Last night at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) they screened a new 70 mm print of Spartacus, the 1960 historical drama about the first Century B.C. Roman slave who led an uprising against the Empire, a film which won four Academy Awards. Producer/Star Kirk Douglas, 95, was present with wife Anne, and engaged in a vigorous question-and-answer session with Peter Hammond prior to the screening, ending with Douglas proclaiming the signature speech from the movie, "I Am Spartacus." At which point new Academy President Hawk Koch (don't you love that name) proclaimed on stage, "I Am Spartacus," only to have retiring Academy President Tom Sherak shriek from the audience, "I Am Spartacus," followed by every male member of the audience rising and screaming, "I Am Spartacus." It was exhilarating and fun.
I have a particular interest in this film because it was based upon a novel written by a close friend, Howard Fast, who I met in the early fifties when I optioned the film rights to his Freedom Road novel for Sidney Poitier to star in the drama about former slaves during Reconstruction. Fast told me he had started writing Spartacus in prison in '51; he was serving a three-month sentence for Contempt of Congress, refusing to name the contributors to a fund for a home for orphans of Spanish Civil War veterans (Eleanor Roosevelt was one). Howard self-published the novel and proudly boasted to me that he had sold almost all of the 50,000 copies of Spartacus, which he had printed. Later, in '58, Crown Publishing came out with a regular edition of the book and broke the literary blacklist. When I was production head of Cinerama and we made the epic How The West Was Won, we hired Howard years later to write the television scripts for that series. He died in 2003 in Connecticut, still a fiery left-wing rebel and stalwart friend. His son, novelist Jonathan, married writer Erika Jong and their daughter, Mollie, is a noted novelist. Must be in their genes.
I remember when novelist Fast was hired by Kirk Douglas, whose company had optioned the film rights to the novel in '57, to do the first draft of the script. Kirk and producer Edward Lewis had optioned film rights to the book and when his option expired, he extended it for one dollar on the condition that Fast could write the screenplay. Fast was having difficulties writing it and was somewhat irate when he was fired by Kirk in favor of Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, had been blacklisted by the movie industry and was writing scripts (Roman Holiday, The Brave One) under the name of Sam Jackson when Kirk decided to use him and bravely put his name on the screenplay.
At a dinner party I attended years later, hosted by Anne and Kirk (where I first met my dear friend Dinah Shore), Kirk told us that he had optioned Spartacus because he had been overlooked in favor of Charlton Heston for the lead in William Wyler's Ben-Hur. Again, my personal recollection enters into the narrative because director Stanley Kubrick lived just up Central Park West in Manhattan from my office at 50 CPW and we had become friends via his first producer, Jimmy Harris, who had jointly optioned Pretty Maids All In a Row with me. Kubrick would wander down the street with his camera 'round his neck and spend hours photographing my two pet squirrel monkeys. (See my Huffington article, "Why Monkeys Don't Make Good Pets.") After David Lean turned down an offer to direct, the first director of Spartacus, Anthony Mann, hired by Universal Studios, was fired after a week's shooting of the opening quarry scenes (at Death Valley, Nevada) and Kirk hired the 30-year old Stanley Kubrick to come in. They had worked together on Stanley's first film, Paths of Glory. (Remember those scenes of Kirk plodding through the muddy trenches?) Kubrick read the script on one weekend and resumed shooting the next Monday. All of the film's 167 days was shot in California (San Simeon, Thousand Oaks, the Universal Studio) except for the final battles sequence in Spain, which involved 8,000 Spanish Army troops.
Fast kept me informed abut the turmoil on the set, as Kubrick and Trumbo clashed repeatedly on their views about the roles. I won't go into detail about the plot, but you will recall it is the tale of a slave-turned-gladiator who leads a rebellion against the Roman general Crassus, played by Sir Laurence Olivier. Peter Ustinov won a Supporting Oscar for his role as the slave dealer and Alex North was nominated for his musical score, Robert Lawrence for his editing, while cinematographer Russell Metty won for his stunning look. Tony Curtis played the young Sicilian slave who leaves his master and joins Spartacus, ending with a battle against his leader. There was a subtle homosexual subplot here involving Olivier and Curtis in a bathing sequence, where the patrician attempts to seduce his slave by the analogy of "eating oysters" and "eating snails" to express his opinion that sexual preference is a matter of taste rather than morality. Wikipedia details that this scene was cut from the original release and when it was restored, Olivier's soundtrack was missing... so Anthony Hopkins was brought in to mime the original dialogue. I am indebted to the Academy's prolific and energetic program producer, Randy Haberkamp (a whirlwind of smart ambition and execution), for many incidental facts about the film, including that Kirk's legendary agent, Lew Wasserman, sent the Trumbo script to clients Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton and enticed them into the film. He also told me that the original German actress who was picked to play the slave girl, Varinia, Spartacus' love interest, was replaced by Stanley with the lovely and talented Jean Simmons.
I am grateful to Wikipedia for also informing me that the film, with its final budget of $12 million and cast of 10,500, was the most successful in Universal's history to date, only to be superseded a decade later by Airport. They said that President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the movie and helped to end the blacklisting.
In the climactic scene, you will recall that the recaptured slaves are all asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency... and one after another they each proclaim themselves to be Spartacus, knowing they will share his fate of cruxification by so doing. Resonances of the political environment of that era, when so-called Communist sympathizers would not identify their fellows. So, yes, I too am Spartacus!
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org