Kirk Douglas, Sir Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Sir Peter Ustinov all made re-writes to the script to improve their characters' roles. Some were kept in the movie, but most were scrapped, to the consternation of the actors who constantly jostled with each other throughout the movie.
The original version included a scene where Marcus Licinius Crassus (Sir 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. Dame Joan Plowright, his widow, remembered that Sir 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 Olivier's lines in that scene. Hopkins is thanked in the credits for the restored version.
Sir Peter Ustinov joked about his daughter, born at the beginning of production, being in kindergarten by the time this movie was finished. When asked what her father did for a living, she would answer, "Spartacus".
It is highly unlikely that Marcus Crassus and Spartacus ever spoke in real-life, as depicted in this 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 killed by Crassus' personal guards. Therefore, it is possible that the two did see each other in person at one point.
Cinematographer Russell Metty walked off the set, complaining that Director Stanley Kubrick was not letting him do his job. Metty was used to directors allowing him to call his own shots with little oversight, while Kubrick was a professional photographer who had shot some of his previous movies by himself. Subsequently, Kubrick did the majority of the cinematography work. Metty complained about this up until the release of the movie and even, at one point, asked to have his name removed from the credits. However, because his name was in the credits, when this movie won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, it was given to Metty, although he actually didn't shoot most of it.
The sound of the crowd cheering "Spartacus! Spartacus!" was 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.
Film preservationist Robert A. Harris said that by 1991, the camera negative for this movie was completely 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.
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, with whom he had collaborated well three years previously on Paths of Glory (1957), to direct. 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 movie, and when he was offered The Heroes of Telemark (1965), he agreed to take that role, on condition that Mann be hired as director.
At first, the studio did not want to give the blacklisted openly Communist Dalton Trumbo screen credit for his work. Stanley Kubrick said he would accept the credit. Kirk Douglas later said he was so appalled by Kubrick's attempt to claim credit for someone else's work that he used his clout to make sure Trumbo received his due credit, effectively ending the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo had already been credited as the writer of Exodus (1960), although a delay caused that movie to be released two months after this one. Trumbo's family publicly disputed Douglas' version of the story, as did Producer Edward Lewis and the children of writer Howard Fast. In any case, the blacklist had been greatly undermined when Cecil B. DeMille hired Edward G. Robinson for The Ten Commandments (1956), reviving Robinson's career after he had been nearly blacklisted for his past political activism.
Saul Bass' main title sequence originally ran five minutes, but was cut to three and a half at Director Stanley Kubrick's insistence. Bass also designed the climactic battle sequence and scouted locations, including the opening salt mine sequence.
Despite this movie being a huge box-office success, gaining four Oscars, and being considered to rank among the very best of historical epics, Director Stanley Kubrick disowned the movie and did not include it as part of his canon. Although his personal mark is a distinct part of the final movie, his contract did not give him complete control over the filming, the only occasion on which he did not exercise such control over one of his movies.
The filming was plagued by the conflicting visions of Director Stanley Kubrick and openly Communist Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Kubrick complained that the character of Spartacus had no faults nor quirks, and he later distanced himself from the movie.
Stanley Kubrick spent forty thousand dollars on the over-ten-acre gladiator camp set. On the side of the set that bordered the freeway, a one hundred twenty-five-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 five thousand uniforms, and seven tons of armor were borrowed from Italian museums, and that every one of Hollywood's one hundred eighty-seven stuntmen was trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death. Modern sources note that the production utilized approximately ten thousand five hundred people.
Sir David Lean was considered to direct, but declined. Sir Laurence Olivier was then asked to direct, but he had relinquished the directing assignment, as he felt the dual role of actor and director would prove to be too demanding.
Winning a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar for his portrayal of Lentulus Batiatus, Sir Peter Ustinov stands as the only actor to win an Oscar for a Stanley Kubrick movie. Peter Sellers is the only other actor to receive so much as a nomination.
When Gracchus (Charles Laughton) is found guilty of orchestrating the revolt, Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) says, "In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled." This line is a sly dig at McCarthyism by openly Communist Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the group of blacklisted writers known as "The Hollywood 10". It was intended to be a jab at the paranoid watchdogs, since the blacklist was still in effect at the time.
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 slicing off of the arm of a Roman 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, Intermission, and Exit Music.
During the arduous, long shoot, Tony Curtis allegedly asked Jean Simmons, "Who do I have to fuck to get off this film?" Some versions of the interaction include Simmons shouting back, "When you find out, let me know."
Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, both leaders in Hollywood's powerful right-wing element, publicly condemned this movie as "Marxist propaganda" before its release. This was partly because it was the first time in a decade that openly Communist Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo had been credited under his own name, not a pseudonym, since he was backlisted for his membership in the Communist Party USA.
Of the one hundred sixty-seven days it took Stanley Kubrick to shoot this movie, six weeks were spent directing an elaborate battle sequence in which eight thousand five hundred 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 movie was re-issued, an additional twenty-two minutes were cut 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.
Sir Laurence Olivier, while researching on the Romans for his role, learned that the Romans rode without a saddle, so he followed likewise and rode saddleless in his horseback scenes. This proved to be 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, Director Stanley Kubrick forced Olivier to film his horseback scenes on a ladder.
Gaio Giulio Cesare (a.k.a. Julius Caesar) was an officer in the Roman legions at the time, though it is unknown if he directly participated in the Great Slave War (as the Romans called Spartacus' rebellion).
This movie is often mistakenly cited as the uncredited movie debut of George Kennedy. It is not Kennedy, but rather stuntman and actor Bob Morgan, who slightly resembles Kennedy (although his voice is different), as one of the rebel soldiers who announces "I'm Spartacus!" toward the end of the movie. Kennedy had no association with this movie.
Contrary to what the book and movie portray, the historical Spartacus was born free in Thrace, a region divided amongst modern-day Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. He may have served in the Thracian Army or 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 was later captured, and then sold into slavery.
Kirk Douglas, a passionate Zionist, wanted the history depicted to parallel the story of the Jewish people. He clashed with openly Communist Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was more interested in making this movie a commentary on the Cold War.
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.
Kirk Douglas wanted to play the title hero in Ben-Hur (1959), but 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 later years, Douglas admitted that he made this movie as to show Wyler and his company that he could make a Roman epic that could match "Ben-Hur". He once said, "That was what spurred me to do it in a childish way, the 'I'll show them' sort of thing."
Kirk Douglas was very hesitant to perform the shot of Spartacus lopping off a Roman soldier's arm. Although the arm was fake (attached to an amputee), the sword blade was real and Douglas had to hit exactly the right mark. After successfully performing the stunt once, Douglas refused a second take.
According to Producer Edward Lewis, Charles McGraw (Marcellus) had his jaw broken in the scene where Kirk Douglas viciously jams his head into a large vat of soup. In spite of the pain of the injury, McGraw finished the scene.
Universal Pictures trimmed several action scenes, along with political content that was deemed subversive. Apparently, the studio feared that if this movie had a chance of winning, viewers would perceive it as Communist, especially after using openly Communist Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was unabashed in his political views, and even wrote a book about them.
In his autobiography, Kirk Douglas admitted that he replaced Anthony Mann because he felt he was "too docile", especially for the powerful actors dominating the cast. He added, "He seemed scared of the scope of the picture."
Draba (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 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.
In July 1959, Hollywood Reporter announced that the budget had "spiralled" from $5,000,000 to $9,000,000, and according to studio press materials, the final budget was $12,000,000. Some sources stated that the massive production was the most expensive in movie history to that point. However, the budget for Ben-Hur (1959) exceeded $15,000,000. The April 1991 New York Times article points out that this amount equalled more than Universal Pictures was worth at the time of the movie's production, when the studio was purchased by MCA for $11,250,000.
Sir Peter Ustinov wrote Gracchus' 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.
Writer Howard Fast felt that Spartacus' hamstringing the guard with his teeth and drowning the trainer in a vat of soup were Kirk Douglas' 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 movie.
Steven Spielberg gave his backing to the restoration effort, and recommended that Stanley Kubrick be informed of the project. Kubrick, who had disowned the movie, had nothing to do with the actual physical restoration, though he gave his approval to the effort, and the producers wanted his final approval of their work.
In August 1958, Alciona Productions announced plans to produce a movie titled "Spartacus and the Gladiators' with Yul Brynner as star, Martin Ritt as director, and United Artists as distributor. Kirk Douglas' agent Lew Wasserman suggesting he try having his movie produced for Universal Pictures. With openly Communist Dalton Trumbo's screenplay being completed in two weeks, Universal and Douglas won the "Spartacus" race.
Kirk Douglas was unsure about casting Jean Simmons as Varinia, as she was an English actress. American actors and actresses had been cast as the slaves, and British actors and actresses 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.
One of only three movies 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).
The famous "I am Spartacus" scene is pure fiction. The real Spartacus is believed to have been killed in battle, not crucified. His men were not crucified because they refused to hand him in. The Romans had planned to kill them all as a very clear example to deter further revolts.
Charles Laughton and Sir Peter Ustinov rehearsed the scenes they were coupled together, to give a rapport between Gracchus and Batiatus. Sometimes, Director Stanley Kubrick watched these rehearsals, and afterwards would shoot the scenes the same way they were rehearsed.
The entire character of Gracchus is made up. There were two brothers named Gracchus who were important figures in Roman history, but they were tribunes, not Senators, and died more than fifty years before the Spartacus revolt.
Kirk Douglas describes this movie 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."
The intimate scenes were filmed in Hollywood, but Stanley Kubrick insisted that all battle scenes be filmed on a vast plain outside Madrid. Eight thousand trained troops from the Spanish were used to double as the Roman infantry. Kubrick directed the armies from the top of specially constructed towers. However, he eventually had to cut all but one of the gory battle scenes, due to negative audience reactions at preview screenings. So precise was Kubrick that even in arranging the bodies of the slaughtered slaves he had each "corpse" assigned with a number and instructions.
After extensive research of music of the period, Composer Alex North gathered a collection of antique instruments that, while not authentically Roman, provided a strong dramatic effect. These instruments included a sarrusophone, Israeli recorder, Chinese oboe, lute, mandolin, Yugoslav flute, kythara, dulcimer, and bagpipes. North's prize instrument was the ondioline, similar to an earlier version of the electronic synthesizer, which had never been used in a movie before.
Stanley Kubrick wanted to shoot this movie in Rome with cheap extras and resources, but Edward Muhl, President of Universal Pictures, wanted to make an example of this movie and prove that a successful epic could be made in Hollywood and "stem the flood of 'runaway' producers heading for Europe."
The movie was filmed using the 35mm Super 70 Technirama format, and then blown up to 70mm film. This was a change for Director Stanley Kubrick, who preferred using the standard spherical format. This process allowed him to achieve ultra-high definition, and to capture large panoramic scenes, including one with 8,000 Roman soldiers (who were actually active-duty soldiers from the Spanish Army).
The movie's release occasioned applause from the mainstream media and protests from anti-Communist groups, such as the National Legion of Decency, which picketed theaters showcasing the movie. Its "legitimacy as an expression of national aspirations wasn't stilled until the newly elected John F. Kennedy crossed a picket line set up by anti-Communist organizers to attend the film."
In reality, Spartacus' chief Lieutenant Crixus broke from him and led a large faction of his army on a desultory march against Rome. Dalton Trumbo's original script depicted this, but either Kirk Douglas or Stanley Kubrick removed it from the final cut, where Crixus is a loyal follower.
Kirk Douglas, as co-Producer of the movie (through his company, Bryna Productions), insisted on hiring Hollywood Ten blacklisted openly Communist Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to adapt the movie. Douglas also hired blacklisted character actor Peter Brocco to play a supporting role.
This movie parallels 1950s American history, specifically the House Committee on un-American Activities hearings and the civil rights movement. The hearings, where witnesses were ordered under penalty of imprisonment to "name names" of supposed Communist sympathizers, closely resembles the climactic scene when the slaves, asked by Crassus to give up their leader by pointing him out from the multitude, each stand up to proclaim, "I am Spartacus". Howard Fast, who wrote the book on which this movie was based, was jailed for his refusal to testify, and wrote the novel "Spartacus" while in prison. The comment of how slavery was a central part of American history is pointed to in the beginning in the scenes featuring Draba and Spartacus. Draba, who denies the friendship of Spartacus claiming "gladiators can have no friends", sacrifices himself by attacking Crassus rather than killing Spartacus. This scene points to the fact that Americans are indebted to the suffering of black slaves, who played a major role in building the country (a fact until fairly recently that was little, if at all, mentioned in U.S. history books). The fight to end segregation and to promote the equality of African-Americans is seen in the mixing of races within the gladiator school, as well as in the army of Spartacus, where all fight for freedom.
In June 2008, this was ranked number five on the American Film Institute's list of the ten greatest films in the genre "Epic". It is also the only movie out of the ten not nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In fact, the six out of the top seven movies were Best Picture winners.
Because Stanley Kubrick was a cinematographer and very exacting in what he wanted, he eventually told Russell Metty, the man hired by Anthony Mann, to do nothing and let Kubrick do all the work for him.
The soundtrack album runs less than forty-five minutes and is not very representative of the score. There were plans to re-record a significant amount of the music with Alex North's friend and fellow Composer Jerry Goldsmith, but the project kept getting delayed. Goldsmith died in 2004. Numerous bootleg recordings have been made, but none has good sound quality.
The world premiere was held on September 22, 1960, at the DeMille Theatre in New York City. The contract between the theater and Universal Pictures included a one million dollar rental minimum, the highest ever for a movie.
When Nina Foch, during the "method acting" era, asked Stanley Kubrick, during a scene where she was sitting with Laurence Olivier waiting for the gladiators to come out, asked what her character's motivation was, Kubrick replied: "You're sitting here with Larry waiting for the gladiators to come out."
The first Stanley Kubrick movie since Paths of Glory (1957) to be selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in twenty-five years. This movie was added to the registry in 2017, and Paths of Glory (1957) was added in 1992.
The slave revolt that begins at the gladiator training school (ludus) instigated by Spartacus is shown in the film to be a spur-of-the-moment event stemming from a riot Spartacus and his fellow gladiators started. In reality, it is thought by some historians that the slave revolt at the ludus was planned by Spartacus several days in advance and where he and around 70 gladiators started the riot in the kitchen area after their revolt plan was in danger of being discovered.
In the scene where Gracchus gives Batiatus the money and papers to allow him and Varinia to flee, the murals on the wall in the background are copies of those found in the famous 'Villa of the Mysteries' in Pompeii.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Although some reviews noted the story's somewhat dubious correlation to history, many of the 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 movie, 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 movie, captured and then crucified, after which Crassus ruled Rome in a triumvirate with Pompey and Gaio Giulio Cesare (a.k.a. Julius Caesar). Gracchus lived a few 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.
Approximately four minutes of this movie are lost, because of Universal Pictures' mishandling of its prints in the 1970s. These scenes relate to the character of Gracchus, including a scene where he committed suicide. The audio tracks of these scenes have survived.
When Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) 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.