"Ben-Hur" won more Oscars the year before (and is a much better book), but 1960's "Spartacus," which forsook the stilted formality of 1950s costume epics in favor of a gritty realism not previously seen in the genre, is an even better movie.
Kirk Douglas, who starred in was executive producer of this lavish spectacle of the ancient Roman slave revolt, made the crucial decision to bring 31-year-old wunderkind Stanley Kubrick - who had directed Douglas in the 1957 antiwar classic "Paths of Glory" - to the project.
In "Spartacus," Douglas also surrounded himself with great actors - Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton - though for some reason, he also cast a leaden Tony Curtis, with his unmistakable New Yawk accent, in a sizable role.
Douglas spectacularly plays Spartacus, a Greek slave whose Roman masters send him, because of his defiant disposition and physical strength, to a gladiator school run by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, who a supporting Oscar). There, he forms relationships with Varinia (Jean Simmons), a slave girl he refuses to take sexual advantage of, and Draba, (Woody Strode), an African slave and fellow gladiator.
When Batuatus' patron, the Roman senator Crassus (a majestically sinister Olivier), drops in and insists on a demonstration of gladiators fighting to the death, it leads to a revolt. Spartacus leads a group of gladiators toward the coast, hoping to board ships and escape Italy. As news spreads, other slaves revolt to join him. Soon he is leading a sizable army.
Spartacus' rebellion becomes a threat to Roman order, and a focal point in the political battle between the power-hungry Crassus, and his cynical, somewhat more humane rival, Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton).
"Spartacus" artfully mixes big moments and small. The incredible scene where Spartacus and Draba are forced to confront one another in the arena for Crassus' amusement is one of the best man-to-man duels in screen history. At the other end of the battle spectrum, it also contains one of the best clashes of huge armies caught on film.
The movie has discussions and arguments over big issues - separation of governmental powers, personal-vs.-public morality, freedom and responsibility. It makes a powerful statement that inhumane treatment only takes your humanity if you let it.
Yet the most touching moments are of personal honor and sacrificial love. "Spartacus" is relentlessly intelligent, but just as stirring on an emotional level.
Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo brilliantly adapted the book by the famed Marxist novelist Howard Fast. These two writers' attitudes toward Stalin's brutal regime were sanguine at best, yet (ironically, some would say) "Spartacus" became a paean to individual freedom.
The print showing at the Flint Institute of Arts this weekend is not the newly restored "director's cut." However, the recovered 10 minutes in the 184-minute "Spartacus" is not the most important thing you have been missing by watching it on TV all these years. Rather, it is the splendor of Kubrick's magnificently choreographed battle scenes that small-screen formating simply cannot accommodate.