Monday, October 31, 2016

The Politics of: Spartacus

Spartacus, apart from being a rousing epic, is also important in that it was the first film where a blacklisted writer was openly given credit for his work.   Between 1947 and 1960, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was persona non grata in Hollywood, unable to find legitimate work and forced to either use pseudonyms or 'fronts' (people who claimed credit for his work with his consent) to make a living as a writer.

During this time, Trumbo technically won two Academy Awards for which he could not openly take credit at the time: for the films Roman Holiday and The Brave One.  Circumstances being the way they were Trumbo had to wait until 1975 to receive his Oscar for The Brave One, and had died by the time he was officially recognized with a posthumous Oscar for Roman Holiday.

Now, the blacklist is a particularly nefarious era in Hollywood history.  Writers, directors, and actors who either had been members of the Communist Party or accused of being members saw their careers severely damaged if not ruined when the studios opted to not hire them or flat-out fire them.  Some managed to survive direct evidence of Communist Party actions.  Lucille Ball had once registered as a Communist to humor her grandfather, a Socialist.  This came back to temporarily haunt her during the Red Scare of the 1950s, but thanks to the support of I Love Lucy sponsor Phillip Morris, the strong goodwill she'd built up with the public and the I Love Lucy fans, and the fact that her husband/costar, Desi Arnaz, was himself a refugee from Communist Cuba saved her and her career.

Others were not so lucky.  Phillip Loeb, who was a star of the popular television series The Goldbergs, was let go when rumors of Communist affiliation became attached to him, leading to his suicide five years later.

With Spartacus now being the first time one of the Hollywood Ten was openly credited, we are now free to speculate about whether Trumbo's politics and/or situation seeped into the epic production. 

This is all speculation on my part, and it is a bit of an exercise in perception.  With the exception of star Kirk Douglas (who is two months away from turning 100), and John Gavin (who played Julius Caesar) no one involved with Spartacus is around to tell us what exactly their motivations were, or the interpretations thereof.

Therefore, let's have some fun with our first The Politics Of...article, and let's go over The Politics Of...Spartacus.

Spartacus is a tale of the oppressed rising up against their oppressors, in this case slaves rebelling against their Roman masters. Perhaps this is a reason why the Howard Fast novel upon which Spartacus was based on was so popular in America Communist circles.  The historical figure of Spartacus himself appears to have been a great inspiration for Communists in general (see "Spartacus League" during World War I).  It isn't that much of a stretch to imagine a film based on this figure would have similarly leftward views.

The film Spartacus has what could be interpreted as liberal, even dare we say, "Communist" beliefs.  Let's start with how the rich and poor mingled in ancient Rome.  The idle rich, who did not work but who had all the wealth and power, made sport of watching the poor and enslaved fight it out to the death.  Yes, this is historic, but Spartacus gives us a very interesting moment when Laurence Olivier's Crassus watches Spartacus in the gladiatorial arena.

Woody Strode's Draba, the black man Spartacus has to fight, will not kill him despite the calls for him to do so.  Instead, he throws his trident at them and rushes their seats.  Only Crassus stays in his seat, and coldly slits Draba's throat.  It suggests a ruthlessness to Crassus, our antagonist, one who politically speaking represents a tyrannical order, one where dissent must be suppressed.

Crassus, perhaps could be argued, was the reactionary symbol, one that held itself as the arbiter of what was good, what was "Roman" (read, "American").  Crassus holds Rome to be his birthright, something he was bequeathed and something he and only he can (or should) control. He and only he can 'clean up Rome', or to use another term, "Make Rome Great Again".

Over and over, Crassus describes Rome as something to worship, to admire, and most importantly, to rule.  One guess as to whom he thinks should rule it.

Certainly not the plebian Gracchus (Charles Laughton).  This 'man of the people' is Crassus' fiercest opponent, as wily a politician as Crassus has come across.  Curiously, the fact that Gracchus, liberal that he is, never calls for an end to slavery perhaps suggests that both Republicans and Democrats, debating forever, don't want a real, radical change.  Instead, they only differ as to who should have power: the wealthy elites or the man on the streets, but both never suggest that the oppression of 'non-Romans' is wrong in and of itself, let alone in the equality of all man and the 'slaves' right to be free.

Spartacus, in his call for universal freedom, is a threat to both of them, more to Crassus' elitism than Gracchus', but should slaves be free, Gracchus would lose his unofficial harem of all-female slaves, and he isn't about to let that happen.  The slave revolt, like the proletariat uprisings, are nothing more than tools of the political class, more interesting in fighting each other than fighting the good fight.

In the early days of the slave revolt, I was reminded of the French and Russian Revolutions: the sacking, the looting, the unorganized and chaotic nature of the poor overthrowing the wealthy.  It is Spartacus who organizes the slave army, and in his call to unite or die, where they would free every slave they find, I could almost hear him say, "You have nothing to lose but your chains".

In Spartacus' army, we have a literal march of the people, rising in rebellion against rebellion and oppression.  I figure images such as this would appeal to a left-wing person, but let's go a little deeper.

It is when we get near the end, as Crassus and Spartacus address their own groups.  Crassus is determined to destroy the rebellion, and to do so, he must become dictator and punish his opponents.  Spartacus, lit in almost divine light as he delivers his own "Sermon on the Mount", tells them he will willingly die, a free man among brothers, not like his oppressors who grow fat from food they didn't work for and surrounded by slaves.

If we extend this analogy, Spartacus, leader of 'the people', will die among his 'brothers' (dare we say, comrades'), and not with those parasites who live off the workers they hold down.

In all of this, I haven't quite convinced myself that Spartacus is an overtly political film, one that slips liberal or Communist propaganda in it.  I DO think it does have commentary on the blacklist.

There IS one moment that can be said to be quite overt politically, though more on what had gone on recently versus some Stalinist shenanigans.  It's the famous "I'm Spartacus!" moment.  Once Spartacus' army is destroyed, Crassus tells the captured slaves that they can avoid the cruel death of crucifixion if they identify the body or living person of Spartacus.  Spartacus begins to rise when Antoninus rises and shouts, "I'M SPARTACUS!" to a shocked Spartacus.  Soon others rise and call out, "I'M SPARTACUS!" until every man shouts that they are Spartacus, shocking and infuriating Crassus.

All these men had a chance to 'name names', but they stood firm and defied the powers that be.  They wouldn't betray one of their own, even at the cost of their lives.  Instead, by declaring they were ALL Spartacus, they made it clear they were standing as one.  An attack on one was an attack on all.  Most importantly, they would not name names, and the parallel between "I'M Spartacus!" and how Trumbo would not give up his friends and comrades up to the oppressors.

If Trumbo had any message, it wasn't a political one but a commentary on his forced exile.  We see this allegory between real-life politic and Spartacus also near the end, when Crassus hauls Gracchus to a secret meeting at the Senate.  Crassus informs his hated rival that already 'traitors' are being arrested and lists of the disloyal being compiled. 

Enemies lists, arrests without trials for 'betraying' the State?  Sounds very much like 'un-American Activities' to me. 

Again, I figure people can read some left-wing, even Communist views in Spartacus.  I personally hold that if there are any, they weren't so overt that I caught them, and in fairness I really don't care.  I think that Spartacus was not one that had many politics in it as such (though I could see how one could interpret such things).  Instead, I think Spartacus is more about how Dalton Trumbo worked out his fury at Hollywood's treatment of him, the combination of cowardice and hypocrisy with regards to the blacklist.  If Spartacus is allegory, it's more about the Hollywood blacklist than it is about Communist propaganda.

I still think Spartacus can be enjoyed as a rousing spectacle.  It isn't by far the greatest film made on the subject, but it is still a smart, well-crafted film, a credit to everyone involved.

While this last part isn't about any political messages or undertones in Spartacus, overt or covert, it is about another matter no less controversial: the homoeroticism snipped from the theatrical release that was restored decades later, a scene that even now, in an era where same-sex marriage has been made legal, is shockingly daring and risqué.

The 'snails and oysters' scene, cut from the original Spartacus, up to a point suggests that Trumbo either thought audiences more sophisticated than they were given credit and/or that censors more stupid than he gave them credit.  The overtones of homosexuality were as overt as one could make them without actually saying the term "homosexual".  Olivier's Crassus asks virile, nubile slave-boy Antoninus if he eats oysters (read, 'vagina').  "When I have them, Master," is his reply. 

He then asks the supple young man if he eats snails (read, 'penises'). "No, Master," is his worried reply.  Crassus then asks Antoninus a most curious question: if he considers the eating of oysters moral and the eating of snails immoral.  Eating food has no morality (apart from cannibalism).  Eating, if used as a euphemism for 'sex', however, can come under the umbrella of morals.

Right there, it is clear to anyone, even those Trumbo apparently thinks are not as clever or bright as he is, that Crassus is now offering Antoninus an offer he cannot refuse: sexual favors which the slave is in no position to reject.

As it stands, Crassus' view is that eating oyster or snails is a matter of taste, not appetite, and as such not a question of morals.  Therefore, since Crassus tells Antoninus that his tastes include oysters...and snails, Crassus makes it very clear (even to dumb 1950s censors) that Crassus wants to 'indulge in the pleasures of the flesh' with Antoninus.   

Let's interpret this.

One: Trumbo, in his own way, had contempt for those looking over his work if he thought something THIS overt would fool anyone.  We can say that perhaps he knew he couldn't get it past them and decided to include it anyway, but in this case, the fact that it was cut shows that the censors weren't the rubes Trumbo might have thought they were.  They may not have caught on to everything, but they could see some overtones.

Ultimately, I think people can enjoy Spartacus politics or no politics, whatever the political persuasions of the viewer.

The Hollywood blacklist era was ugly, and I think the temptation to put things into simple 'good guys and bad guys' mode.  Trumbo=Good, Wayne=Bad.  However, something Dalton Trumbo himself said before his death I think puts things in the correct perspective.

"The blacklist was a time of evil, no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.  Looking back on this time, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none.  There were only victims". 

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