True story… I first saw Spartacus on VHS almost 20 years ago. It was right before my wife and I got married. It made quite an impact on me. So much so that about a year or so later when we were deciding on baby names for our first child I wanted Spartacus. To be fair, I only wanted it as a middle name but I was absolutely serious. My thinking was this. I don’t know the middle name of most people outside my family. In fact, I hardly know anybody’s middle name outside of my family. I have known scads of people throughout my lifetime that have never and will never tell me or anyone else their middle name. If it embarrasses them they just ignore it.
Some people are very fond of their middle names and include them as a permanent part of their moniker. Neil Patrick, Billy Bob and Sarah Jessica wouldn’t be quite the same as Neil Harris, Billy Thornton and Sarah Parker.
There are also those who are so proud of their middle name they just drop the first one altogether. Walter Willis, William Pitt and Laura Jean Witherspoon are better known by their middle names, Bruce, Brad and Reese. What really puzzles me is when parents give their child a first and middle name with the full and complete intention of calling them by that middle name. What the…? Why? If you wanted to call your kid Hunter just name him Hunter, not Anthony Hunter. But hey, it’s your kid.
My middle name is Mark. I’m one of the fortunate ones. But I can promise you this, if my middle name was Spartacus you’d be calling me Spartacus. You might not even know my first name is Christopher. It would have been unbelievably cool. But, alas, Christopher Mark it is.
I figured if my son thought Spartacus was as cool as I did he would be thrilled and I would be father of the year. Heck! I’d be father of the millennium! If he didn’t, he never had to tell anyone. So, I can tell you’re wondering the obvious question. What did my wife think? Not a fan. Well, a fan of the film, but not a fan of naming her first offspring after its hero. We decided to name him after another hero we both love, Wolverine. Well… actually Logan. But I kid you not, our son’s middle name is after Wolverine.
As you can probably imagine, when I found out that Spartacus was going to be part of the classic film series at our local megaplex I was ecstatic. Our son is 17 now and the perfect age to fully appreciate this magnificent film.
I was blown away yet again by Peter Ustinov’s (right) Oscar-winning performance as Batiatus, the ingratiating owner of the gladiator school where Spartacus is trained. But for some unknown reason I had forgotten how incredible the great Charles Laughton (below) was as Senator Gracchus. Spartacus was one of his final films in a career that spanned 5 decades. He is spectacularly compelling every time he’s on screen. Watching Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Sir Laurence Olivier go toe-to-toe is just an acting dream.
I think the timing of the Spartacus showing was especially perfect because Ben Hur and Gladiator were also part of this series. But neither of the other two have the sophistication of Spartacus.
I credit that to director Stanley Kubrick and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The social commentary may be a little lost now more than 50 years after its release, but at the time Trumbo had been blacklisted for his communist views. There was a lot of pressure in Hollywood to “name names” identifying members of the Communist Party USA. This puts the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene in a different light.
Of course I’m not endorsing Communism but I would certainly endorse someone’s freedom in America to hold their own beliefs even if they aren’t popular. Trumbo adapted Howard Fast’s novel from a very personal place. And it’s this heart that elevates Spartacus to another level, an emotional level that Ben Hur and Gladiator don’t achieve. It’s that heart which radiates from Spartacus that makes the strongest connection. You see it from the moment he appears on screen as an oppressed slave. You see it when he first meets and falls in love with Varinia. You see it in his defiance over his tormenting master Marcellus. You see it in his camaraderie and care for the men and women who join him. You see it in his unwavering commitment to live free or die.
As a general rule I am not big into heroes being all the way good all the time. I prefer when there is a struggle to do the right thing. Superman is boring. But Spartacus is the exception and it’s because he’s genuine. He’s vulnerable. He’s sincere. I don’t know if I was able to articulate all of this about Spartacus back when we were picking baby names. But it resonated with me this past Wednesday just like it did in 1996.
I wasn’t alone. It resonated for my son as well, especially the “I’m Spartacus!” scene. He’d seen it in a clip somewhere but not until he saw it in context was it meaningful. I thought it impressive that even though the element of surprise was gone it still packed an emotional punch.
As we walked out of the theater I delivered my usual line, “What’d you think?” This always opens up a litany of thoughts and opinions from the point of view of an aspiring filmmaker. But this time he had a more personal takeaway. “I’m glad you almost named me Spartacus.” That was cool.
Now, I’m not foolish enough to think that just because he likes the idea now at 17 that when he’s 30 he’d feel the same way. But the fact that Spartacus is the kind of hero he’d like to be someday meant a lot to me. But let’s not make this too sappy. He also went on to marvel at the sheer magnitude of the production. Repeatedly during the film he’d lean over and ask me if the masses of people were real or just part of the matte painting. The thousands of extras Kubrick used in 1960 are still wowing a teenager in 2014. There’s something to be said for real live actors (I’m looking at you James Cameron).
Spartacus holds up as a grand epic even after 54 years. But it also holds up as a very personal and profound film for me after 18. Only time will tell if Spartacus has made the same impression on my son as it did on me. If not that’s OK. But it does make me wonder what films will be most meaningful to him through his life. You never know, I could end up with a grandson named Django.