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NAU Film Series: 'Spartacus': A controversial film set in ancient Rome

NAU Film Series: 'Spartacus': A controversial film set in ancient Rome

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NAU Spartacus
NAU will show "Spartacus," starring Kirk Douglas, as part of the NAU film series on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Cline Library. (Courtesy photo)

Spartacus lived 109-71 B.C. and is one of those characters from the ancient world who, like Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, continues to capture the imagination of modern film-goers.

Although his biography is filled with many unknowns, we are sure that he was a slave and a gladiator, who participated in a revolt against Roman authority. He led a diverse group of gladiators, slaves and other oppressed people living under Roman rule in what history calls the Third Servile War, 74-71 B.C.

Gathering a loosely organized army that eventually grew to 70,000, Spartacus led them in many victorious battles against the Roman army in an attempt to find liberation from their wretched condition. Along the way, however, splinter groups of this vast army sought only to raid and plunder the wealth of Rome.

Spartacus is the subject of numerous historical novels, musical settings, heroic poems, at least one ballet and the current cable television series, "Spartacus: Blood and Sand." Sports teams have also occasionally invoked the name of Spartacus as a mascot to align themselves with his heroism, strength and defiance.

As a leader, Spartacus has been admired by revolutionaries seeking to overcome the power of an over-class. Karl Marx admired Spartacus as did Che Guevara, the revolutionary who played a key role with Fidel Castro in overthrowing the Cuban dictator, Batista. Spartacus was hailed by the German Communist movement during World War I and by the Austrian anti-Fascists during the 1970s.

So, it was particularly shocking in 1960 when the film "Spartacus" was released with Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who had refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 as they attempted to uncover Communist influence in Hollywood. As a result, Trumbo was blacklisted from working in Hollywood and spent 11 months in prison.

Out of concern that "Spartacus" was a sign that Hollywood seemed to be falling under the influence of "Soviet indoctrinated artists," the American Legion attacked Trumbo and Kirk Douglas, the film's star and executive producer.

The American Legion issued letters to 17,000 veteran posts around the country, advising them not to see the film because of its suspected Communist influence. Furthermore, because of the bloody battle scenes, the skimpy slave and gladiator costumes, and the sexual suggestiveness set in pagan times, the film ran into difficulty with the Motion Picture Association of America, which insisted upon numerous cuts and changes to the film in order to accommodate its censorship guidelines.

Tuesday night's showing of "Spartacus" will hardly seem as controversial as it was in 1960. It is a film of epic proportions with a cast of thousands (actually 10,500) and a long list of popular performers from the time.

Douglas stars as Spartacus, opposite Laurence Olivier as Crassus, the Roman general out to defeat him. Also featured in the film are Jean Simmons playing Varinia, the beloved of Spartacus, Peter Ustinov as the owner of a gladiatorial school, Charles Laughton as the Roman senator Gracchus and Tony Curtis, who plays a slave and tutor. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four. Over the years, "Spartacus" has continuously held the interest of the viewing public and was named No. 5 in the American Film Institute's top 10 epic films.

Directed by the great director Stanley Kubrick, Tuesday night's audience will find the film on the big screen to be a dynamic and accurate recreation of the classical world, unlike several recent films set in the ancient world that are cartoonish in appearance with their over-use of computer generated graphics.

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