Spartacus deluxe lobby cards image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries
Universal-International’s $12 million historical epic Spartacus was released in 1960. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the movie features Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier and a cast of thousands. I am Spartacus!
Howard Fast’s Spartacus Novel
Spartacus is based on the 1951 historical novel of the same name by Howard Fast (1914-2003). Self-published by the author’s own publishing company, Blue Heron Press, Spartacus centers on a slave revolt against Rome in the year 71 B.C.
Kirk Douglas Buys Spartacus Movie Rights
The Spartacus movie story begins in 1957, when filmmaker Eddie Lewis showed actor Kirk Douglas the novel by Howard Fast. Douglas, who owned his own production company, Bryna Productions, then took a movie option on the book.
Douglas first took his proposed film project to United Artists, whose president, Arthur Krim, turned it down as the studio was currently shooting a similar movie titled The Gladiators starring Yul Brynner. Universal-International Pictures, however, had no such historical movie in their future, and agreed to take on Douglas and his gladiator film.
Stanley Kubrick Directs Spartacus
Howard Fast fashioned the first screenplay for Spartacus, but his draft was deemed unacceptable. The producers then turned to Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted screenwriter from the McCarthy Era who began working on his version under the pseudonym “Sam Jackson” in order to avoid any problems.
Anthony Mann was the first director of Spartacus. But when he and Kirk Douglas had a major falling out, 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick was brought in as his replacement.
Noted Hollywood hair stylist Jay Sebring created the hairdos sported by the slaves in the film: a butch cut on top with a small ponytail in back. Sebring was later murdered by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969.
Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis Head Cast
Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Tony Curtis (Antoninus) head the all-star cast. Other major players include Laurence Olivier (Marcus Licinius Crassas), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Sempronius Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Lentulus Batiatus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), John Ireland (Crixus), Herbert Lom (Tigranes Levantus), John Dall (Marcus Publius Glabrus), Charles McGraw (Marcellus) and Woody Strode (Draba).
Originally tapped to play Varinia was the German actress Sabine Bethmann, who was replaced by the British-born Jean Simmons.
Spartacus Filmed in Spain and the United States
Spartacus began shooting on January 27, 1959, with the salt mine sequence in California’s Death Valley National Park.
The huge, realistic battle scenes were filmed in Spain, with 8,500 extras, including elements of the Spanish Army, employed in six weeks of shooting. Later cut from the finished product were several gruesome dismemberment scenes, which had drawn the ire of the National Legion of Decency.
Also employed were 76,000 fans at an October 17, 1959, college football game in East Lansing, Michigan, pitting the Michigan State Spartans versus the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The production company brought in three-channel sound equipment, and at halftime instructed fans to shout lines like “Hail, Crassus” and “I am Spartacus.” These awesome sound effects were later incorporated into the picture, ably simulating the majesty of ancient Rome.
The Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, was used as Crassus’ Roman villa. It is here where horsemen can be seen riding up the marble stairs.
Spartacus and the Roman Slave Revolt
The film opens in Libya, where the Thracian slave Spartacus is plucked from the salt mines and sent to gladiator school in Rome. In his first match, Spartacus is pitted against the Ethiopian Draba, who expertly wields the trident and net. After Draba refuses to kill Spartacus, the Ethiopian rushes the royal box where he is slain by a Roman centurion.
Spartacus later incites a revolt at the gladiator school run by the hated Marcellus. Forming an army comprised of ex-gladiators and slaves, Spartacus takes on the powerful legions of Rome, hoping to march to the sea where ships provided by the Silesian pirates will spirit his people to freedom.
The sheer might of the Roman Empire proves to be too much, however, with a vanquished Spartacus and some 6,000 of his followers brought back to Rome for crucifixion.
Spartacus Opens in New York City
Spartacus made its world premiere at New York City’s DeMille Theatre on October 6, 1960.
“Massive epic…A new kind of Hollywood movie: a superspectacle with spiritual vitality and moral force…” reported Time magazine (10/24/60).
“A whale of a motion picture…” crowed Variety (10/12/60).
“Heroic humbug…It is bursting with patriotic fervor, bloody tragedy, a lot of romantic fiddle-faddle and historical inaccuracy,” opined Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (10/7/60).
Spartacus Box Office, Academy Awards, DVD, Movie Memorabilia
- The three-hour long Spartacus, shown at theaters with a 15-minute intermission, grossed $11.1 million at the box office, good for the #3 position on the list of the top moneymaking films of 1960.
- Spartacus garnered six Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov, won), Best Color Cinematography (Russell Metty, won), Best Color Costume Design (Valles, Bill Thomas, won), Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration (Alexander Golitzen, Eric Orbom, Russell A. Gausman, Julia Heron, won), Best Film Editing (Robert Lawrence), Best Music Scoring (Alex North).
- On DVD: Spartacus – Criterion Collection (2001).
- Auction results for original Spartacus movie memorabilia, courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas: one sheet poster Academy Award style ($26), Argentinean poster ($11), Spanish one sheet poster ($34), 1960 hardcover program ($51), roadshow window card ($388.38), lot of seven deluxe lobby cards ($155.35), Dell Four Color tie-in comic book file copy ($95.60), 1960 soundtrack record poster ($298.75).
“There’s only one way to deal with Rome, Antoninus. You must serve her. You must abase yourself before her. You must grovel at her feet. You must love her,” Crassus lectures the poet slave.
When in Rome…