Stanley Kubrick, Part 4 – “Spartacus”
Spartacus was made in the wake of Ben-Hur and the wave of the biblical epics and sword-and-sandle spectaculars of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Spartacus was the one film that Stanley Kubrick had the least control over. Producer-star Kirk Douglas brought Kubrick in to replace director Anthony Mann, who was best know for his big panoramic westerns like The Far Country and The Man From Laramie.
Anthony Mann was a top director and would later direct Douglas in The Heroes of Telemark. But on Spartacus Douglas was the big name and wanted to control the picture. He had gotten along well with Kubrick on The Paths of Glory, which brought great critical reaction for the new director and also gave Douglas some of the best reviews of his career.
Kubrick was hired on a Friday evening and was directing on Monday morning. He inherited a project that had already been written and was completely planned out. He had no authority to rework the script, set design, cameraman or cast. His job was to give the film a strong visual look, which was natural to him, and to reign in the cast of top actors from Douglas to Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons and get solid, strong, but lower-key performances from them. As a result, Spartacus holds up the best of all of the ancient spectacles. It earned the description of “the thinking man’s epic.”
For Kubrick, the job lifted him up from the ranks of the respected art house film director to an A-list Hollywood studio name. It paved the way for him to make whatever he wanted. This would be important because the next film he wanted to make was from a book that had been banned from being printed or sold in the U.S. – Lolita.