Of the 167 days it took Stanley Kubrick to shoot this film, six weeks were spent directing an elaborate battle sequence in which 8,500 extras re-created the clash between the Roman troops and Spartacus' slave army. Several scenes in the battle drew the ire of the Legion of Decency and were therefore cut. These include shots of men being dismembered (dwarfs with false torsos and an actor with only one arm [Bill Raisch, the "One-Armed Man" of The Fugitive (1963) fame] with a phony breakaway limb as a Roman soldier who has his arm cut off in battle were used to give authenticity). Seven years later, when the Oscar-winning film was reissued, an additional 22 minutes were chopped out, including a scene in which Varinia watches Spartacus writhe in agony on a cross. Her line, "Oh, please die, my darling" was excised, and the scene was cut to make it appear that Spartacus was already dead.
The original version included a scene where Marcus Licinius Crassus(Laurence Olivier) attempts to seduce Antoninus (Tony Curtis). The Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency both objected. At one point Geoffrey Shurlock, representing the censors, suggested it would help if the reference in the scene to a preference for oysters or snails was changed to truffles and artichokes. In the end the scene was cut, but it was put back in for the 1991 restoration. However, the soundtrack had been lost in the meantime and the dialogue had to be dubbed. Curtis was able to redo his lines, but Olivier had died. Joan Plowright, his widow, remembered that Anthony Hopkins had done a dead-on impression of Olivier and she mentioned this to the restoration team. They approached Hopkins and he agreed to voice in Olivier's lines in that scene. Hopkins is thanked in the credits for the restored version.
During the arduous, long shoot, Tony Curtis allegedly asked Jean Simmons, "Who do I have to screw to get off this film?" Some versions of the interaction include Simmons shouting back, "When you find out, let me know."
For a while the studio did not want to give the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo screen credit for his work. Stanley Kubrick said that he would accept the credit. Kirk Douglas was so appalled by Kubrick's attempt to claim credit for someone else's work that he used his clout to ensure that Trumbo received his due credit - and in doing so effectively ended the Hollywood blacklist.
The sound of the crowd cheering "Spartacus! Spartacus!" was actually recorded at a 1959 football game in Spartan Stadium, home of the Michigan State University Spartans in East Lansing, Michigan. Michigan State beat Notre Dame in that game, 19-0.
Cinematographer Russell Metty walked off the set, complaining that Stanley Kubrick, was not letting him do his job. Metty was used to directors allowing him to call his own shots little oversight, while Kubrick was a professional photographer who had shot some of his previous films by himself. Subsequently, Kubrick did the majority of the cinematography work. Metty complained about this up until the release of the film and even, at one point, asked to have his name removed from the credits. However, because his name was in the credits, when the film won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, it was given to Metty, although he actually didn't shoot most of it.
Kirk Douglas wanted to play the titular hero Ben Hur, but the film's director William Wyler wanted Charlton Heston to play the role. Douglas was then offered the antagonist role of Messala, which was eventually given to Stephen Boyd, but refused to play second banana. In the later years, Douglas admitted that he made this film as to show up Wyler and his company of him making a Roman epic that could matched Ben-Hur (1959). He once said, "That was what spurred me to do it in a childish way, the 'I'll show them' sort of thing."
Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, both leaders in Hollywood's powerful right-wing element, publicly condemned the film as "Marxist propaganda" prior to its release. This was partly because the movie marked the first time screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had been credited under his own name (as opposed to a "Front," or a pseudonym) since he had been blacklisted for his membership in the Communist Party USA a decade earlier.
Writer Howard Fast felt that Spartacus hamstringing the guard with his teeth and drowning the trainer in soup were Kirk Douglas's ideas, and would never be done by Spartacus, who Fast portrayed as a gentle, compassionate figure. Douglas justified the violence as necessary for a rebel leader, and claims he tried to show the tough and gentle sides of Spartacus equally in the film.
Kirk Douglas, as co-producer of the film (through his company, Bryna Productions), insisted on hiring Hollywood Ten blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt the film. Douglas also hired blacklisted character actor Peter Brocco to play a supporting role.
Winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lentulus Batiatus, Peter Ustinov stands as the only actor to win an Oscar for a Stanley Kubrick film. Peter Sellers is the only other actor to receive so much as a nomination.
Kirk Douglas, a passionate Zionist, wanted the history depicted to parallel the story of the Jewish people and clashed with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was more interested in making the film a comment on modern-day politics and the Cold War.
Stanley Kubrick spent $40,000 on the over-ten-acre gladiator camp set. On the side of the set that bordered the freeway, a 125-foot asbestos curtain was erected in order to film the burning of the camp, which was organized with collaboration from the Los Angeles Fire and Police Departments. Studio press materials state that 5,000 uniforms and seven tons of armor were borrowed from Italian museums, and that every one of Hollywood's 187 stunt men was trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death. Modern sources note that production utilized approximately 10,500 people.
During the scene where Gracchus was found guilty of orchestrating the revolt against the Roman, Crassus (Laurence Olivier) said, "In every city and province, the list of the disloyal have been compiled." The line is actually a sly dig at Joseph McCarthyism by writer Dalton Trumbo (one of the 10 blacklisted). It was intended to be a jab at the watchdogs, since at that time prior to the film's release, Hollywood blacklisting was not over yet.
Kirk Douglas had an unhappy time for most of the production. After a major falling out with original director Anthony Mann he asked 'Stanley Kubrick' to direct, with whom he had collaborated well 3 years previously on Paths of Glory (1957). However, he had an equally difficult time working with Kubrick. After the production, Douglas claimed he would not collaborate with Kubrick again if he was given the opportunity. Douglas has often said he regretted having Mann fired from the picture and when he was offered The Heroes of Telemark (1965) he agreed to take that role on condition that Anthony Mann be hired as director.
Though it is highly unlikely that Marcus Crassus and Spartacus ever spoke in real life, as depicted in the movie, Plutarch's biography mentions that in the last battle of the Third Servile War, Spartacus attempted to single-handedly take Crassus' life before being taken down by Crassus' personal guards. Therefore, it is likely that the two did see each other in person at one point.
Laurence Olivier, while researching on the Romans for his role, learnt that the Romans rode without a saddle, so he followed likewise and rode saddleless in his horseback scenes. This proved a great hindrance, as there was no saddle to keep him steady while the horse was in even the slightest motion, and he kept wobbling throughout his horseback scenes. Eventually Kubrick forced Olivier to film his horseback scenes on a ladder.
Kirk Douglas was unsure about casting Jean Simmons as Varinia, as she was a British actress; American actors had been cast as the slaves and British actors had been cast as the Romans. Douglas actually wanted a German actress to play Varinia (her actual portrayal in the Howard Fast novel), but since none were pretty enough he decided to go with Simmons.
Sir Peter Ustinov joked about his daughter, born at the beginning of production, being in kindergarten by the time the film was finished. When asked what her father did for a living she would answer, "Spartacus."
Kirk Douglas describes this film as a love story: "Love predominates all through the movie: love between Spartacus and Varinia, love among the men; the whole revolt was based on a love of freedom, a love of humanity."
Sir Peter Ustinov wrote Gracchus's dialogue about corpulence making a man pleasant. Ustinov couldn't understand how a sleazy low-class character like Batiatus could be friends with a high-ranking politician like Gracchus, until he reasoned that their stoutness gave them a common bond.
Although some reviews noted the story's unreliable correlation to history, many of the film's characters were derived from real figures, including Spartacus (d. 71 B.C.), Marcus Licinius Crassus (d. 53 B.C.) and Caius Sempronius Gracchus (d. 121 B.C.). As accurately depicted in the film, Spartacus was a Thracian slave who broke out of a Capuan gladiators' school to lead a revolt that was eventually suppressed by Crassus, who then crucified his captives by the hundreds. Spartacus was killed in battle - not, as stated in the film, captured and then crucified - after which Crassus ruled Rome in a triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar. Gracchus lived decades earlier, and helped organize a social reform movement that lasted only a few years before its reforms were repealed. He was killed in a series of riots protesting the repeals. General Crassus was reported to have been put to death by the Parthians after losing the battle of Carrhae, by being forced to drink a goblet of molten gold, symbolic of his great wealth.
One of only three films to win Best Picture: Drama at the Golden Globes and not receive a Best Picture nomination from the Academy Awards. The other two are East of Eden (1955) and The Cardinal (1963).
Saul Bass' main title sequence originally ran five minutes but was cut to three and a half at Kubrick's insistence. Bass also designed the climactic battle sequence and scouted locations including the opening salt mine sequence.
In order to put actor Woody Strode in the right mood for the scene where he and 'Kirk Douglas' wait to do combat, the director had the actor listen to a Prokofiev concerto during the filming and got the visual response he wanted.
The 1991 version was restored by Robert A. Harris who produced a new 65mm preservation negative from original color separations. The original camera negative had lost too much of its yellow layer to be usable.
David Lean was considered to direct, but declined. Laurence Olivier was then asked to direct, but he had relinquished the directing assignment, as he felt the dual role of actor-director would prove too demanding.
Film preservationist Robert A. Harris has said that by 1991 the camera negative for this film was totally faded and unusable. Nothing could be done to produce any printing material from that element. Color separation elements made on black and white film in the early 1960s were used instead.
Charles Laughton and Sir Peter Ustinov rehearsed the scenes they were coupled together, to give a rapport between Gracchus and Batiatus. Sometimes, Stanley Kubrick watched these rehearsals, and afterwards would shoot the scenes the same way they were rehearsed.
Contrary to what the book and film portray, the historical Spartacus was born free in Thrace (a region nowadays divided among modern-day Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey) and may have served in the Thracian army or even the Roman army in Macedonia (Rome often impressed soldiers of armies it had defeated into its own army). It is thought that he was either captured in battle or deserted the army and later captured (depends on what side he fought on) and then sold into slavery.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Draba, played by Woody Strode, is killed in the ring after attacking one of the senators. His body is hung upside down in the gladiators' quarters as a warning. Originally this was going to be a replica of Strode, but when the effect wasn't satisfactory, he himself hung upside-down, ropes tied around his ankles. As the gladiators slowly file past his dangling body, Strode doesn't flinch or twitch. According to his son Kalai Strode, the unused replica hung inside the entrance to Universal Studios' prop room for several years.
The 1991 restoration contains exactly four more minutes of footage than the version that ran in theaters in 1960. Two of those minutes are taken up by the famous "snails and oysters" scene. The rest are scenes of gore and violence - including a more explicit version of the death of Draba, and a shot of the amputation of the arm of a soldier (played by real-life amputee Bill Raisch during the climactic battle scene. The remainder of the longer running time of the restored version is taken up by the Overture, Entr'acte, and Exit Music.
When Laurence Olivier as Crassus issues the order "Crucify him!", after Spartacus has killed Antoninus, the two figures who move out of shot behind Kirk Douglas, ostensibly Olivier and John Gavin, are in fact a couple of brightly-lit extras of similar build and height.