A few months ago on “Reel Christianity”, I talked about what I now proudly call my favorite Stanley Kubrick movie, “Paths of Glory”. I said first that Kubrick’s directing style was so unique that I felt if I saw a Kubrick film for the first time, having no idea what it was called or who made it, I could still point it out as a Stanley Kubrick movie because of the angles, cuts, and dialogue that was so unique to one of his films.
Then, back in June, I saw “Spartacus”, and I was beaten. Apparently Kubrick took over directing “Spartacus” from another filmmaker, and because the star Kirk Douglas was also producing the film, Kubrick and Douglas (who worked together wonderfully in “Paths of Glory”) constantly feuded. Kubrick later would say that “Spartacus” was the only movie where he did not have complete control, and I can understand that by watching it. A few times you see technical details that are distinctively Kubrick’s, but for the most part you can’t really tell. I now compare “Spartacus” to being the father of “Gladiator”, in many different ways.
Douglas’ Spartacus starts out as an angry, violent young slave in Libya until Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) buys him to be a gladiator in his establishment. Spartacus joins several other young men that will fight to the death with each other as a form of entertainment. Because of this, the men make no attempt whatsoever to get to know each other. Spartacus tries once with a man named Draba (Woody Strode):
SPARTACUS: What's your name?
DRABA: You don't want to know my name. I don't want to know your name.
SPARTACUS: Just a friendly question.
DRABA: Gladiators don't make friends. If we're ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you.
From the very beginning, Spartacus is hostile—and who wouldn’t be? But part of the reason is because he’s fallen in love with a slave girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons), about whom the guards keep teasing Spartacus until he can take it no more. Soon, Spartacus leads the other men in an uprising and leads them out of the establishment. And for the next few hours or so, “Spartacus” goes back and forth between showing us Spartacus’ whereabouts (including reuniting Varinia and conceiving with her) and the Romans who are after him and the rest of the revolting gladiators. I’m going to skip most of this, though, so I can get to the really important stuff. (Or, at least, the stuff that I found most important.)
Eventually, Spartacus and his men, including a new friend named Antoninus (Tony Curtis), fight against the legions sent by the Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier). In the end, Spartacus’ army is overwhelmed, and the Romans capture them—but they say that they will let them live as long as they identify Spartacus. And here we get the iconic scene where Spartacus is about to stand and make himself known, when all of a sudden Antoninus and every other man gradually stands up and yells: “I’m Spartacus!”
So I guess all the captives are eventually crucified, but then Crassus takes Spartacus and Antoninus somewhere else where he commands them to fight to the death—and whoever wins will be crucified. So both men, in possibly the film’s most intense scene, fight each other trying to kill the other but yet save the other from a more painful death. Spartacus eventually kills Antoninus, but then is sentenced to die by crucifixion. The film eventually ends with Varinia showing their newborn son his father on the cross, not yet dead, and promises the child that he will grow up a free man because of what his father did.
I bet you might be thinking that I’m going to make a comparison between Spartacus and his sacrificial death on the cross and Jesus and his sacrificial death on the cross. Well, yes, that’s a really good comparison to make, and it makes a lot of sense. Spartacus, like Jesus, is a poor man who leads a group of other men for a good cause that they are willing to die for, even death on a cross—which, yeah, would be extremely painful. But that’s not what I felt the real focus of the movie is.
What I really saw in “Spartacus” was the sense of brotherly love that Spartacus tried to show. Even in the beginning, as a gladiator, he wanted to befriend the other men, not kill them! And the friendship between him and Antoninus, which I didn’t talk much about in this article, is a very powerful one that is worth seeing in the film. And it’s this aspect of Spartacus, the man and the movie, that I related to Jesus and his love for his disciples.
Right now in college, I have a job as sort of a residence life coordinator. But my job is more of the “spiritual life” aspect of the dorm (I’m at a Christian college), and one of the passages of Scripture that my boss recommended I read over the summer was John 15-17, a passage that I would hopefully keep in mind as I lead other student leaders in the dorm this year. John 15:13 contains one of Jesus’ most important verses about brotherly love: “‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.’”
Spartacus was willing to lay down his life for the freedom of his friends, and so were his men. Now, granted, the scene where he kills Antoninus isn’t exactly following that analogy, but he killed him because he didn’t want him to have to face a worse death. He was willing to die that death, as Antoninus was for Spartacus. My prayer for you this week is that you would find opportunities to sacrifice your time, your resources, whatever you have to serve the people close to you.