1 April 2018




'I'm not an animal!'

'We who are about to die salute you.'

While not a Biblical epic as such, in that it doesn't reference Jesus or the story of the Messiah, this is still a cracking swords-and-sandals Hollywood blockbuster that you could watch every Easter of your life and still not get bored with it. Well, Easter's when I usually watch it myself, lol, because it sits between BEN HUR and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on my shelf. Any alphabetizing is purely coincidental, I can assure you...!

Featuring an all-star cast, this wildly expensive movie for its day is based on true events, in that there actually once was a slave called Spartacus who led a slave uprising against the might of the great Roman Empire. He even gets referenced by the dotty Emperor Caligula in THE ROBE as being connected with the kind of incident of which the Romans have no wish to see a repeat or resurgence. 'We haven't forgotten Spartacus,' or words to that effect.

Kirk Douglas plays the lead role, with his chin-dimple deepening dramatically in every scene, and every word out of his mouth making you automatically think how like his son Michael he sounds, and looks. He does a fantastic job, and I always bawl my eyes out at the ending, surely one of the saddest endings to one of these dusty desert epics ever.

Spartacus was born into slavery and, in the film, has spent his entire life thus far working like a dog in the mines of Libya. The overseers were liberal with the whip and stingy with the rations, and the only chance of freedom or release for a slave was death. It was a miserable existence, and I use the word existence deliberately, for you surely couldn't have called it a life.

Spartacus is here sentenced to a hideous death by starvation, chained to a rock in the desert sun, for attacking an overseer who has been cruel to an old dying man. He is saved from his grisly fate by Peter Ustinov in the form of Batiatus, a chubby, greedy, self-serving little man who's not without a certain charm, nonetheless, and he does do a good deed at the end of the film, so fair play to him. He's not really evil as such, merely weak-willed.

Batiatus whisks Spartacus off to his gladiator school, where he is trained to fight other men to the death for the amusement of the Romans, who don't give a flying f**k for the waste of lives not their own. That's almost the cruellest part of it all. Here he meets Varinia, played by Jean THE ROBE Simmons, a beautiful slave girl who does domestic work at the school.

They fall instantly in love, from the moment that Varinia is given to Spartacus for an hour or two of sex as part of the 'rewards' system at the school. Spartacus fiercely resents that they are both being treated as sub-humans and not as real people at all, but their love affair transcends the terrible conditions and lasts, one would like to think, till long after the credits roll.

During a visit to the school by Laurence Olivier, as the high-up Roman dignitary Crassus, and his entourage, Spartacus is made to fight to the death with another gladiator for the amusement of the visitors. A riot breaks out and, before long, Spartacus finds himself leading a disciplined, well-trained army of slaves against the mighty Roman Empire.

Charles Laughton is brilliant as Gracchus, the corrupt, womanising Roman Senator who hates Larry Olivier's Crassus, and the feeling is surely mutual. Gracchus sends Crassus's friend and relative-by-marriage, Glabrus, off to fight Spartacus and is thrilled when the inexperienced Glabrus makes a complete and utter arse of himself and is disgraced forever in the eyes of the Senate.

Glabrus is played by John Dall, the actor who portrayed Brandon Shaw, the more proactive of the two student murderers in Alfred Hitchcock's magnificent ROPE. I've only ever seen him in these two roles but I've always liked him. Here, he is an unfortunate casualty of the mutual loathing between Gracchus and Crassus.

I love the cheeky Gracchus but Crassus is a conniving and calculating cold fish. He likes both oysters and snails, lol, and tries to tempt Tony Curtis's comely slave Antoninus in a scene of homo-erotic sensuality under the eerily still and calm Roman night sky.

But Antoninus is a singer-of-songs (which sound a lot like poems to me, as there's no singing involved whatsoever) and, once he meets Spartacus, his leader, his loyalties are decided forever. He'll follow Spartacus even unto death, and loves him like a father. Tough titties for Crassus so, eh...? No delicious sweetmeats for Crassus from the hands of the beautiful Antoninus, lol.

Herbert Lom has a small role as a crooked pirate envoy who offers to help Spartacus out with ships, so that the slaves can leave Italy. For a small sum of money and treasure, of course, such a trifling sum as to be scarcely worth mentioning. Small my butt, lol.

That's all the slaves want to do, to leave the country of their imprisonment and live as free men, but the Roman Empire doesn't want to lose its slave labour and neither does it want this cancerous treachery to take root all over its Empire.

It sends Crassus, with all the weight of the Empire behind him, to defeat Spartacus once and for all in some of the most dramatic scenes in cinema. You'll be impressed at the togetherness of the slave army, terrified at the sight of the sheer numbers of the Roman soldiers coming against them, and devastated by the outcome of the dreadful battle.

The climax of the film, as a lone chariot containing a man, a woman and a child trundles as quickly as it dares along the Appian Way, will sear itself into your brain forever. Slavery was the cankerous sore that beset the Roman and other Empires. Until all the slaves had been freed, Spartacus's work would remain undone...


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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