“I am not a political activist. When I produced Spartacus in 1959, I was trying to make the best movie I could make, not a political statement.” – Kirk Douglas
Dalton Trumbo balanced his typewriter on a wooden tray across his bathtub as he sat, partially submerged, smoking and sipping on a glass of bourbon. His parakeet – a gift from his employer, Kirk Douglas – perched on his shoulder, observing his progress. His fingers blurred as he rattled the keys with a furious intensity, birthing the first draft of a screenplay in just two weeks. But he knew his name would never be connected with the film. He was blacklisted.
Nonetheless, Spartacus was in development.
Of all the historical epics produced in Hollywood during the 1950s and 1960s, few have stood the test of time like Spartacus (1960). Despite its brilliance, though, the production was a fraught affair and racked with tension between big names, even bigger egos and political threats.
While Spartacus’ story begins in the first century BCE, the story of Spartacus begins in 1947 when Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood’s critically-acclaimed and highest-paid screenwriter, became one of the Hollywood Ten (or ‘Unfriendly Ten’), who were tried by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for supposed connections to Communism. A red mist hung over America at the start of the Cold War, and what would become the McCarthyist witch-hunts had begun. Hollywood figures were encouraged to name names and turn on their friends, destroying careers, families and lives.
Trumbo was a victim of this madness. After a brief prison sentence in 1950, his blacklisting meant nobody would hire him; at least not publicly. Many blacklisted writers still worked, but could not claim the credits or payment they deserved. During the 1950s, Trumbo won Oscars for writing Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956); the former was collected by another writer who (reluctantly) took credit for the script, while the latter was awarded to one of the many pseudonyms Trumbo used over the decade. Using the name ‘Sam Jackson’, he met Kirk Douglas at his house and agreed to write the script for Spartacus in 1958, with producer Eddie Lewis being credited with writing it publicly (much to his embarrassment).
Douglas’ production company, Bryna, had acquired the rights for Spartacus for just $100, on condition that the script would be written by the book’s author, Howard Fast. Fast had also done time in prison for his open affiliation with the Communist Party, and despite being a bestselling author upon his release nobody would publish Spartacus. He self-published the novel and shifted tens of thousands of copies from his basement. However, while his novel proved popular, his script was deemed by Lewis and Douglas as “crap”.
To make matters worse, a rival Spartacus project was also in the air. Fresh from the success of Douglas’ historical epic The Vikings (1958), United Artists were in early pre-production with The Gladiators, starring Yul Brynner as Spartacus. Douglas called their bluff and eventually UA backed down, but keeping Trumbo’s involvement in his project a secret was no small feat – if it become common knowledge, Universal would have backed out.
Assembling an impressive cast including Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton and Tony Curtis, Douglas now had to find a director. Olivier had wanted to direct and play Spartacus, but (to Douglas’ relief, as he wanted the role) conceded that his theatre engagements wouldn’t allow him the time. David Lean also turned down the directorship in favour of pursuing a little film about T.E. Lawrence… Finally, Anthony Mann was hired. He filmed the opening scene, but as he began the gladiatorial school scenes it was clear he was overwhelmed by the size of the project and lacked focus or control. He was fired. Douglas then called up a young up-and-coming director he had worked with on Paths of Glory (1957): Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick later complained that Spartacus lacked his personal stamp, omitting it when listing his films, but he still brought directorial flair, invention and spectacle to the film, including the still-impressive battle scene which sees Spartacus’ defeat at the hands of Crassus. What Kubrick did not bring, however, was people skills. He made the original actress cast as love interest Varinia, Sabina Bethmann, cry by fake-firing her to see if she could show any emotion (she was subsequently replaced by Jean Simmons). Kubrick’s arrogance and complete lack of empathy earned him the tag ‘Stanley Hubris’. When he cut all closeup shots of the crucified Spartacus from the film’s final scene, a furious Douglas threw a chair at him and, when he didn’t bother to change his clothes for days while shooting, losing the crew’s respect, Douglas approached the director on horseback, pinned him into a corner and ordered the “little prick” go buy new clothes.
In the same tense exchange, Douglas demanded Kubrick shoot the “I Am Spartacus!” scene, which the director thought was a “stupid” idea. But he agreed to do it. And cinematic history was made.
As was history itself. In post-production, Douglas made the decision to defy the blacklist and include Trumbo’s real name in the credits. Universal panicked and made cuts to the film to avoid any hint of a pro-Communist message, as well as scenes of suggested bisexuality in Crassus (the scene was reinstated in the 1990s with Anthony Hopkins seamlessly performing Olivier’s dialogue as the original audio track was damaged). Nonetheless, Trumbo’s name was up there for all to see. With this act, blacklisted filmmakers everywhere were freed of the unjust prejudices that had ruined their careers and lives; so much so that rival projects competed to beat Spartacus in announcing their hiring of blacklisted writers too. Spartacus received further support when the young President, John F. Kennedy, attended a screening – times were changing and the blacklist was finally over.
Despite his own turbulent private life during the production – his manager swindling him almost to bankruptcy, his mother’s death, and the birth of his son, Eric – Douglas had become every bit the leader he was portraying on screen. Spartacus was also a huge financial success, claimed a number of awards, and became one of the finest epics ever committed to film.
Source: Douglas, Kirk. I Am Spartacus: Making a Movie, Breaking the Blacklist. New York: Bryna Company, 2012.