The story concerns the real-life revolt of the gladiator Spartacus in ancient Rome, which was crushed by the Romans in a timely manner, which left scripter Trumbo with a downer of an ending, which he amusingly tried to repair. Thus, Douglas got to play a really heroic part in which he could flash his chin cleft and act heroic a lot. His performance is a bit of a minimalist joke, full of staring into nowhere and long patches of dialogueless action, but it works well enough. He also is helped out by the movie's style: at 196 minutes, this is a full-blown epic, with lots of scenery and action sequences to help out. Olivier delivers another stellar performance and is reunited with Hamlet co-star Jean Simmons, who does not. Charles Laughton plays yet another crusty politician in his usual expert manner, Peter Ustinov is quite amusing as a cowardly slave-dealer (explaining why he can't stay during a battle, he notes "You don't understand. I'm a civilian. I'm even more of a civilian than most civilians.") and Tony Curtis proves himself an actor of underappreciated range; compare his role here with the performance he gave in Sweet Smell Of Success.
Despite all this, the movies is one of Kubrick's weakest. His disengagement from the script shows in the second half, which features a great many scenes which involve Kirk Douglas walking around his camp (presumably wrapped in reflection) to be observed by admiring liberated former slaves who joined his army who look up (in the glow of a fire, of course) and shed a thankful tear. He also goes heavy on the cute little children. There's also the excruciating ending, which concerns Trumbo's attempts to give the movie a happy ending, despite the fact that slavery ended 2000 years after the revolt.
Oddly enough, Kubrick wanted to take sole credit for the screenplay so that controversy would be avoided. However, Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, got his first screen credit in ten years in the end, prompting conservative wrath to fall upon this movie, which was also based on a (bad) novel by Howard Fast, another Communist. In the end, there is a great deal to like about this movie, as oddly as it fits into the Kubrick cannon. And, of course, it's much better than Ben-Hur.
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