Roger Ebert   3 stars
The movie has as one of its main themes that a man is not an animal. In the beginning of the movie the slave Spartacus,by Kirk Douglas, is working in a mine. Spartacus incurs the wrath of the overseers when he stops working to try to help him. Later he will shout "I am not an animal" to his owner and the main training him to be a gladiator. When he is forced to fight to the death with Draba, Draba cannot kill him and goes to his death instead. We see a theme emerging. Even though one is subjected to tyranny, you must hold on to your humanity. Spartacus then leads the gladiators and slaves in a revolt.
Back in Rome two senators: the republican Gracchus, played by Charles Laughton, and the militarist Crassus, played by Lawrence Olivier, are using the slave revolt to try to consolidate their own power. Crassus says that he has a price for accepting the role of general to crush the slave revolt. He wants
"My election as First Counsel, command of all the legions of Italy and the end of Senatorial authority over the courts."
"Order" Crassus replies. When Crassus is later named First Council, he is greeted by the Senate and the people with a Nazi looking hand salute and then "Hail Crassus." Crassus promises the crowd "The destruction of the slave army and the restoration of order." Spartacus says to his people "
Spartacus says to his people "I'd rather be here, a free man among brothers, facing a long march and a hard fight, than the richest citizen in Rome: fat with food he didn't work for, and surrounded by slaves." He goes on to say "We've traveled a long ways together. We've fought many battles and won many victories. Now, instead of taking ships to our homes across the sea, we must fight again once more. Maybe there's no peace in this world, for us or for anyone else. I don't know. I do know that we're brothers, and as long as we live, we must remain true to ourselves."
When General Crassus later crushes the slave revolt he warns that "In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled. Tomorrow they will learn the cost of their terrible folly... their treason".
In one of the last scenes, after Spartacus has been defeated and captured, a voice says "I bring a message from your master, Marcus Licinius Crassus, commander of ltaly: by command of His Most Merciful Excellency, your lives are to be spared. Slaves you were, and slaves you remain. But the terrible penalty of crucifiixion has been set aside on the single condition that you identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus."
When Spartacus stands up men from all acoss the field stand and say "I'm Spartacus." As a result, all the slaves are crucified along the roadside. No one informs, not even to save themselves from such a horrific fate.
The movie was directed by Stanley Kubrick (who took over for Anthony Mann), but unlike most of Kubrick's movies he did not have much say in the screenplay. The screenplay was almost all Dalton Trumbo's. Blacklisted for years because he refused to testify before the HUAC, Spartacus was Trumbo’s first film where he could openly be identified in the credits without a different pen name.
Dalton Trumbo said the theme of the movie was the struggle for "human freedom" against a dictatorial society dominated by aristocratic elites. He said "Human freedom - the need to secure it, the obligation to defend it, the resolution to die for it - this is the great theme of our time. This is the theme we have sought to dramatize for you in Spartacus. Our film is the story of men and women who opposed totalitarianism with the burning dream of freedom. Men and women who truly believe that any dangerous risk is tenable if brave men will make it so and who in the end prefer to die as free men than to live as slaves. Such must be the choice of free men, whether in the 1st century BC or in the 20th AD. For it seems to be a law of nature, or of history, that men who prefer slavery to death inevitably get both."
Trumbo also wrote "The theme of the film, for which I take full responsibility, is simple and, I feel, curiously appropriate to our times : in waging a life-and-death struggle to keep Spartacus and his followers enslaved, the senate and the people of Republican Rome inevitably produced the conditions for their own enslavement under a dictatorship of the right."
In 2011 Kirk Douglas said in a speech at an AFI luncheon "I made “Spartacus” 50 years ago, I can’t believe it, I was too young. [laughter from the audience] But what a cast! Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov and the beautiful Jean Simmons – gone, all gone. The tragedy of being old is loneliness. You lose so many friends and you live with only the fragments of a memory.
We made “Spartacus” during the McCarthy era. McCarthyism, what a terrible time. Senator Joe McCarthy saw communists everywhere, tearing down the government. He concentrated especially on Hollywood and especially on the writers. He had them all put down oaths at a hearing and if they didn’t answer correctly they were put in jail. The group was called The Hollywood 10. Dalton Trumbo [was] a member of that group and he was put in jail for one year. The heads of other studios were frightened of McCarthy but they have a permit if a writer [uses a] false name, and if he didn’t put his foot in the studio. I chose Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus under the false name Sam Jackson and he was not permitted to put his foot in the studio. I felt like a traitor! I couldn’t take it.
You know, 50 years ago, I was much younger, more impulsive. I gave orders to put Dalton Trumbo’s name on the screen and I insisted that he come to the studio every day. My friends said, Kirk, you’re never going to work again. But when you’re young, you don’t scare easily. You know, I began to think, I am Spartacus. [applause] I am Spartacus, fighting for freedom. Now, Otto Preminger was shooting ‘Exodus’ in New York, also written by Dalton Trumbo, he called me fuming: what are you doing? You know who wrote my script? You can’t do this! I said, Otto, it’s already done. He hung up. [laughter] “Spartacus” was released in theaters, full theaters, kind critics, and no one made a big fuss about using Dalton Trumbo’s name as a screenwriter, and the blacklist were broken."