28 Dec 2017

Spartacus



I have decided to blog about political films. Replacing vague ideas with clear images, so to speak. I spend too much time writing books and in an age of activism I am aware that the screen is more powerful than the word.


A classic to start off with is Spartacus (1960), its political virtues are legion.  Spartacus the leader of a slave rebellion was famously Karl Marx's favourite hero.  Indeed Marx wrote in a letter to Engels dated 27 February, 1861 that ' Spartacus is revealed as the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history. Great general (no Garibaldi), noble character, real representative of the ancient proletariat.'



While sadly cut from the first showings the film contained a classic advocacy of intersectionality in the famous scene discussing oysters and snails. It's all a matter of taste in republican Rome!





It is a call to revolution against tyrannical power.  The most powerful scene is where the captured slave army each one by one proclaim 'I am Spartacus', refusing to betray their leader to be crucified.







Its script editor Dalton Trumbo was had been black listed by Senator McCarthy but Kirk Douglas (who played Spartacus) insisted that he be credited.


Its sheer, occasionally kitschy entertainment value notwithstanding, Spartacusis a movie with a message that today comes across as somehow melodramatic — Slavery Bad, Freedom Good — and politically pointed; in fact, the anti-authoritarian rumblings that inform so much of the film are, in retrospect, utterly unsurprising. The screenplay was written by the great Dalton Trumbo, after all — perhaps the most famous of the men and women blacklisted during the "Red Scare" McCarthy era that rocked Hollywood, splintered friendships and torpedoed promising careers.


Trumbo, a member of the Communist party for five years in the 1940s, was blacklisted after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and spent 11 months in a federal penitentiary. Many of his later screenplays were written under pseudonyms. But Kirk Douglas insisted that Trumbo's credit for Spartacus be made public -- an act of conscience that is often cited as the beginning of the end for the blacklist era.


"Senator McCarthy was an awful man," Douglas once said. "He blacklisted the writers who wouldn't obey his edict. The heads of the studios were hypocrites who went along with it. Too many people were using false names. I was embarrassed. I was young enough to be impulsive, so even though I was warned against it, I used [Trumbo's] real name on the screen."


There have been numerous commentaries on either the film or the real life rebellion, Alan Woods is one to read for some more detail.


Perhaps we might leave the last word to Kirk Douglas who, of course, played Spartacus in the film, We've traveled a long ways together. We've fought many battles and won many victories. Now, instead of taking ships to our homes across the sea, we must fight again once more. Maybe there's no peace in this world, for us or for anyone else, I don't know. But I do know that as long as we live, we must remain true to ourselves


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