Many regard Spartacus (1960) as one of the finest “sword and sandal” epics produced by Hollywood. Unlike many similarly themed films made during the 1950s and 1960s, it possesses a nuanced story, engaging characters, and sophisticated dialogue to accompany its epic action sequences. While considered a classic film today, the story behind the making of Spartacus was epic in its own right. One full of politics, egos, and censorship.
Kirk Douglas and Ben-Hur
During the late 1950s, Kirk Douglas was one of Hollywood’s top box office stars. With films such as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and The Vikings (1958), he was in high demand.
Douglas had actively sought the title role in the blockbuster Ben-Hur (1959). He was bitterly disappointed, however, when Charlton Heston was awarded the role. So, he told his team of producers to be on the lookout for a similarly themed project that he could undertake on his own.
The Original Story of Spartacus
One of the properties that was brought to Douglas’ attention was a historical novel called “Spartacus” by Howard Fast. The book told the true story of a slave who had led an unsuccessful uprising against the Roman Republic shortly before Caesar took power. Douglas saw the cinematic possibilities of the story and purchased the rights to the book.
Douglas struck a deal to make the film with financial backing from Universal. But, as part of his agreement with the studio, a finished script was required within a month, or else the financing would be withdrawn.
Two weeks later, Douglas was unhappy with the script that had been submitted by Howard Fast. And he found himself with only fourteen days to come up with a workable screenplay or else his dream project would be cancelled.
In desperation, Kirk Douglas turned to a celebrated writer named Dalton Trumbo. At one time Trumbo had been one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters. His credits included Five Came Back (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).
Trumbo was known for his sophisticated sensibilities, quick wit, and ability to churn out snappy dialogue in record time. However, during investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo had been labeled an “uncooperative witness” for his refusal to name names or discuss his personal politics during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.
One of Hollywood’s most prolific and highly regarded screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo would wind up serving eleven months in prison for refusing to “name names” for Congressional Committees during the 1950s.
As part of the so-called Hollywood Ten, Trumbo found himself completely unemployable. He was ultimately “black-listed” and no studio would pay for his services. Desperate for money, Trumbo was forced to turn out dozens of scripts under assumed names.
“Fronts” and Pseudos
In 1953, his script for Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for best screenplay. But Trumbo had enlisted the services of another screenwriter named Ian McLellan Hunter to “front” for him. And it was Hunter who was forced to take the stage to reluctantly accept the Oscar.
Three years later, Trumbo repeated the feat when his script for the film The Brave One (1956) was also awarded a gold statuette. Only this time, the situation was even more awkward. Trumbo had employed the pseudonym of “Robert Rich” while writing the screenplay.
When the Oscars rolled around, it suddenly dawned on people that no one had ever actually met Mr. Rich. The actual physical award went unclaimed. And no one realized they had just bestowed the industry’s highest writing honor on the same “unemployable” writer for the second time.
Creativity in a Bathtub
Still desperate to earn a paycheck, Trumbo agreed to work for Kirk Douglas at a phenomenal speed. Sitting at home in his bathtub, Trumbo would churn out twenty pages of script a day. Of course, the script didn’t have Trumbo’s name attached to it. Instead, it was supposedly written by someone named “Sam Jackson.”
After two weeks, Douglas was extremely pleased. With a larger-than-life storyline combined with sophisticated and witty dialogue, he knew he was in possession of something special. When Universal read the script, they agreed and committed $4 million toward the film’s budget.
A Dream Cast
Based on the script, a stellar cast was assembled: Laurence Olivier would play the Roman military leader Crassus, Charles Laughton the cunning senator Gracchus, Peter Ustinov the slave trader Batiatus, and Tony Curtis a young slave named Antoninus. Douglas himself would play the title character, with Jean Simmons as his love interest.
As part of the deal, Universal also mandated that Douglas use a seasoned director who understood schedules and budgets. Especially since the production was slated to have over 10,000 people working on the crew.
The directorial chores went to Anthony Mann. After the first week’s worth of shooting was completed on location in Death Valley, California, everyone seemed pleased. The opening footage was spectacular and all the shots had been completed with minimal trouble.
Signs of Trouble
When the production of Spartacus moved back to Hollywood the following week, the wheels began to come off the cart. Mann had formed a friendship with actor Peter Ustinov and had subsequently let the latter steal the show.
Ustinov began improvising his own lines and quickly made himself the center of attention. And when Laughton and Olivier (both of whom were experienced directors) saw what was happening, they rebelled.
Verbal fisticuffs erupted on the set. And after a couple of weeks of squabbling, the project came to a standstill. To restore order and at the studio’s insistence, Douglas was forced to fire Mann on a day’s notice. Mann didn’t make out too badly as he went on to direct two other gargantuan productions: El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
This left Douglas with the same problem he had before. He needed another top-notch talent. And fast. A few years earlier, he had worked with a young, talented director named Stanley Kubrick on the film Paths of Glory (1957). Douglas remembered him as someone who had the right combination of ego and talent to take control of this latest film.
After a large paycheck, Kubrick was thrown into production a few days later. But then immediately started making demands of his own. For starters, he wanted to re-shoot all of the footage that Mann had captured. Douglas told him what they had in the can was fine.
Kubrick then started to give the film’s veteran cinematographer, Russell Metty a hard time. Metty had previously worked on over 100 films and had collaborated with such legends as Orson Welles and Howard Hawks. But Kubrick treated him dismissively and micro-managed him to such a degree that the crew began to call their new director “Stanley Hubris” behind his back.
As the production got underway, the relationship between Kubrick and Douglas deteriorated even further. The young director proved himself to be an extreme perfectionist, often calling for retake after retake. He agonized over every camera shot and was obsessed with the smallest of details.
Dedication to Realism
As an example of Kubrick’s commitment to the film, he wanted to make the battle scenes as realistic as possible. So, he went and hired a cadre of amputees, and had the makeup department outfit each of them with prosthetics.
He then told Douglas to take a real sword and “hack off” a few fake arms. The actor was alarmed about Kubrick’s indifference to the possibility of someone actually getting physically hurt.
There were plenty of real injuries on the set. During the scene in which the slaves turn on their captors at the training academy, Douglas ignites the revolt by shoving his chief tormentor’s head into a large kettle of soup, drowning him.
Except he misses. In the finished film, you can see where the poor actor (Charles McGraw) had his jaw broken against the lip of the container before having his head pushed into the liquid. Douglas later remarked it was incredible that no one was killed while making the picture.
With Kubrick’s obsession with retakes and realism, the $4 million budget began to climb. Soon it was at $6 million. Then seven, then eight. Eventually, the entire production fell months behind schedule. Douglas later said that working on Spartacus was:
“…like taking a cross-country taxi ride with the meter on…”
The Breaking Point
Normally unflappable, Kirk Douglas was nearing his breaking point. As producer and star, the cast and crew regularly besieged him with complaints about Kubrick. One of their grievances centered around the director’s attire.
They pointed out Kubrick had been wearing the same jacket and khaki pants for months on end… and that his clothes were sorely in need of a good washing. The crew took Kubrick’s disregard for personal hygiene as another sign of disrespect toward the production as well as their individual efforts.
After listening to these complaints, Douglas finally resolved to do something about Kubrick’s attitude. He also wanted to discuss an idea he had for what eventually became the film’s signature scene. Toward that end, he sent the director a memo describing it.
In the film, Crassus offers the survivors of Spartacus’ slave army a deal. Their lives will spared and they won’t have to undergo the “terrible punishment of crucifixion” on the sole condition they identify the slave Spartacus, living or dead. When Douglas stands up to save what remains of his followers, he is drowned out by them. Each of whom gets up to proclaim:
It’s a classic film moment. But it’s also one that almost didn’t happen. This is because, originally, Stanley Kubrick had never even bothered to respond to Douglas’ memo asking him what he thought of the idea.
Horses and Hygiene
More than a little irked, Douglas was riding a horse for a shot one day when he decided to confront Kubrick. He rode up to him and asked the director why he hadn’t changed his clothes in over a month. Kubrick completely ignored the question.
Trying to be reasonable, Douglas told Kubrick it would be better to have the crew supporting him and that his attitude left a lot of them feeling like he didn’t care what they thought. “I don’t,” came the terse reply from Kubrick.
Taken aback, Douglas told Kubrick the subject wasn’t open to discussion and that he wanted him to go into town that evening, buy himself some new clothes, and charge them to the film’s budget. He then asked Kubrick why he hadn’t responded to his memo asking him what he thought about the proposed “I’m Spartacus” scene. Kubrick looked up and simply said:
“That’s because I don’t want to do it. It’s a stupid idea.”
The Final Straw
This was the final straw. Especially since Douglas was the producer and Kubrick technically worked for him. Douglas rode his horse right up to Kubrick and used the animal to pin him to a nearby wall. Leaning over, Douglas got right in Kubrick’s face and said:
“Listen you little prick. I’ve gone along with you on everything and you’ve been right about most of it… It’s cost us a helluva lot of time and money but I’ve supported you every step of the way…This may be a stupid idea, but we’re going to try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it out – but we’re going to shoot it.”
And that’s how the famous “I’m Spartacus” scene made it into the movie.
Epic Battle Scenes
Several months later, Kubrick announced he had a rough cut of the film ready for viewing. Douglas dressed up Trumbo in disguise in order to sneak him onto the Universal lot so he could sit in on the screening.
All the principles agreed the film was close to being great, but still lacked some large-scale battle scenes to make it epic. So, hat in hand, they went back to Universal and asked for another million dollars to send Kubrick to Spain to film them.
The studio, realizing there was a light at the end of the tunnel, agreed. While in Spain, the production enlisted the aid of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who provided eight thousand five hundred Spanish soldiers.
There, on the plains of Spain, Kubrick really came into his own. He had two giant towers specially built and made the unusual decision to place one of them half a mile away from the action. There, he captured the epic scale of the battle as the two sides organized and prepared to attack one another. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.
However, these scenes contributed substantially to the film’s budget. When the final bill was tallied, it came in at a whopping $11 million. Nearly three times the original estimate.
The Credit Game
With the film almost complete, the time had finally arrived for Douglas to spill the beans on who was going to get the credit for writing Spartacus. He called his team together and proposed giving Trumbo full credit despite his status within the film community.
Suddenly, Kubrick chimed in:
“Why don’t you just use my name? Why take the risk? If we put my name on it, no one will question it. I directed it. I wrote it. End of story.”
Everyone in the room was appalled. And was one of the reasons why Douglas colorfully referred to Stanley Kubrick as a “talented s***” in one of his autobiographies.
For his part, Kubrick remained bitter about his experiences on Spartacus. Despite glowing reviews, and the fact his name is on the credits, Kubrick later disowned the film. for the rest of his life, he refused to list it among his other accomplishments.
There were other issues that threatened the release of Spartacus in 1960. The Motion Picture Association’s Production Code Administration screened the film. Universal received a laundry list of “objectionable” elements from them which they wanted to be removed from the film before they would approve its release. Here are just a few of them:
“Whipping is in danger of proving excessively brutal”
“We ask that you eliminate the use of the word “damn”
“The loincloth costumes must prove adequate”
“The following line seems unduly bold: “It’s a waste of money training eunuchs”
“The following dialogue is unacceptable: “And when this child comes from your sweet, sweet belly, I want him to be free too.” (Apparently, the MPAA still thought babies were delivered by storks).
There was also another key scene in which Crassus tries to seduce the young slave Antoninus by asking him if he prefers “snails or oysters.” The censors wanted the entire sequence removed.
Cuts and Controversy
All of this might sound amusing. But no one on the Spartacus production team was laughing when Universal took control of the picture and began to “sanitize” it along the lines suggested by the MPAA. Under their production agreement, the studio had the right to “final cut.” As a result, there was nothing Douglas and the other producers could do about it.
Out went the “snails and oysters” scene. As did the shots of Spartacus dying on the cross. Along with the violent battle scenes. Ditto for all the “damns,” double entendres, and suggestive references to pregnancies.
Even this watered-down version of “Spartacus” generated a fair amount of controversy when it was finally released. The Legion of Decency organized picket lines to protest theaters that exhibited the film. American Legion magazine urged its readers to boycott the movie as part of an editorial entitled “Will Communists Regain Their Former Foothold in the American Motion Picture Industry?” Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper likewise denounced Spartacus claiming:
“The story was sold to Universal from a book written by a Commie and the screen script was written by a Commie, so don’t go see it!!”
An Epic Success
But in the end, these types of sentiments were part of the minority. Spartacus proved to be a colossal hit at the box office. The New York Daily Mirror gave the film a stellar review, stating simply:
“Tremendous is the only word for it.”
At Oscar’s time, Spartacus picked up six nominations, winning four: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov), and Best Cinematography (Russell Metty). After basically telling Mr. Metty to sit down and shut up for the better part of a year, history doesn’t record what Stanley Kubrick thought of his cinematographer’s big win.
The End of the Black-list
With these types of reviews and awards, Spartacus represented the end of the practice of Black-listing. Soon afterward, director Otto Preminger announced that Dalton Trumbo was going to write the screenplay for his new epic Exodus (1960).
But perhaps the final nail in the coffin occurred in February of 1961. That’s when President John F. Kennedy crossed a small picket line to see the film at the Warner Theater in Washington D.C. He sneaked in after the movie had started and sat in one of the back rows surrounded by Secret Service agents.
Patrons were shocked when the house lights came up at the conclusion of the film and they turned around and saw the President of the United States putting on his coat. Many gasped. Kennedy responded by shouting out:
“It was a fine picture, don’t you think?”
And the entire audience cheered.
Thirty years later, Spartacus gained a new lease on life when it got a full restoration under the guidance of film preservationist Robert Harris. All the excised sequences were restored and a new print was struck, including the infamous “snails and oysters” scene. As a result, the sheer scale of the film is now available for all to see.
A few years before he died, Kirk Douglas offered these final thoughts in his book “I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Black-list:”
“Many blacklisted writers were working during that horrendous time. They just couldn’t tell anyone. They also had to accept wages that were a fraction of what they had earned under their real names…Imagine what that does to a man, particularly a creative man.”
Dalton Trumbo said to me, “Kirk, thank you for giving me back my name…It shouldn’t have been mine to give. No one – certainly not the government – should have the power to deprive a man of his birthright. That was the hypocrisy of the Blacklist…If “Spartacus” helped change that shameful practice – where indifference became a substitute for integrity – I am proud of that.”