Though it’s a fairly long historical epic this essential drama features some terrific performances and huge battle sequences in the moviemaking era before CGI which enabled such scenes to become more commonplace. Directed by Stanley Kubrick with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo based on the novel by Howard Fast and featuring Kirk Douglas in the title role the film includes Best Supporting Actor Peter Ustinov as a droll self-interested gladiator-owner-businessman Lentulus Batiatus; it also won for Color Art Direction-Set Decoration Cinematography and Costume Design and was nominated for Editing and Alex North’s Score. Laurence Olivier as Crassus and Charles Laughton as Gracchus provide the Roman Senate political backdrop as they alternatively manipulate the younger more naïve among them: John Gavin – as Julius Caesar – and John Dall the less capable Glabrus. #62 on AFI’s 100 Most Heart-Pounding Movies list. #44 on AFI’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies list.
Spartacus (AFI’s #22 hero) is a proud combative slave that’s saved from death when he’s picked by Batiatus to become a gladiator. After being trained by Batiatus’ ex-slave gladiator-trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw) he’s forced into a ring “fight to the death” with Draba another slave-gladiator (played by Woody Strode) for the pleasure of some visiting Roman ‘royalty’: rich Crassus Glabrus and their women (Nina Foch and Joanna Barnes). After losing to but being spared by Draba who chooses to take out his anger futilely against the Romans Spartacus leads a revolt of the gladiators against their captors which becomes an insurgency and then a quest for freedom by all of “slave nation”. The major subplot involves the slave leader’s love for the slave woman Varinia played by Jean Simmons. Later she too becomes a pawn in the Senators’ manipulations. John Ireland plays Spartacus’ loyal right-hand man Crixus; Harold J. Stone plays the silent David another loyalist. Tony Curtis plays Antoninus a slave gift to Crassus that’s scared away by his master’s advances runs away to join Spartacus and with his ‘singing’ and other entertainer talents adds a culture to the uneducated slave clan as they revel in a freedom that must inevitably end. Herbert Lom plays a negotiator on behalf of some Sicilian pirates that were to join the slaves’ rebellion against Rome. The memorable scene in which Antoninus and each of the other slave survivors claim – "I’m Spartacus" – to keep their Roman conquerors from identifying their leader is nowhere near the end of the story.