dose of wit and intelligence provided by Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. I could not believe anything so magnificent could have been done and it would change my whole view of life.
However, the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick—himself in the midst of a string of great cinema masterpieces—was dissatisfied with the film, objecting to Kirk Douglas’s heroics as star and melodramatic content as producer. And, despite my utter delight with the film, when I read the book a few months later, I saw why. Fast’s novel contained a realism and visual impact that far transcended the film.
It opens with a journey along the road from Rome to Capua, on either side of which the six thousand survivors of the slaughter of the slave army hang rotting from crucifixes, and the travellers meet a sausage manufacturer.
“I smoked them, minced them, and mixed it with pork, spice and salt. Half goes to Gaul, half to Egypt. And the price is just right.”
“I think your humour is ill taken,” says Caius. (the future Julius Caesar.)
“I am not trying to be humorous,” Senvius said matter of factly. “The young lady asked a question, and I answered it. I bought a quarter of a million pounds of slave to be turned into sausage.”
Further on, they meet the great general Crassus who defeated Spartacus and homosexual love blossoms between he and Caius. We also meet Gracchus, who opposes the bid by Crassus to use his victory to gain control of Rome, and Cicero, who writes the history of these, the Servile Wars. Thus the story of Spartacus is told in flashbacks.
… So you come to the mines as Spartacus did, one hundred and twenty-two Thracians chained neck to neck, carrying their burning hot chains across the desert all the way from the First Cataract. The twelfth man from the front of the line is Spartacus. He is almost naked, as they are all almost naked, and soon he will be entirely naked.
But he is saved when sold to the gladiator school where he is chosen to fight the giant black man Draba, his friend, before Crassus, Caius and others.
Spartacus walked over to him and lifted his head and tenderly wiped the beads of sweat from his brow.
“Gladiator, befriend no gladiator.”
“Spartacus, why is a man born?” he whispered in agony.
“Is that the whole answer?”
“The only answer.”
“I don’t understand your answer, Thracian.”
Draba wins the duel but refuses to kill Spartacus and attacks the Roman box instead.
The foremost soldier braced himself, legs spread on the sand, and hurled the spear, the great wooden spear with the iron point that nothing in the world could resist, which had leveled the armies of a hundred nations. But it did not level the black man. The spear caught him in the back, the iron driving through his chest and out the front of him, yet it did not halt him, and even with that monstrous wooden pole attached to his back, he clawed on toward the Romans. A second spear tore through his side, yet he struggled onward. A third spear entered his back and a fourth pierced his neck. Now at last he was finished—yet the fork in his outstretched hand touched the rail of the box where the Romans cowered in terror. And there he lay with the blood gushing out of him and there he died.
But it must be noted that throughout all of this, Spartacus had not moved. If he had moved, he would have died. He cast his knife in the sand and remained without moving. Life is the answer to life.
The Romans remember the black man but not his gladiatorial opponent, which becomes increasingly ironic as Spartacus uses the Draba incident to spark revolt at the school.
In that moment, with startling clarity, Spartacus saw his tactics, the whole pattern of his tactics in the years to come. He saw in his mind’s eye, briefly and vividly, the logic of all the tales told of armies which had hurled themselves against those iron points of Rome, to be smashed under the mighty weight of the Roman spear and then cut to pieces with the short, razor-sharp edge of the Roman sword. But here was the discipline of Rome and the power of Rome helpless within a circle of shouting, cursing, defiant and naked gladiators.
“Rocks!” cried Spartacus. “Rocks—the stones will fight for us!” He raced around the circle, light on his toes, light in his motions, graceful. “Throw rocks!”
And under the shame of rocks, the soldiers went down. The air became full of flying stones. The women joined the circle—the household slaves joined and the field slaves ran from the gardens to join. The soldiers shielded himself under their huge targets, but that gave the gladiators a chance to run in, cut and run…
The strength lies in the unheroic desperation of the battles, the way Virinia’s milk spilled from her nipples to stain the dress Crassus gave her in an attempt to give meaning to his defeat of Spartacus, and last of the gladiators who gives us a minute by minute description of the process of his own crucifixion. In every way, the book outreached the film—with the possible exception of the brilliant gladiatorial fight—and although I continued to love the movie and still do, I could see immediately how much more wonderful it would have been had Kubrick had his way and kept it closer to Fast’s conception.
Howard Fast, a American writer with a number of successful novels to his name, was originally unable to persuade a publisher to bring out the book. In that McCarthyist period, 1951, no one was game enough to deal with such leftist subject matter. He received hundreds of advance purchase orders from individuals, which paid for the printing and allowed him to publish it himself. A small Melbourne publisher—Joseph Waters — brought out the edition that I possess in 1952. Of course, after the success of the film, the publishers bid furiously for the rights.
Howard Fast would never again write such a good book—Stanley Kubrick would flee Hollywood avoid using big stars in his future films—Kirk Douglas had made his last worthwhile film as a producer. Kubrick would complain that it was the least of his films but that was mere artistic vanity—to which, I might add, he was very much entitled given the excellence of his other works. The truth was that it is one of the best dozen films ever made, and unsurpassed as an epic. Kubrick’s misplaced gripe (artists, even great ones, have little ability to judge the merits of their various works) arose because it was the only time he had to share creative credit.
The film was Kirk Douglas’s vision in the first place, and for sure he wanted that big heroic role for himself and did not want it diminished by Kubrick’s desire for grubby realism—but there were also more worthy motives involved as well. Originally Douglas employed his old friend Anthony Mann as director but soon saw Mann’s ideas were too old fashioned. Mann was sacked (although with the agreement that Douglas would appear in any film that Mann wanted him in, a promise that was kept) and Kubrick replaced him. The stark realism of Paths of Glory was the main reason for the choice. But Kubrick soon found he had an even bigger obstacle between himself and absolute creative control, in the form of the scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo was Hollywood’s most significant McCarthyist blacklistee, and Douglas’s brave decision to use him was intended to be nothing other than revenge. The red-necks were outraged. And Trumbo then set out to make a few personal points—the comparison between Imperial Rome and modern America was overt, and the theme—the revolt of the slaves against oppression—gave continual opportunities for Trumbo to slash and thrust at his tormentors. It is, ultimately, Trumbo’s film.
The whole end sequence, from the immortal “I am Spartacus” scene to the crucifixion of Spartacus is his invention—Spartacus was actually slaughtered on the battlefield and his body never found—but there is no doubt his factual distortions were justified by the excellence of the results.
It wasn’t just the McCarthyists who were up in arms. The church was upset by the fact that it was a non-religious epic—something to which they seemed to assume a divine right, and all the more by Jean Simmons discreet nude scenes and her frank sexuality. The reference to the milk staining her dress was cut. Cut too was the homosexuality of Crassus, which rendered much of Laurence Olivier’s portrayal meaningless. The great man, armed with a fake Roman nose, was the only member of the huge and brilliant cast who did not manage to provide a fascinatingly realistic character. And also cut were several violent scenes—the burial of a dead baby and Spartacus slicing off a Roman soldier’s arm on the battlefield, although the killing of Draba—perhaps the most powerful and vivid death scene in any movie—got through unscathed. In all the film was reduced from 189 minutes to 161 minutes by censorship, but it had plenty to spare and what remained glowed undiminished.
In my foolish fancies, I dreamed of making films like Spartacus, but in my more serious desires, my ambition was to develop the skills to write such a book. The first never happened and would not have for, like Kubrick, I could never have tolerated all that bullshit. It would take me over thirty years of almost continual disappointment to achieve the second.