After the release of the 1960 epic Spartacus, showing this weekend as part of The Belcourt's 100th anniversary salute to Universal Pictures, one thing was made perfectly clear in Hollywood: Don't ever pass over Kirk Douglas for a role. Turned down by director William Wyler for the lead in Ben-Hur (a role eventually immortalized by Charlton Heston), Douglas decided to take the story of the slave/gladiator/warrior and star in his own three-hour, $12 million fuck-you to both Wyler and Heston.
The result was the story of a rebel operation made by a rebel operation. Executive producer Douglas hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay; after a falling-out with the original director — Anthony Mann! — he enlisted a young filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick, who'd directed Douglas three years earlier in the still outstanding anti-war drama Paths of Glory. Even though Kubrick resented not having the full creative control that he would famously demand for the rest of his career, he still proved to be quite the ridiculously talented director-for-hire.
Ben-Hur walked away with a whopping 11 Oscars after its 1959 release, while Spartacus ended up winning only four (including a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor win for Peter Ustinov, a scene-stealer as the opportunistic gladiator-school owner Batiatus). But Kubrick's movie packs more of a wallop today. Based on Howard Fast's 1951 novel, essential reading back then in communist circles, Spartacus works as both a satirical attack on McCarthyism and a celluloid battle cry for the civil rights movement. After all, it's a pointless to-the-
death battle between Spartacus and an equally fed-up Ethiopian (played by the late, criminally undervalued African-American actor Woody Strode) that gets Spartacus' wheels spinning about a revolt against Rome, making him Public Enemy No 1. in the power-mad eyes of the aptly named Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier).
Spartacus avoids some of the campy pitfalls of the more earnest Ben-Hur — especially the camouflaged homoeroticism that screenwriter Gore Vidal always claimed he smuggled into the script under Wyler's nose. On that score, Spartacus is rather daring, thanks to the infamous once-deleted scene where servant Tony Curtis bathes a particularly bi-curious Olivier (which was reinserted when the movie got a re-release in 1991). A sword-and-sandal epic of unusual intelligence, artistry and blood-boiling excitement, Spartacus offers ample reason to thank Kirk Douglas for showing that a great popcorn movie can come out of blatant, spiteful bitterness. Suck it, William Wyler!