60 Years of Spartacus and Breaking the Blacklist by Mykki Newton

It is an epic film with an epic real-life victory for justice. When Spartacus premiered on October 6, 1960, it immediately changed the political climate in the United States. Even President John F. Kennedy was willing to breakthrough a line of anti-communist protestors just to see the film. Spartacus became the biggest box office hit for Universal Studios up to that time. It won four Academy Awards. It gave people their lives back.

“Like lots of things we do in life, it was much later that I realized the importance of it.”

-Kirk Douglas, 1979 Academy Archive interview

Spartacus was a major turning point in the young career of its now legendary director Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly never liked the film. The censors and studio had a field day ordering cuts and protecting morals with demands such as:

1) The slave costumes will have to provide adequate covering.

2) The whipping is proving to be excessively brutal.

3) We ask that you eliminate the particular use of the word Damn.

4) The loincloth costumes must prove adequate.

5) Eliminate the homosexually suggestive bathing scene.

“Well, the censorship at that time was stupid. I mean, they would cover up things that didn’t make sense.”

-Kirk Douglas, The Last 70mm Film Festival 2012

There was also the more serious concern with the overall script. Using the character of a fiercely independent slave at war with his oppressors, Spartacus was a metaphor for the Hollywood blacklist written by a blacklisted writer. Much like his fiercely independent character, Kirk Douglas was a man who had the courage to standup for his principles, even if it meant sacrificing everything he had.

“I was much younger then and they always said I had much anger in me and just couldn’t stand those situations. And people said, ‘Hey Kirk, don’t use Trumbo’s name. You’ll never work again.” But I did it in spite of that and when you see the screen and you see Written by Dalton Trumbo, you applaud.”

-Kirk Douglas, The Last 70mm Film Festival 2012

Spartacus Opening Credits

Otto Preminger was actually the first director to announce blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo would write his next picture. That picture was Exodus (1960), but it was released two months after Spartacus, so Kirk Douglas gets the lion’s share of the credit for ending McCarthyism. He also blamed the heads of the studios for surrendering to the demands of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Dalton Trumbo testifying before the HUAC (1947)

In 1950, Dalton Trumbo served 11 months in federal prison for contempt of Congress when he refused to name names.

Kirk Douglas didn’t exactly give Dalton Trumbo his career back. Trumbo continued working as a screenwriter while on the blacklist, but he did it using false names. Douglas said it was the hypocrisy of it all that disturbed him. In his 1998 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas said the first day Dalton Trumbo arrived on the set of Spartacus he thanked Douglas for giving him his name back.

“I had a lot of resistance from the studio, but finally I said I won’t do the picture unless we can use his name and the Earth didn’t fall apart and after that I’m proud to say it broke the blacklist and they began to use people’s names who had been unfairly on the blacklist.”

-Kirk Douglas, 1979 Academy Archive interview

Dalton Trumbo (1959)

“The blacklist was a time of one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil...[Looking] back on this will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.”

-Dalton Trumbo

Laurence Olivier as Crassus in Spartacus (1960)

Tony Curtis as Antoninus in Spartacus (1960)

There were other nontechnical challenges faced during the production of Spartacus. Some ended in victory. Some ended in defeat. One of the casualties was the deleted gay bath scene between Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis). Crassus uses oysters as a homosexual metaphor in his attempt to seduce Antoninus, his new body servant. The studio and the censors were not open to negotiations on that one.

Deleted Gay Bathing Scene in Spartacus (1960)

“The first time you see Antoninus he’s in the lineup when Crassus says, ‘I want him for my body servant.” That’s the only indication, ‘Body Servant’ what does that mean. He says body servant and the next thing you know, I’m in the tub washing him. There’s some chat between us, then finally he asks, ‘Antoninus, do you like snails?’ and I say ‘Yeah. Sure.’, then he asks if I like oysters and I say. ‘No, I don’t think so.’ You can see it in the long shot. I’m starting to get an idea of what he’s trying to say to me.”

-Tony Curtis, The Celluloid Closet (1996)

The deleted scene was returned to Spartacus in a 1991 restoration. The original audio was lost, so Tony Curtis returned to voice his character, but Laurence Olivier was no longer alive. So, Olivier’s widow Joan Plowright said she knew someone who did a perfect Laurence Olivier impersonation. It was Anthony Hopkins. Sir Anthony was once a protégé of Sir Larry and he revoiced the role of Crassus for his departed mentor.

Charles Laughton as Gracchus in Spartacus (1960)

I talked to Stanley (Kubrick) a number of times about it (Spartacus) and I think what he liked the best and what I like the best about the picture are all the scenes between

Peter Ustinov as Batiatus in Spartacus (1960)

Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. That was a duel without swords. That was about wit. It was about playing chess with someone who could be your best friend and save your life or someone who could condemn you to the cross.”

-Steven Spielberg, AFI Interview 2003

Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton in Spartacus (1960)

It was Laurence Olivier who ignited another battle. This one with Charles Laughton. Olivier arrived at the studio days before the first reading and days before Charles Laughton, so he had the ear of Kirk Douglas and suggested certain script changes. The rewrites gave Olivier more lines and more prominence in scenes, especially the scenes with Charles Laughton. It made Laughton difficult to work with, so the powers that be asked Peter Ustinov to appease Laughton by rewriter their scenes together.

Ustinov and Laughton spent much of their down-time on the set working on their scenes. One day while the two were sitting outside Laughton’s trailer, one of the large groups of people taking the Universal Studios Tour passed their way. Two women on the tour saw Charles Laughton, ran toward him and with uncontrollable excitement proclaimed him to be “The Greatest!” What transpired next was sheer agony, but hilarious when told by Peter Ustinov.

“Well, Laughton spent most of his time loitering and waiting to be offended, but when he heard that he preened and then the woman said, ‘Your role as Big Daddy was just the greatest thing we ever saw. Isn’t that right, Mabel? Yes, we just loved it.’

Then it turned rancid of course. The two women went away and he was inconsolable. I told him things could be worse. They could realize their mistake and come back, and suddenly there they were.

The woman said, ‘Oh, how can you ever forgive us. Mabel told me afterwards that I made the most ghastly mistake. Oh, I’m so sorry, but I want to tell you something. You’re just as good as Burl Ives.’

Well, that just made things considerable worse until Laughton, eager for his revenge pointed at me and said, ‘I bet you don’t know who this is.’ and the woman looked at me and said, ‘Oh don’t tell me. I’ve got it. Walter Ustinov.’

So, from that moment on, I was Walter Ustinov.”

-Peter Ustinov, 1999 Academy Archive Interview

Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons in Spartacus (1960)

“Well, thank goodness for Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton. I mean, most of the time with Peter, you’re giggling anyway.”

-Jean Simmons, 1985 Television Interview

It was Jean Simmons in the role of Varinia, the slave girl love interest of Spartacus who gave the film romance, and a nude swimming scene which gave the censors another heart attack. Aware of the sensitive nature of the scene, director Stanley Kubrick was careful to show just enough skin to not be nudity, but not be overtly puritan.

Jean Simmons, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960)

“I remember we were doing the scene with Kirk up on his cross at the end and we were rehearsing the scene and suddenly the assistant director called lunch. We all left him on the cross. He took it very well, but I wish I could repeat the word he actually used.”

-Jean Simmons, 1985 Television Interview

Kirk Douglas, Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus (1960)

David Lean turned down the chance to direct Spartacus. Director Anthony Mann was then chosen to command the project, but after the first few days of filming, Kirk Douglas felt Mann wasn’t up to the task and fired him.

In steps 30-year old Stanley Kubrick who directed Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory (1957). With a budget of $12 million and a cast of more than 10,000, Spartacus was by far the largest film project the young director had tackled. It was also one of the rare times Kubrick didn’t have complete control of one of his films. Kubrick and Trumbo fought constantly over the script. Kubrick felt the character of Spartacus had no flaws which weaken its believability. Despite the enormous success of Spartacus, Kubrick distanced himself from the movie after its release.

“Of course, you can’t beat the fight between Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode. The fight in the arena when they’re not supposed to fight to the death, but the gladiator merchant made an exception to satisfy the potential buyer. It was a pretty amazing sequence with the long pitchfork and the net against the short sword.”

-Steven Spielberg, AFI Interview 2003

Woody Strode, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960)

The extreme brutality in Spartacus is a physical representation of the blacklist. It shows in its cruelest form no concern for the powerless individual striped of their humanity by the powerful, the ease at which lives can be sacrificed for the pleasure of a few, and how the fight for survival can force the powerless to kill each other…name names. The most brilliant and poignant scene in the film may be the scene between Spartacus and Crixus (John Ireland) as they sit together silently waiting to fight to the death.

John Ireland as Crixus, Spartacus (1960)

He (Kirk Douglas) is sitting right across from John Ireland and they are staring at each other because they have become friends…something you’re not supposed to do because it’s a bond. You’re not supposed to make friends because you’ll have to kill each other. And they’re sitting in the wooden pen with the sunlight coming through the cracks and they’re listening to the sounds of the fight that’s currently going on outside and thinking about having to fight each other, when suddenly there’s a tremendous explosion of flesh hitting wood as the two combatants in the arena slam into the pen, which is the one thing that takes them out of their thoughts about having to kill each other. That is maybe one of the most classic scenes in Spartacus.”

-Steven Spielberg, AFI Interview 2003

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus (1960)

In 1992, the Writers Guild honored Kirk Douglas for breaking the Hollywood blacklist. He didn’t do it alone and he didn’t do it just by hiring Dalton Trumbo. Before there was a screenplay, there was a book and its author was also a victim of the blacklist.

Howard Fast, HUAC hearings (1950)

Howard Fast refused to testify before the HUAC and was sent to prison for three months. While behind bars, he penned the novel Spartacus. Since he was on the blacklist, no publishing house would touch the book, so he published it himself. The sword of Spartacus that battled the blacklist was very fittingly forged from behind bars.

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