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Taste Test: Spartacus (1960) vs. Gladiator (2000)

July 2nd, 2009 · 14 Comments

Spartacus, 1960, poster Gladiator, 2000, poster

By Joe Valdez

What the *&#! Are They About?
In the mines of the Roman province of Libya, slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) sinks his teeth into the ankle of a guard, earning himself a death sentence. Recognizing an unbroken spirit he could mold into something great, slave merchant Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) purchases the condemned and returns with him to the city of Cupua, where Batiatus operates a gladiator school. Spartacus proves as agile intellectually as he is physically, though fellow slave Draba (Woody Strode) refuses his friendship, given that they may have to fight each other one day. Granted time alone with slave girl Varinia (Jean Simmons), Spartacus becomes enraptured with her.

Roman general Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives with a small party and requests to see two pairs of gladiators fight to the death. After the blood spectacle, Crassus buys Varinia, so outraging Spartacus that he launches a slave revolt. Moving from town to town, the rebellion grows in strength. In the Roman Senate, Gracchus (Charles Laughton) shrewdly dispatches the garrison of Rome to extinguish the uprising, paving the way for Julius Caesar (John Gavin) to take control of Rome and hold the ambitions of Crassus in check. Reunited with Varinia and befriending an escaped slave (Tony Curtis), Spartacus moves on Rome.

Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in <em>Spartacus</em>

Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons in Spartacus

In the year 180 A.D., General Maximus (Russell Crowe) leads 5,000 Legionaries in a spirited victory over the last Germanic tribe holding out against the Roman Empire in northern Europe. Visiting the battlefront, the aging caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) bequeaths protection of Rome to Maximus in the hopes that the people will resume control of the Senate from corrupted politicians. When hearing of the secession, the caesar’s ambitious male heir Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) murders his father, while his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) aligns herself with Commodus in order to protect her young son Lucious (Spencer Treat Clark) from harm.

Maximus escapes execution in the forest, but is unable to save his wife and son from crucifixion. Taken for a deserter, he ends up in Zucchabar, the property of a freed gladiator and merchant named Proximo (Oliver Reed). Expected to meet a quick death in the gladiatorial pits of Morocco, Maximus, along with slaves Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Moeller) survives and becomes a favorite of provincial crowds. In Rome, Commodus assumes power by reviving the spectacle of gladiatorial contests in the Roman Coliseum. There, Maximus wins over the urban mob and vows to stay alive long enough to have his revenge over Commodus.

Russell Crowe and Djimon Hounsou in <em>Gladiator</em>

Russell Crowe and Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator

The genesis of Spartacus was with author Howard Fast — a member of the American Communist Party — who in 1950 was sentenced to three months in a federal prison for contempt of Congress, refusing to name suspected Communist contributors to a home for orphans of Spanish Civil War veterans. Once a prisoner, Fast used the prison library and his newfound sympathy for the disempowered to research the Roman slave rebellion of 71 BC. Fast would self-publish Spartacus in 1951. The book came to the attention of the wife of producer Edward Lewis in late 1957. Lewis was the business partner of Kirk Douglas in the actor’s Bryna Productions.

Douglas took Spartacus to United Artists, which was moving ahead with their own Spartacus project: The Gladiators, set to star Yul Brenner. Undeterred, Douglas renegotiated a 60-day extension on the property with Fast. When the author was unable to turn in a suitable draft quickly enough, Lewis and Douglas turned to Dalton Trumbo, the highly regarded screenwriter who’d spent 11 months in prison for contempt of Congress. On the strength of an adaptation Trumbo cranked out in three weeks, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton signed on, The Gladiators folded and Universal Pictures stepped up to finance Spartacus.

Kirk Douglas and Peter Ustinov in <em>Spartacus</em>

Kirk Douglas and Peter Ustinov in Spartacus

Dalton Trumbo had been in steady employment since his prison term — working on Roman Holiday, among others — but Kirk Douglas insisted that Trumbo receive screen credit, breaking the decade long Hollywood blacklist against talent with former ties to the Communist Party. Douglas, Olivier, Ustinov nor Laughton treated Trumbo’s dialogue as scripture, allegedly generating much of their own. Regardless of who what wrote line, Trumbo’s craftsmanship is evident. The unyieldly source material is given powerful dramatic momentum throughout, while a strong sense of character is never lost amid the tremendous and tremendously expensive set pieces.

David Franzoni became interested in gladiators after he’d dropped out of grad school. Bumming around the world, he was in Baghdad when he swapped a book on the Irish revolution with one titled Those About To Die, a 1958 study of the Roman Coliseum by Daniel Mannix. 20 years later, a biopic Franzoni had written on George Washington came to the attention of Steven Spielberg. While adapting Amistad for the director in Rome, Franzoni began researching what became Gladiator. Franzoni took some of his research to producer Douglas Wick, who saw contemporary parallels to a society distracted from the important issues by entertainment.

Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix in <em>Gladiator</em>

Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator

Franzoni’s pitch to Spielberg and DreamWorks executives Walter Parkes & Laurie MacDonald for a movie set in the gladiatorial pits of the Roman Coliseum was enthusiastically received. The “sword and sandal” genre had been dead in the 40 years since Spartacus, but Franzoni and Wick thought the ancient world could be brought to life not just by computer imagery, but developing the story as a modern day morality play. Though Franzoni had provided a blueprint for Gladiator, playwright John Logan was brought in to improve the characters. Logan was credited with crafting most of the best dialogue that made it into the film.

After a cast reading at Shepperton Studios two weeks before the start of shooting, it was felt the script still wasn’t ready. Douglas Wick reached out to playwright William Nicholson, who streamlined the plot and made the characters more likable. Instead of a revenge story, Nicholson hinged Gladiator on the love Maximus felt for his family and highlighted his transience toward a pagan afterlife. “Script by committee” is usually a recipe for disaster, but Gladiator is an exception. The toil of numerous scribes, producers and studio executives resulted in exciting action sequences, terrific dialogue, complex characters and a story with a deep emotional core.

Russell Crowe in <em>Gladiator</em>

Russell Crowe in Gladiator

Writing edge: Gladiator

Howard Fast was not thrilled about Kirk Douglas playing Spartacus — finding the actor and some of his choices lacking in nobility — but along with the star, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton were always the first choices for their roles. Searching for a female lead with a Germanic look after Ingrid Bergman and Jeanne Moreau passed, Douglas settled on Sabine Bethmann, who lost the role of Varinia after three weeks of filming, replaced by Jean Simmons. The supporting cast is just as notable: Woody Strode, Herbert Lom (as a Sicilian pirate) and Charlie McGraw as the freed gladiator who proves Spartacus’ tormentor in particular.

Tony Curtis and his Brooklyn accent are not the easiest to buy as an escaped slave who becomes Spartacus’ most trusted advisor. The rest of the main cast is one for the ages. Some of the greatest screen actors in Hollywood history were available when Spartacus went into production and at least three are in the movie. Olivier and Laughton show no conscience gobbling up the scenery as longtime foes in the Roman Senate. Ustinov brings much needed wit and humility to the role of the slave merchant Batiatus. The athleticism and intensity of Kirk Douglas seem better suited to the role of Spartacus than perhaps any in his stoic film career.

John Hoyt and Laurence Olivier in <em>Spartacus</em>

John Hoyt and Laurence Olivier in Spartacus

There was some talk of Mel Gibson being offered the role of Maximus, but Russell Crowe was quickly settled on as a better fit for the part. After leading roles in two critically acclaimed films — L.A. Confidential and The Insider — Crowe was more familiar in Hollywood than by name in the general public. Casting Commodus, Jude Law was screen tested, but director Ridley Scott had worked with Joaquin Phoenix on a movie he’d produced called Clay Pigeons and was intrigued enough to push for him as the morally bankrupt caesar. Connie Nielsen and Djimon Hounsou bring strength and agility with their obvious physical attributes as performers.

Louis Di Giaimo
was the casting director and to whatever degree he was responsible for filling out the supporting roles, Gladiator was extraordinarily well cast. Richard Harris seemed reinvigorated on screen as the dying emperor; his moments with Crowe and his death scene are tremendous. Oliver Reed returned from 20 years of anonymity and steals the film as the charismatic slave merchant, the last father any of his men will have. Reed unfortunately died of a heart attack at the age of 62 with three weeks of shooting to go. Derek Jacobi, Ralf Moeller and bodybuilding legend Sven-Ole Thorsen (as the tiger gladiator) give commendable performances.

Ralf Moeller, Djimon Hounsou and Russell Crowe in <em>Gladiator</em>

Ralf Moeller, Djimon Hounsou and Russell Crowe in Gladiator

Casting edge: Even

Production value

Spartacus went into production January 1959 in Death Valley under the direction of Anthony Mann, who’d shot a number of successful westerns for Universal. Good with action and crowds, Mann was overwhelmed by Douglas, Olivier and Ustinov, prima donna writer-directors each pushing to do things their way. After three weeks, Mann asked to be let go. Douglas called up a promising 30-year-old director under contract to his production company. Busy developing a screen adaptation of Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita, Stanley Kubrick agreed on a Friday night to take over the $12 million budgeted Spartacus. He arrived on the set Monday morning.

Unable to make changes to the script he’d inherited, Kubrick did benefit from the work of Saul Bass, the acclaimed graphic designer who’d created title sequences for Anatomy of a Murder and North By Northwest. In addition to the majestic title sequence he would design for Spartacus, Bass had also been tasked with location scouting and with designing the gladiator school. Three weeks of second unit photography took place in Spain — utilizing the Spanish army for the shots of thousands of marching soldiers — though most of the battle was actually shot on the Universal backlot. Russell Metty served as director of photography.

Peter Ellenshaw was a matte artist on <em>Spartacus</em>

Peter Ellenshaw was a matte artist on Spartacus

Stanley Kubrick would sever his business relationship with Kirk Douglas following Spartacus, resenting his lack of creative control over the production. After decades of disowning the blockbuster, the visionary director conceded late in life that Spartacus turned out better than he felt at the time. In spite of being a director for hire, Kubrick did replace Sabine Bethmann with Jean Simmons and insisted on playing classical music during a number of key scenes, heightening the performances of Douglas, Simmons and Woody Strode. Elegantly composed visually, Spartacus has a more humane feel than any picture Kubrick would ever direct.

Ridley Scott was on the short list of directors whose finesse for creating worlds and spectacle was well suited for Gladiator. Knowing that Scott was a graphic designer, Douglas Wick and Walter Parkes presented him with a 19th century painting by Jean-Léon Gérômeen titled “Thumbs Down”. More so than their pitch or the script, it was the gladiatorial painting that won Scott over. The exacting director was used to taking his time, but seemed reinvigorated by his experience with Gladiator. At one point, Scott wanted Maximus to fight a rhinoceros and storyboarded the sequence, before the reality of working with either live rhinos or a $1 million CG facsimile scotched the idea.

John Nelson and Mill Film supervised visual effects for <em>Gladiator</em>

John Nelson and Mill Film supervised visual effects for Gladiator

Gladiator commenced shooting February 1999 in Surrey, England, in an area the Royal Forestry Commission had slated for deforestation. Collaborating with director of photography John Mathieson, Scott had the entire German front sequence — the first act of the film — finished in just over three weeks. For the provincial scenes, production designer Arthur Max built an arena into the side of an ancient village at Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco. The third act of the film was shot in Malta, where the Roman Coliseum was partially rebuilt out of plaster and plywood at a cost of $1 million, with the upper tiers and other elements added in with CG.

I didn’t care for Gladiator when it opened. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon had the narrative elegance and emotional power and Gladiator was buttered popcorn to me. But the 155-minute theatrical version of Gladiator has been supplemented on DVD with an extended cut clocking in at 171 minutes. Reinserted are a conspiratorial scene between Lucilia and Graccus, Commodus hacking away at a bust of his father and a terrific scene where Commodus supervises the execution of two Centurions. As with Kingdom of Heaven, the extended cut of Ridley Scott’s epic contains more texture and intelligence than the box office friendly version.

Kirk Douglas and Charles McGraw in <em>Spartacus</em>

Kirk Douglas and Charles McGraw in Spartacus

Production value edge: Gladiator

With the exception of Stanley Kubrick, the greatest contributor to the success of Spartacus would be Alex North, who composed the vibrant musical score. For the film’s preservation on laserdisc by the Criterion Collection in 1991, Peter Ustinov would comment that the only thing that ages the film for him is its music. It is hard to imagine Stanley Kubrick going with something so romantic if he’d had his way, but North’s marvelous score is Old Hollywood at its finest. It doesn’t punctuate the action as music by John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith would have years later, but sets the table for a big time movie going experience.

Again, time has evened out the grouchy reaction I had of Gladiator after it swept the Academy Awards over Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, particularly where music is concerned. Normally a big time hater of the bombastic scores Hans Zimmer turns in for Jerry Bruckheimer productions, I’m actually enamored of his work on Gladiator. Instead of coming on like a psychic jackhammer, Zimmer’s score is mysterious and majestic, the soundtrack I would have between my ears if transported to the Roman Empire. Zimmer collaborated here with Australian vocalist Lisa Gerrard, whose Mediterranean flavor is used in just the right doses.

Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in <em>Spartacus</em>

Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in Spartacus

Music edge: Gladiator

Cultural impact
Through its original theatrical run, re-release in 1967 and restoration in 1991, Spartacus would earn $11.1 million in the U.S. That was enough to make it the third highest grossing film released in 1960, back when tickets were 25 cents. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it won four: Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Beyond its legacy as one of the most entertaining roadshow epics of the 1960s, Spartacus defied social conservatives like the American Legion, which vilified the film for giving two “Commies” a writing credit. As a result, Spartacus broke the Hollywood blacklist.

Opening May 2000, Gladiator was a global blockbuster, grossing $187.7 million in the U.S. and $269.9 million overseas. A hit all over the world, the film definitely had its impact felt in Hollywood, which quickly greenlit Master and Commander, The Last Samurai, Cold Mountain, Troy, King Arthur and finally, Kingdom of Heaven, briefly restoring the historical epic to prominence among studio production slates. Gladiator would be nominated for 12 Academy Awards and win five: Best Picture (Douglas Wick, David Franzoni, Branko Lustig), Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Costume Design (Janty Yates), Best Sound and Best Visual Effects.

Cultural impact edge: Spartacus

Russell Crowe in <em>Gladiator</em>

Russell Crowe in Gladiator

Winner: Gladiator

Spartacus will always be one of the grand entertainments of the 1960s and significant for breaking the Hollywood blacklist along the way. Gladiator won lots of awards and made some people very rich. Both were being written as they were being filmed, an early indicator of total fucking disaster. Yet both have achieved status as classics. Personally, I find Gladiator to be the better film, the state of the art in story, casting, music and of course, visual effects. Maybe in 40 years, it will look as dated as Spartacus, but today, it reigns supreme among historical epics, with Master and Commander in its rearview mirror.

Your thoughts?

Tags: Based on novel · Bathtub scene · Brother/sister relationship · Dreams and visions · Famous line · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Sword fight

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph R. Valdez // Jul 3, 2009 at 3:09 am

    I happpen to agree with your analysis. Most striking is its ending where you ask “what are your thoughts?” How rare in a society where we are TOLD what to think and even having a commentator read to us. “THANK YOU”, but when we’re reading along on the screen while the commentator is reading the exact thing aloud for us do they assume we’re illiterate too?

  • 2 Croc // Jul 3, 2009 at 5:18 am

    A very bold result but after your thorough analysis, I have to admit you somewhat persuaded me. Damn, your writing and witty, informative review is really one of the best on and off the internet.

  • 3 AR // Jul 3, 2009 at 5:41 am

    Interesting choice of winner.

    I haven’t seen Spartacus in a really long time. It’s definitely on the list of movies to watch again, especially since it’s Kubrick. The screenshot w/the matte painting looks fantastic.

    As far as Gladiator, I’ve always felt in the minority of film geeks who actually like the film. I’m not sure it should have won Best Picture, but as far as historical epics go, I think it deserves classic status.

  • 4 kelsy // Jul 3, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I’ve never seen Spartacus, although every time I watch That Thing You Do I’m motivated to since Guy declares “I am Spartacus” so many times.

    But Gladiator is a pretty solid film. I wouldn’t call it a favorite of mine, but it’s enjoyable enough. Plus, you’ve got me interested in seeing an extended cut of the movie.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jul 3, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Dad: I don’t think people are illiterate, but must admit that many come fully equipped with short attention spans. Reader feedback is the most enjoyable aspect of writing though, so thank you for commenting.

    Croc: Unless Connie Nielsen comments here soon, your approbation and support remains my favorite. Thanks again for the kind words.

    Amanda: I think a case can be made that unless you had Russell Crowe as your star, the historical epics that came after Gladiator all failed. Crowe may be the only movie star around today who has the same shitkicking swagger as O’Toole or Burton. It takes more than a personal chef and a publicist to lead an army. Crowe has that quality.

    Kelsy: If you want to see what Joaquin Phoenix’s potential was before he started acting like Grizzly Adams, I recommend the extended version of Gladiator. He’s an extraordinarily smart actor and if the theatrical version left any doubt, the extended cut proves it. Thanks for commenting!

  • 6 Kalai Strode // Jul 4, 2009 at 2:15 am

    Thank you for an excellent review and comparison of Spartacus and Gladiator. Woody Strode was my father and I was actually on the set when Charles McGraws’ head was dunked into the soup at the gladiator school. If you watch that scene carefully, you may notice that Mr. McGraw clipped his chin on the edge of the cauldron as it went into the soup. The whole time that his head was under water, he was unconscious. Everyone noticed (even me) except Kirk, who was into the scene. The moment Kubrick called “cut,” everyone rushed in and pulled Mr. McGraw’s head out the soup. He was unconscious, to Kirk’s surprise. Kirk Douglas is one of the most generous and talented stars of old Hollywood and I will always be thankful to him for not only giving my father this part as Draba, the Ethiopian, but because he also attended my father’s memorial in 1995.

  • 7 Patrick // Jul 4, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Nice writeup, and a nice reminiscence from Kalai. I think I’m more partial to Spartacus, maybe because I’ve sort of “known” the movie (like an old friend maybe) for 25 years or so. I think it’s a little more poignant – there is the life of hopelessness Spartacus leads as a slave, then the chance of freedom and a normal life, and finally it is taken away.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Jul 4, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Kalai: What an extraordinary career and life your father had. I’ll always remember Woody Strode as “Pompey”, John Wayne’s guardian angel in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as well as his synchronicity with Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. The fact that Douglas attended your father’s memorial in 1995 speaks for itself. What a legend.

    Patrick: I like your observations about Spartacus. I think you almost convinced me! I found Gladiator just as poignant though in its themes, which had less to do with freedom perhaps, but speak to morality. “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Great dialogue from William Nicholson.

  • 9 Rafael // Dec 8, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Kalai – I always thought your father had a great role in “The Last Voyage” myself.

    I have always loved that movie, and particularly enjoyed how well Woody’s role as a seaman aboard a sinking ocean liner trying to save a woman trapped in its wreckage brought out his warm humanity. Your dad seemed like a really cool guy.

  • 10 Scott C. // Mar 22, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    I must disagree and award Spartacus as the better film. As entertaining as Gadiator is, it pales to the
    majesty of Spartacus imo.

  • 11 Ron Rosenberg // Jul 8, 2010 at 11:30 am

    I have to disagree with your verdict. Spartacus
    was one of the greatest and moving epics of all time. Multip;le themes were in balance. Also, produced in 1960, it did NOT have the modern advantages of computer technology. The old Hollywood phrase “Cast in thousand/s, cost in millions” applies! A resounding verdict for Spartacus! Imagine, in ione movie….Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov, etc!!!

  • 12 Hartmut // Apr 11, 2011 at 6:29 am

    I would say Spartacus and Gladiator are equal in just about all aspects and should be seen as two masterpieces not as competitors.
    Who can forget the fight between Draba (the magnificent Woody Strode) and Spartacus?
    Let alone all the many great actors in in. If I had a choice between the two – I would choose Spartacus.

  • 13 joyce edwards // Jun 15, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    Frankly, l loved both movies since I like historical films. I love gladiator movies. There are not enough of them. I would have to say that gladiator is my favorite. I try to watch it every time it is on. Spartacus is a very good movie also.

  • 14 Susu // Aug 6, 2014 at 10:04 am

    I love history, and to me, Gladiator is a masterpiece. It is the most accurate picture of the Roman Empire Hollywood has ever put out. People declare Spartacus a masterpiece, but Gladiator far outdoes Spartacus in quality. The costuming, the acting, the screenplay, the scenery, and the fighting styles made me think that I had traveled back to 180 A.D. Russell Crowe is a true Hollywood tough guy, and he is superb in this movie. Joaquin Phoenix is outstanding as a villain, one of the best in movie history. He played his character as if it were a psychologist’s dream case. Connie Nielsen plays one of the strongest female characters that I have ever seen. The choreographer of the action sequences was brilliant. Ridley Scott did an outstanding job in recreating the Empire, including the multitude of ethnic groups within the Empire and accurately depicting everyday life. If you’re looking for insight into what the Roman Empire was like, this is a perfect depiction.

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