1960's Spartacus was the third and last feature film of Stanley Kubrick's career that he would later disown, for the best reasons of any of them. Unlike Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss, it wasn't humiliation at a half-formed talent of youth that led him to later (and "later", in this case, means "almost instantaneously") discount the film's importance in his development, but a very real and very justified belief that it wasn't in any meaningful way "his" film. He was, to start with, the second choice to direct, chosen by executive producer Kirk Douglas as a result of their collaboration on Paths of Glory. Anthony Mann filmed the opening scene of the movie before the nebulous "somebody" (Mann himself? Executive producer Kirk Douglas? Universal?) decided that Mann wasn't up to the task of making a big sprawling massive period epic. Instead, his 1960 film was Cimarron, a big sprawling massive period epic Western. And Mann did have plenty of experience with Westerns in the preceding decade, including some of the very best examples of the genre ever made. But we are not here to to talk about Mann, other than to observe that the sequence he completed, which is quite excellent, truth be told, set the tone of Spartacus, and Kubrick felt compelled to copy that tone for everything he personally oversaw.

The greater issue is that Spartacus was never going to be its director's film; it was, forever and always, a producer's picture. The story goes that Douglas was angry to have been passed over for the title role in Ben-Hur, and wanted to stick it to MGM by headlining his own Roman-era epic about a plucky outsider fighting the system in big, glorious setpieces on big, glorious sets. His attention landed on the 1952 novel Spartacus, by blacklisted novelist Howard Fast, and he hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay; the result of all this was that Trumbo became the first blacklist victim of the McCarthy era to receive credit under his own name after having been tarnished by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist sympathies. But that was much later.

Streamlining the chronologically discontinuous plotline significantly, Trumbo's Spartacus follows how the title figure is brought from the hellish Roman mines in Libya to a gladiator school in Capua, where the slimy impresario Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) grooms him to be a great talent, until the fateful day when the chilly wannabe dictator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) brings three empty-headed young people to the school on vacation, indulging their desire to see a pointless fight to the death; this event, and Crassus's subsequent purchase of the beautiful, kindly Varinia (Jean Simmons) stokes the fires of rage in Spartacus, and he begins a gladiator revolt that soon turns into an army full of slaves from across Italy, threatening to seriously destablise if not destroy the burgeoning Roman Republic. While this happens, Crassus butts heads in Rome with the relatively liberal senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton), whose positive merits generally begin and end with his desire that his city should remain at least vaguely driven by republican ideals and not tyrannical ones.

The stories from the Spartacus shoot do not imply a happy process. Douglas and Trumbo disagreed over the ideal political metaphor for the story (Douglas wanted it to be about Israel, Trumbo about McCarthyism, and the final product ends up having quite a bit less political bite than either of them probably wanted). Douglas and Kubrick disagreed over damn near everything, with the director not much caring for what he saw as undue moral simplicity in the main character. Kubrick and credited cinematographer Russell Metty clashed a great deal, owing to the director's micro-managing of the camera; supposedly, Kubrick himself executed the vast majority of the material for which Metty won an Oscar. Anecdotes abound about Ustinov and Laughton griping about the spotty plotting and re-writing chunks of the movie for their own ends. The whole thing took ages and ages to complete, at which point it was immediately set upon by the Decent People who would brook no hint of Communist-friendly art coming out of Hollywood, though that PR battle was lost quickly and decisively, with President John Kennedy himself crossing picket lines to see the movie.

All of that only intermittently interferes with the movie itself, which managed to achieve at least the first of its stated goals, anyway: it's a better movie than Ben-Hur, by a lot. Which, given how achingly pokey and stilted Ben-Hur is, shouldn't be much of an achievement, but none of those Roman Epics from the '50s and '60s amount to much, and even with someone like Kubrick calling at least some of the shots, there's no obvious reason to expect better. If Spartacus ends up feeling several solar systems away in quality from the likes of the soporific Quo Vadis (with which it shares Ustinov in an Oscar-nominated turn - he won for Spartacus), that can be ascribed to a few reasons, the most obvious of which is that, uniquely among Hollywood Roman epics with which I'm familiar, this is a film almost totally without religious overtones, save for an historically nonsensical observation in the opening narration that has all the feeling of a line inserted by a Communist-elating screenwriter in the hopes that people will think he's not quite so Communist. The urgent need to pull double duty as plush, costly spectacles and devotional aids was, almost without exception, absolutely deadly in the case of all those films, slowing the drama down to a crawl so that hammy actors could pull their most utterly sincere expressions in endless, dubiously "inspirational" parentheticals. Spartacus gets to commit itself exclusively to story and action; it doesn't even really stop for the humanist devotionals of Fast's novel, which is far more emphatically about class struggles than anything in the movie. Really, the only part of the entire film where outright leftism makes itself known is in the solidarity of the famous, often-parodied "I'm Spartacus!" scene.

In place of the arch solemnity of so many other Roman epics, Spartacus offers up plenty of intoxicants: lavish sets, a well-stocked widescreen frame (the film was shot in Super Technirama 70, one of the most gratifying formats for large-scale epics ever invented), crackling dialogue, whoever wrote it, for the scenes of snarling Roman politicking, magnificent action scenes shot with a level of pageantry not equaled in American cinema until Braveheart - the opening moments of the final big fight between the slave army and the Roman legions seems to go on for hours and hours as the Romans march and march and march until they get just into place, on the far side of a vibrantly green valley, the one and only place in the whole movie where Kubrick the photographic stylist seems to have really woken up and employed the implacable sense of objectivity and geometry that marks all his best work. It is easily my favorite part of the whole film, even more than the exquisite battle scene that immediately follows it.

Stretching all the way back to its Mann footage, Spartacus boasts a singularly vivid use of color (at this point, Kubrick was not yet willingly using color stock), using the natural colors of blue and green in strong counterpoint to the predominant browns found in every single frame. This is a worn, tired ancient world, a dirty, sandy, sweaty one with little spark to it. The occasional shot of blue sky here and there is a fantastic gesture that underlines the intensity of the slaves' desire for freedom and openness by doling it out even to the film's viewers so sparingly and reluctantly, only seen in slices and slivers for the bulk of the film.

All of which - on top of Ustinov, Laughton, and Olivier giving three fantastically rich performances of the sort that only unapologetic British stage-trained actors can give; Ustinov's quivering, mildly smug and easily flustered emblem of power-hungry docility is maybe the single most lively performance in any English-language Roman epic, and his interplay with Laughton the best acting of the film - gives Spartacus energy and passion that's simply not to be found anywhere else in the genre; this does not mean that it's free of that genre's built-in limitations. For one thing, Douglas is downright eager to play Spartacus as exactly the strong-chinned noble figure that Kubrick didn't want him to become; it's fine when the actor's natural tendency towards desperate, bulging-eyed earnestness meets the screenwriter's roiling passages of revolutionary prose, but eye-rollingly trite and ludicrous and instantly-dated when brought to bear on the tender scenes where he makes love to Simmons, without the ability or desire to dial things down. As for Simmons herself, I understand that the actress has her defenders, but I am not remotely one of them, and her open-mouthed brittleness throughout Spartacus feels exactly like the kind of prim, lifeless Good Woman performance given in so many of these movies; above and beyond which, she drowns in the arch, old-timey dialogue that defeats, at some point or another, everybody but Laughton.

More than anything, though, what Spartacus suffers from, when it is suffering, is an absolutely palpable fatigue behind the camera. That Kubrick was unhappy is blatantly obvious: damn near ever single interior that involves anything other than Roman politicking is shot in bland, arbitrary compositions with far too many close-ups; a quick look at the director's next (and only other) film in the same ratio, 2001: A Space Odyssey, reveals such infinitely more thoughtful, complex frames that we can't write it off as simply greater comfort making movies. That Kubrick was excited and invested in his project; this Kubrick is plainly just going through the motions, and maybe deliberately trying to make his star, producer, and chief nemesis look a little bit worse (there are surprisingly plentiful close-ups that emphasise the phoniest elements of Douglas's performance; the best we can say about Kubrick is that he made no effort to compensate for the actor's shortcomings). That Spartacus is the best of all Roman epics of its generation I take as a matter of faith; but that leaves plenty of space for it to come up short in this way or that, and while the general experience is rather more enthralling and pleasurable than otherwise, there's still a lot of stiffness that the filmmaking team couldn't, or wouldn't, entirely overcome.