Updated: Feb 7
On the occasion of Kirk Douglas’s death, Phil Butland looks at the political impact of his great film about slave revolt
Spartacus is dead.
Kirk Douglas died on 5th February at the remarkable age of 103. He starred in many great films, not least Paths of Glory – the anti-war drama made in 1957 with Stanley Kubrick. But he will be best known as the writer-producer of Kubrick’s 1960 epic. “Spartacus” is not just a righteous story of a slave revolt. It also made a significant contribution to breaking the McCarthy witch hunts.
Like many Jewish migrants, Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) was forced to change his name to get work. He called his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” because of his poor origins. As he later wrote “My six sisters and I grew up during the Depression era. Our family struggled every day for bread and borscht. My mother struggled every day with my father.” Douglas was a liberal, not a radical, but his experience of poverty and antisemitism led him to challenge right wing authoritarianism.
Spartacus and McCarthyism
In the USA of 1960, one of the clearest symbols of this authoritarianism was the McCarthy witch hunt. McCarthyism is now seen as something which just affected the film industry. And it is true that many actors and film makers did lose work on the flimsiest of grounds. Actor Lionel Stander was forced to testify for whistling the 'Internationale' in the queue for a lift. Ginger Rogers’s own mother denounced her for uttering subversive lines of agitprop like “Share and share alike, that's democracy”. Charlie Chaplin was effectively banned from the US for 20 years
But the attacks went much further than Hollywood. 6.6 million people were investigated and over 20,000 trade unionists lost their jobs. Although these investigations were supposed to uncover Communist subversion, not a single case of espionage was uncovered.
As blacklisted writer, Nora Barzman said “The blacklist was a way of attacking all the unions and progressives. They kicked out all the teachers and the doctors — thousands of workers lost their jobs. They attacked Hollywood because it was high profile and made it easier to create a climate of fear ... People couldn’t get any kind of job. I know people who were turned down for a job in a filling station.”
Spartacus, the film, is clearly an allegory of the fight against McCarthyism. As Crassus, the McCarthyite proto-fascist, played by Laurence Olivier demotes: “The enemies of the state are known, arrests are in progress, the prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled”. The film shows the fight of Spartacus’s disloyal slave army against people like Crassus.
But with the inclusion of writer Dalton Trumbo’s name on the end credits, the film was also an active intervention in contemporary politics. Trumbo was one of the “Hollywood Ten” (originally Eleven before Berthold Brecht fled the country) - film workers who were tried for subversion when they refused to cooperate with the McCarthy investigations. Each was found guilty, sentenced to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
For the 12 years following their 1948 trial, none of the Ten could openly work in the US-American film industry. Some got jobs as labourers, some left the country. Others carried on writing – at a much lower rate of pay – under assumed names. By proudly displaying Trumbo’s name, Douglas was openly challenging the repressive status quo.
The most splendid fellow
Spartacus wasn’t the first “swords and sandals” film about slaves, but Spartacus was not just any old slave. Karl Marx called him “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history”, and when Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht broke from the SPD, they named their new organisation the Spartacus League.
The film is now best remembered – and widely parodied – for the scene towards the end when Roman soldiers come searching for Spartacus. If they find the slave leader, the others will be spared. Just as Spartacus is preparing to give himself up, one after another of his compatriots shout “I’m Spartacus”. This is one of the greatest scenes of solidarity shown on film.
Less commented on is the film's rejection of the modern form of slavery still in the memories of many black US-Americans. In the opening credits, the narrator dreams about “the death of slavery - which would not come until 2,000 years later”. This is a clear sign that the film is not just about Ancient Rome. One of the film’s stars, Woody Strode was one of the first African American athletes to beat the colour bar.
Douglas relentlessly pushed to ensure that the film was released in full – with Trumbo credited. He was not entirely successful. Universal studios made a number of cuts, removing suggestions that some characters were gay and any battles in which the slave army was militarily successful. These scenes finally appeared in a version of the film released in 1991.
A film of its time
McCarthyism would have been broken without Spartacus. McCarthy himself was losing influence, and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott had already started a chain of events that would bring the descendants of African slaves onto the streets to confront the US state. The year after the film’s release saw the Freedom Rides, which brought the nascent Civil Rights Movement to a much wider audience.
Spartacus, the film, was part of this wider struggle against state repression and racism. Its release would not have been possible without the relentlessness of its producer and main star. Douglas was a liberal, but he chose to employ former members of the Communist Party like Trumbo and Howard Fast, who wrote the novel on which Trumbo’s script was based. When forced to make a stand, he didn’t stand down (unlike his friends Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart, but that’s another story).
Douglas never saw Spartacus as being a purely a historical film. In “I am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist”, a book published in 2012, he wrote “The fight for basic human freedom depicted in Spartacus is going on all over the globe from Syria to Iran.”
These fights are still going on, maybe more so given the global rise of the far right. The best way in which we can honour Douglas’s epic is to keep up Spartacus’s fight for a world in which “all people can live in peace and brotherhood”.
This article first appeared on the CinePhil Berliner film blog