Thursday, 26 January 2017

Spartacus

I fear it may be impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the political climate of the time.
However, this is supposed to be a light-hearted review, so I don't want to weigh it down.
If you want to know the details, you can read up on it here.
With that out of the way, who am I talking about?
This guy.
The first thing I notice about this movie is the sheer length. I own the extended edition, so it clocks in at over 3 hours.
So watching this movie feels like a marathon by itself.
At first I think something's wrong with my disc, since there's no picture.
Either that or this film's making a very serious point about the futility of human endeavour.
Turns out that the version I have includes extra music, but they had no footage to go with it, so they just left the screen blank.
After almost 4 minutes the movie gets started with, as I've come to expect these days, a narrator explaining what's going on.
Back then they didn't trust viewers to tell that slavery was bad.
The guy up there with the pick is Spartacus, our main character. He was born into slavery and sold to work the quarry due to his rebelliousnous. However, on this particular day the slave next to him collapses and almost falls down the steep quarry wall, but Spartacus saves him, sacrificing the stone to do so. 
As you can imagine his Roman masters are none to pleased, so they start beating Spartacus, who fights back.
If only Spartacus had met Achilles, that would have been a much different story.
Spartacus is subdued and chained to a rock to die, only to be spotted by a visiting slave merchant named Batiatus. He runs a gladiator school and thinks Spartacus's rebellious nature would suit that line of work, so he buys him.
Spartacus is not really in a position to complain.
Batiatus buys many more slaves before travelling back to his home in Italy. As he walks through his house we get a look at the life of opulence he leads, with slaves all over the place.
Some slaves exist seemingly just to make a corner look better.
Batiatus' steward informs him that they'll make a profit of 11,000 Sestertius's, which is a very subtle way of showing just how much money is dropped later.
Batiatus meets with his chief trainer, Marcellus, and points out Spartacus as a rebel to keep an eye on.
Batiatus then gives a speech to his new purchases, explaining that they are to become gladiators. He also explains that a good gladiator is treated like a stallion, given good food, massages and women. If they survive and impress long enough, they may even earn their freedom like Marcellus.
Though he doesn't explain just how limited future career prospects were.
Whilst he's talking Spartacus notices a singe black man among the gladiators in training.
After the new slaves are shaved, bathed and branded Marcellus welcomes them with a speech of his own. He picks out Spartacus and instructs a guard to give him a sword, allowing Spartacus a chance to kill him., saying that it's the only chance he'll ever get.
Spartacus plays it smart and refuses, because this would be a much shorter movie otherwise.
Later, as they wash off the sweat from their first day, Spartacus attempts to befriend Draba, the black guy from earlier, but Draba refuses, saying that friendship would just make things difficult if they get picked to fight to the death one day.
Can't really argue with that logic.
Even later, the female slaves are given to the male slaves as rewards for hard work.
That sentence disgusts me.
However, the slave played by Jean Simmons is given to Spartacus, who refuses to do anything to her, proclaiming himself to be more than an animal.
Pretty sure the peanut gallery didn't help.
Varinia (Jean's character) responds that she's not an animal either.
When they get a rather traditional montage of the slaves training to become gladiators, with a few moments between Spartacus and Varinia, to help sell the growing feelings between them.
It also gives us some chances to see just how cruel and petty Marcellus is. He may have been a gladiator himself, but that doesn't mean he has any empathy towards them.
In other words, he's a smug bugger and we won't need to feel sorry when he inevitably dies.
Finally the plot gets underway when guests arrive at Batiatus's school. He is at first unimpressed until it's revealed that one of them is a man named Crassus, who's rather an important military figure. Batiatus's reaction is genuinely funny.
First he orders the bust of Gracchus covered up (Since Gracchus and Crassus are rivals), then he requests his second-best wine. Which he quickly changes to his best wine, but with small goblets.
And yes, we do meet Gracchus later, so having this bust was a subtle but effective way to introduce their rivalry.
Batiatus ingratiates himself to his guests, reeling off their accomplishments and those of their families. 
And since they came a long way to visit a gladiator school, the two women request a match each. Batiatus happily agrees, until they ask that it be to the death.
To his credit Batiatus refuses, saying that it would destroy their moral, although he does seem more concerned with how much it will cost him.
So Crassus offers him a large sum of money. How large? 25,000 Sestertius's. Even if the 11,000 figure quoted earlier was just a months' profit rather than a years-worth, it's still enough to sway him.
Crassus is also rather smitten by Varinia, whom he later purchases.
The two female guests select which gladiators they wish to see fight to the death and, naturally, Spartacus and Draba are selected to battle.
I'd make a joke about her taking "The big, black one" but the movie did it for me.
First the other two fight, one of which is Crixus, a friend of Spartacus from the quarry.
In an interesting (And very Kubrickian) decision, we don't see much of their fight, the camera holding steady on Spartacus's face as we hear the sounds of the battle. After a few minutes the fighting ends and Crixus survives.
He and Draba also stare at each other a lot.
And now it's Spartacus's turn to fight for his life. He puts in a good showing against Draba, but ends up injured against the wall with his weapons out of reach. Just as Draba lowers his trident to Spartacus's neck, he changes his mind, instead throwing it at the Romans.
This action gets him killed.
I knew the black dude would die first.
Crassus grabs a dagger and finishes off the already injured Draba, who gets strung up by the ankles to serve as a warning to the other slaves.
As you can probably guess, the slaves have different ideas.
The day after the Romans leave Spartacus spots Varinia being escorted away whilst he's having lunch. Between Varinia being sold and Draba being strung up, he loses it and attacks Marcellus, drowning him in one of the soup pots.
Apparently it needed more salt.
Crixus and some other slaves kill the guards, which kicks off a riot. Batiatus jumps on the wagon and leaves with Varinia. Behind him, Spartacus and the slaves topple the fences and escape the compound, fleeing into the hills.
School must have been bigger than I thought. That's a lot of slaves.
A few months later, a wealthy Roman is addressing the Senate, trying to get them to agree to send troops to deal with Spartacus and his army, which is continuously growing.
After some back and forth it's eventually decided that Glabrus (The other noble who was with him watching the Spartacus fight) will take some legions to deal with them, leaving the rest under the command of a young man named Julius Caesar.
"Who, me?"
Later, Crassus arrives home to be greeted by several new slaves who are a gift from the governor of Sicily, most notably a young slave named Antoninus, who's pretty much the inspiration for the Bard class in every fantasy setting ever.
Only less well-dressed.
Glabrus meets with Crassus and informs him of his mission, but Crassus seems less than pleased. With Caesar in charge of the Roman garrison Gracchus has almost complete control, whilst Crassus is frozen out.
Glabrusreminds him that he has his own legions which he could march into Rome but Crassus shoots him down.
Rome's most ancient law states that no General may enter Rome at the head of his own army.
 Crassus wishes to control Rome, but not at the cost of everything it stands for. It would only weaken his claim and possibly cost him everything.
Just because he's the bad guy doesn't mean he's an idiot.
Meanwhile, the slave revolt has caught some rich Romans, whom they force to fight inside the very arena Draba died in.
The men bet on who will win whilst drinking wine, but Spartacus is unimpressed.
You can tell he's angry by how much he's scowling.
Spartacus lets the Romans go and has a rant at his men. They are supposed to be better than the Romans, not worse. They don't have to be a mindless band of thugs.
When his men question what they are going to do, Spartacus comes up with a plan. When they have enough gold, they will pay off some pirates near the coast to grant them safe travel to Africa, where they can find somewhere safe from the Romans to settle down and live as free men.
Meanwhile, Gracchus has taken in a now destitute Batiatus. Batiatus explains that the whole slave rebellion is pretty much the fault of Crassus and his hubris, with Batiatus getting caught in the crossfire. Crassus even refused to pay him for Varinia, since she escaped before she could be delivered to Rome. Gracchus shows concern and offers an advanced payment of 500 for Varinia, not because he wants her (He's never met her) but because it would annoy Crassus, which is far more important to him.
Not that he doesn't like women though, he certainly owns enough of them.
Speaking of Crassus, he's having a bath and being personally served by Antoninus. They have a discussion about liking oysters and snails which is very clearly a metaphor for sexuality. And if you think it's shocking that a movie from the '60s would be willing to discuss bisexuals so blatantly well, you'd be right. The scene was considered too shocking and was edited out for later. The sound was lost to time, but Antoninus's actor willingly came back to re-record it for posterity in 1991 (Laurence Olivier had sadly already died before then).
Gee, I can't imagine what 1960s America could have possibly disliked about this scene.
Crassus goes on to talk about the might of Rome and how someone would have to be crazy to stand against it.
And as he talks, Antoninus runs away.
"I swear I left him right here."
We get another extended training montage of Spartacus and his men as they prepare to battle the might of Rome. His army continues to free more slaves to add to their ranks, including Varinia and Antoninus. They at first mock Antoninus for not being a fighter, but are soon entertained by his magic tricks.
Although Spartacus does end up with egg on his face.
One of the men asks Antoninus to sing, and he does. Spartacus is clearly moved by the song and both he and Varinia retire from the group. 
Spartacus waxes poetic for a while about the meaning of freedom, pointing out that he knows how to fight, but nothing else. He can't even read. But he wants to know, to learn, to discover. He asks questions such as "Where does the Sun go at night?" and "Why don't birds fall?"
Quite frankly, Spartacus was a natural born scientist, but because he was born a slave, he never got to become the man he could have. And this is why he fights, so that freedom can be ended and all men can be who they could be.
Then they have sex.
Later, as Spartacus and Antoninus discuss tactics, they are interrupted by the arrival of a rich foreigner. He arrives by litter (A covered seat carried by 8 slaves) and asks to speak to the slave general.
So Spartacus orders that the litter-bearers be taken indoors away from the rain, then given food and their freedom, since there are no slaves in his camp.
He really should have seen that coming.
His name is Tigranes Levantus and he holds up his credentials, which Antoninus reads aloud. He represents Silicia, who are fighting against the Romans and wish to make a bargain with Spartacus.
For the princely sum of 50 million Sestertis, 500 ships will wait at the city of Brundusium in 7 months. Spartacus gives Levantus a chest of gold up front and promises the rest later.
This scene shows us what Spartacus's plan for freedom actually is, and just what stands in his way.
Most of Italy.
They're in Capua. It's not a short journey.
Laventus explains that he doesn't think Spartacus will actually win, especially since six cohorts of Roman soldiers are on their way.
Which, it turns out, is something Spartacus hadn't heard about.
So it's rather a good thing Laventus thought to mention it.
Good for Spartacus that is. Not so good for Glabrus.
Glabrus asks what's going to happen to him and Spartacus admits that he's not sure. One of him suggests that he fight in a matched pair, but Glabrus refuses to fight like a gladiator.
This does not best please Spartacus.
He takes a baton he found in Glabrus's tent, which has the symbol of the Roman Senate on it. He snaps it in two and tells Glabrus to take it back to Rome.
That baton ends up like all of Glabrus's hopes and dreams.
After the intermission (And yes, the DVD does pause the movie here) Glabrus has returned to the senate. He's back in smart clothes and explaining that if they leave Spartacus alone, he'll leave them alone.
I'm amazed they bother listening to Glabrus at all, considering.
Glabrus names Spartacus as the leader, which Crassus takes note of.
However, upon being questioned as to exactly how 6 cohorts got wiped out, Glabrus admits his mistakes. Despite Gracchus trying to defend him, Crassus banishes Glabrus from Rome for incompetence.
In other words, he got thrown under the bus.
Crassus announces that he'll share in the disgrace and that he will retire to private life, but Gracchus loudly disagrees. He announces to the senate that he knows what Crassus wants, a dictatorship, which Gracchus won't stand for. he'll take a corrupt but free senate over no freedom any day.
Over 2,000 years later and politics still hasn't improved.
Meanwhile, Spartacus and his army march Westwards towards Brundusium.
I think this screenshot is giving me vertigo.
During a quiet moment between Spartacus and Varinia, she reveals that she's pregnant with his baby.
Meanwhile, the senate are arguing again. One of the old men wants to allow Spartacus to leave, figuring that they've done enough damage, but Julius Caesar disagrees, arguing that if they're allowed to go free then it would send a message to all slaves that they can be free if only they fight for it.
The idea of simply not owning slaves anymore never enters their heads.
Gracchus agrees with Caesar, pointing out that their armies are stretched thin. They have a war in Spain and another in Asia. They are cut off from their Egyptian grain supplies by pirates. With Spartacus raiding farmsteads across Southern Italy, the people of Rome are struggling for bread.
As such, he persuades the senate to instate Caesar as the permanent head of the Roman garrison and to prepare two legions to intercept Spartacus before the city of Metapontum.
Cut to: Spartacus entering Metapontum.
Unfortunately the movie didn't have the budget to show the battle itself, so we must make do with an after-battle report given to some of the senate members.
Whilst in the bath, naturally.
Crassus has a few words with Caesar, all but accusing him of turning against him. Caesar believs that Rome is its' people, whilst Crassus thinks of Rome as an idea.
Arguments can be made for both, but it's clear that we're meant to sympathise more with Caesar, since his view involves making sacrifices of his own comfort to better serve the people.
Gracchus arrives and informs them both that Rome is sending 8 legions to deal with Spartacus. Crassus correctly predicts that he's going to be asked to lead them, asking only that he gets to be made dictator.
He doesn't say that of course, preferring to refer to it as a means to an end, that end being order.
Gracchus points out that the senate won't agree, but Crassus is certain that, given enough time, they'll change their minds.
Privately Gracchus tells Caesar that Crassus is right. But he has a plan to prevent Crassus from achieving his goals. Gracchus has made a deal with the pirates who are due to smuggle Spartacus's army out of Italy. The Romans won't even attempt to stop them. This way, Spartacus will get what he wants, the crisis will be over and, best of all, Crassus will be forced to remain in retirement.
And Caesar will get to remain sweaty and beefy.
Meanwhile, Spartacus and his army camp 20 miles North of their goal, Brundusium. Everything is going well and they make arrangement for moving all of their people onto the boats.
Unfortunately, Levantus arrives with bad news. Due to two different Roman armies arriving in the area, one by land and one by sea, the pirates have withdrawn their ships.
Meaning that Spartacus and his people are stuck between both armies, with nowhere t escape to.
Spartacus does not take the news well.
It turns out that while Gracchus had made a deal with the pirates, Crassus made a better one.
Spartacus sits and thinks for a little while, eventually working out Crassus's plan. The only way Spartacus can avoid being outflanked is to march back towards Rome, where Crassus will lead an army to defeat them and, in the process, defeat the senate as well.
Levantus offers to smuggle Spartacus and a select few out of Italy and allow them to live like kings, but Spartacus dismisses the idea without a second thought.
That night, whilst Crassus is granted full power over Rome, Spartacus gives a speech to his people.
It's a very lovely sight.
The speech is probably one of the better ones Hollywood has ever done, which is surprising considering that it's also the most pessimistic.
It's essentially what Braveheart tried to emulate, only without the silly line about losing lives but not freedom.
And so, the armies of Crassus and Spartacus march towards each other. However, Crassus reveals to his commanders that the armies of both Pompey and Lucallus are within striking range, surrounding Spartacus without his knowledge.
In other words, he's already won.
Then, to my surprise, Batiatus shows up again. Crassus asks him for information about Spartacus, since Crassus doesn't even know what he looks like. Batiatus complies, telling Crassus everything he knows, in exchange for the chance to be the agent who sells off the captives.
Smarmy bugger. Cunning, intelligent, smarmy bugger.
Crassus orders Batiatus to be kept at camp until after the battle, so that he may identify either Spartacus or his corpse.
Meanwhile, Spartacus is strolling through his own camp. After passing a lot of minor characters on the way, he has a very well-acted weak moment with Varinia, where he asks her to look after their child, his only wish that it be born free.
It's rather telling that one side battles to advance their stations in life, whilst the other battles merely to be free.
The nest day, battle is joined and I have to say, considering when it was filmed, it's done very well. It opens with the Romans sending a thin line of men towards the front of the slave army, but they light logs covered in hay on fire and roll them down the hill.
A note for the director of 300. You can do interesting fights set in ancient times without resorting to lunacy.
And, back then, cheap effects like this were acceptable.
However, whilst Spartacus would probably have beaten Crassus's army, the forces of both Lucallus and Pompey arrive in time to completely overwhelm then.
After the battle, Crassus walks past an incredibly large number of corpses, some of them women and children.
To his credit he seems to be remorseful.
However, a message is read out to the prisoners. Their lives will be spared, though they will remain slaves. On one condition.
They identify Spartacus.
You all know what scene comes next, even if you've never seen the movie.
"I'm Spartacus!"
"I'm Spartacus!"
"I'm Spartacus!"
"I'm Spartacus!"
"I'm Spartacus!"
"I'm Spartacus!"
Crassus leaves and shouts at Batiatus. Since none of the prisoners were willing to identify Spartacus, none of them get to survive, which means Batiatus has nobody to auction.
That is, until they hear a baby crying and find Varinia, who's still alive.
Crassus tells Batiatus to sell all of the surviving women and children, but Varinia and her child are his.
I have nothing to say here. It's genuinely one of the saddest parts of the movie.
Crassus watches as the prisoners are marched past him in chains, ordering them to halt when he spots Antoninus.
He orders that all the prisoners are to be crucified along the roads until they reach Rome, with the exception of Antoninus and the man next to him, who just so happens to be Spartacus.
How unfortunate.
Meanwhile, Batiatus has returned to Rome and is chatting to his friend Gracchus. Batiatus has picked up a few scars on his back due to having been flogged out of camp, something that has only strengthened his resolve against Crassus.
Together they resolve to hurt Crassus in the only way left to them. They formulate a plot to steal Varinia from him.
Which begs the question. Is a noble deed still noble if it's done out of pettiness and spite?
However, they get interrupted by Caesar, who's come to request that Gracchus come to the senate building. Under armed escort.
Once there Crassus tells him that Rome will not be handed to the mob. He has lists of people who are disloyal to him and the gaols are being filled.
It all rather smacks of dictatorship.
I'm trying really hard not to make this political, but it's not easy.
Gracchus asks where his name appears on the list and Crassus points to the very first name.
But Crassus doesn't wish to harm Gracchus. Instead he wishes to use him. While he is to be exiled from Rome in all but name, he will still be a free man, as long as he uses his voice and influence to prevent the people from rebelling against Crassus's new order.
Later, Crassus attempts to woo Varinia.
It's a wonderful scene and not one that lends itself well to description. Suffice to say that there's a reason Laurence Olivier was considered the greatest actor in his lifetime and he even manages to make Crassus seem human, even after everything he's done.
Simple screenshots cannot do this man justice.
Outside, Antoninus and Spartacus sit in chains. Antoninus asks if Spartacus thinks they could have won. Spartacus replies that just by fighting, they won.
"When just one man says 'No, I won't', Rome begins to fear. And we were tens of thousands who said 'No'. That was the wonder of it."
I'm working really hard not to get political right now.
Crassus arrives and they stand. First he looks at Antoninus, then at Spartacus, whom he finally recognises. He attempts to order Spartacus to answer him, but Spartacus just stands there and stares, giving as much defiance as he can.
Crassus orders them to be unchained so that they may fight to the death, the winner getting crucified.
Spartacus attempts to order Antoninus to lower his guard in order to not give them the spectacle, but Antoninus refuses since he cannot allow Spartacus to be crucified.
And so, they end up battling each other to the death in a cruel irony.
It's as heartbreaking as it sounds.
They say their final goodbyes to each other, admitting that they were like father and son, then Antoninus dies in Spartacus's arms.
If you can watch this movie and not cry at this point, then there's something wrong with you.
Crassus takes the opportunity to rub salt in Spartacus's wounds by loudly asking Caesar what he thinks Spartacus would say if he knew that Varinia and her child were still slaves belonging to Crassus.
Apparently, very little.
Spartacus gets crucified and everything ends very miserably. Crassus has finally won, although he now fears a potential revolt from Caesar.
Oh, but there is some good news. Batiatus was successful in sneaking Varinia and her son away from Crassus. Gracchus grants him double the money he promised (2 million Sestertii) and has documents for the three of them which will get them far away.
They may have been selfish, opulent wretches, but they at least have some compassion.
After they leave Gracchus finds his prettiest knife and commits suicide, preferring death to aiding Crassus in any way.
And, as they leave, Varinia spots Spartacus hanging from his crucifix. He's still alive and awake, crying when he realises that they get to be free.
Certainly not the happiest ending, but it's better than nothing.
This movie was amazing, well worth being called a classic.
The acting was incredible, the writing was wonderful and the music was honestly a bit too much at times, but that's just a product of its' time.
If I have any complaints it's that it was very slow to get into, but again I feel that that's more due to movies being so much faster paced now. Even the DVD had an intermission.

Next week we take a turn for the silly, with a movie about a forgetful professor and his sentient green goo.
Flubber!

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