Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic Spartacus remains one of the most iconic retellings of the classic story about a gladiator who breaks free and tries to end slavery in the Roman Empire. This intense epic chronicles the life of Spartacus from his early days as a slave to his defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire, and it has proven extremely influential. The film made a huge splash in its day for making the controversial decision to openly challenge the blacklist by giving a credit to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who for the past few years had only been able to work anonymously).
Additionally its famous scene of the slaves refusing to surrender has been parodied and homaged so many times ("I'm Brian and so is my wife!") and its story would be the inspiration for a later Roman epic: Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Spartacus himself would be a major inspiration for Russel Crowe's portrayal of soldier-turned-slave Maximus (alongside a few other historical and legendary figures). But what of the film itself and its themes?
Spartacus focuses its three-hour running time on the practice of slavery in the Roman Empire. It is hardly subtle about this emphasis, as is made evident in the opening lines of the film. The film opens with narration that compares the role of slavery in the Roman Empire to an epidemic, a line of thinking that is later reinforced when Julius Ceasar (John Gavin) refers to the uprising as an "infection." We are told that Spartacus "dreamed of the death of slavery 2000 years before it finally would die" (presumably the narrator is referring to Abraham Lincoln).
These initial scenes place Spartacus and his fellow slaves in a series of mines, and Kubrick takes great care to show the senselessness of their operations. Note that although they are supposedly mining, one never gets the sense that anything is accomplished by the workers. They are shown futilely bashing the ground with pickaxes that seem to uncover nothing, carrying large baskets of rocks, and otherwise performing unnecessarily grueling chores with no real purpose. One of Spartacus's first actions is to try and aid a fellow slave only to be whipped by the Roman soldiers guarding him, who then sentence him to execution.
It is this bleak opening that sets the stage for everything to come. Spartacus works hard to undermine the supposed glory of the Roman Empire. It is exposed not as an invincible force of military might but a flawed dictatorship run by corrupt politicians more concerned with gaining power over each other than actually guiding the people they claim to lead. For all their talk of glory, triumph, and "order" the Roman Empire is chaotic and divided, and shamelessly engages in the practice of buying and selling human beings as property.
In this opening scene alone, we are given a glimpse of these contrasting lifestyles when we are introduced to the slave trader Lentulus Batiatus, and he isn't even very high in the Roman social hierarchy (certainly not compared to the Roman senators who try to manipulate him). While Spartacus is almost naked and shown doing hard manual labor in what appears to be a very hot environment, Batiatus enters on horseback with his own personal servant to hold an umbrella over him.
After walking past several exhausted slaves, he then dismounts and complains about the heat, never once considering how much worse it must be for the slaves he has come to purchase. Instead, he simply begins inspecting them and eventually chooses to purchase Spartacus because his fitness makes him good material for a gladiator. Along the way he dismisses some of the slaves offered to him and claims to not like Galls. He even performs a quality inspection, treating the slaves like products.
The first act largely follows the experience of Spartacus in gladiator school, where we are quickly given a clear view of the miserable conditions that slaves live in. While Batiatus is entitled to a busy social life, the gladiators are kept in dark underground rooms. They also face both external and internal pressure that prevents them from even finding comfort in each other. On the outside, the guards routinely tell them not to speak with each other while on the inside none of them wants to know their colleagues personally in case they have to fight each other to the death.
Additionally, a gender dynamic starts to emerge in the distinction between male and female slaves. The men are commodities to be advertised and sold. The women are, at most, tools to develop those commodities. Female slaves are given the menial chores- cooking, cleaning, and occasionally visiting the men. Ostensibly their visits are for companionship and a reward for hard work, but in reality it is for the perverse entertainment of the slavemasters (who watch through windows in the roof). Spartacus notably yells out the phrase "I am not an animal" while leaping at the cage-like bars of his window.
The attraction between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons) is also one that is mocked by the guards, yet their love becomes a twisted form of freedom and escape. The two are constantly kept apart by the guards, with one of the masters even going as far as to brag that Varinia will be given to someone else, then throwing her into a neighboring room probably knowing that Spartacus can hear her. Love then provides a twisted moment of freedom whenever they manage to find some small way to rebel: a momentary touch, a brief glance.
The first act climaxes with the arrival of the Roman noble Crassus and his family, who think that two gladiatorial fights to the death are the perfect activity for a wedding. Already we start to see some of the flaws in the Roman social system, particularly in the way that it seems to be the two women who have much of the power. They are the ones who request the fights and pick out the gladiators they think are the most handsome to take part. This marks the first real fight to the death for Spartacus, and it is handled carefully.
One detail of note is that during this scene we are initially restricted to Spartacus's own point of view, at least until his match begins. We remain in the small waiting room while the first duel takes place, and only perceive what Spartacus is able to, either through off-screen diegetic sound or through glimpses between the wooden panels. During this moment, he exchanges glances with his opponent, creating an awkward silence as the two anticipate their match. They both know that either they will die, or they will kill the man sitting across from them.
When Spartacus is released, we see the spectators acting fairly casually to the fight. Crassus and his friend Glabrus (John Dall) even get distracted from the two men trying to kill each other for their supposed entertainment when they discuss politics. The scene is treated more like they are watching a picture on a screen, rather than two men in a real battle to the death. When the political discussion is shushed by one of the women, it is only because she does not want to get distracted from the action. They only directly interact with the contestants when Spartacus is overpowered but spared, and his opponent attempts to plea with the nobles only to be killed himself.
The shot composition here makes the nobles look like they are in a theater, watching the action on a screen
This in turn sets up the big moment when Spartacus and his friends make their escape. By this point, he has been pushed as far as he can possibly get. It is a frequent problem with authoritarian control- intimidating people in submission may work for a time, but sooner or later they are inspired to rebel. Meanwhile, as the school is trashed by a mob of people who are justifiably angry about being treated as slaves, Batiatus reveals himself to be a coward. He immediately takes the first excuse he can find to leave the building for his own safety while abandoning his own staff to face the gladiators' mercy.
It is here that we start to get introduced to the politics of Ancient Rome. Although several scenes take place in the senate, the two main figures are Lentulus Batiatus Crassus and Gracchus (Charles Laughton). These two men are shown to have been locked in, to provide a very appropriate metaphor for a Kubrick film, a deadly Chess game. Both men are interested in power and profit, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve it. This includes trying to profit from the crisis caused by Spartacus, which provides both parties an opportunity to steal control of the military.
Crassus claims to be "restoring order" while Gracchus opposes the "dictatorship" his rival is enforcing, thought he audience is left to wonder how his authority is any different. Of the two men, Gracchus's agenda is more beneficial to Spartacus, but this only makes him the lesser of two evils. Gracchus has no interest in freeing the slaves, only how the outcome of Spartacus's actions can benefit him politically. He is more than happy to purchase human beings (especially women) and only frees Varinia because he knows it will hurt Crassus. Meanwhile, Crassus talks at length about how he needs to crush the rebellion and claims that suppressing the slaves will make for a better Rome. Ultimately, it is Crassus who wins this feud and defeats Spartacus, ironically reducing Graccus to essentially becoming his own personal slave (albeit one with a somewhat cushier lifestyle). It is fitting then that, like Spartacus, he chooses suicide over this fate.
Of particular note is the appearance Julius Caesar, who is a close friend of Gracchus only to betray him near the film's end. He is a politician in his own right (although one with less screen time than the two main ones) and develops his own ambitions. He claims that Gracchus's methods (bribing Cicillian pirates) are dishonorable, only to then betray him to a man who does the exact same thing in the opposite direction. This betrayal is also politically beneficial to Caesar, who will go on to become the first Emperor of Rome. His betrayal also becomes ironic when one considers that Julius Caesar's downfall came when he himself was betrayed by a trusted ally: Marcus Brutus.