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Customer Review

HALL OF FAMEon November 15, 2004
The rationale for turning Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film "Spartacus" into a two-part television mini-series was that this time the production would be more faithful to Howard Fast's novel. Given that the Spartacus revolt is a part of Roman history it would make more sense to try and be more faithful to that actual history than a fictional novel, but that is going to have to wait for another day and it just might take a while for Hollywood to want to revisit this story. The chief attraction of Fast's novel, in contrast to the historical record, would seem to be the happy ending that is provided by virtue of Spartacus having a child who survives his death and is raised free.

What we believe we know about the real Spartacus is that he was born free in Thrace and may have served as an auxiliary in the Roman army in Macedonia. However, he deserted, lived as an outlaw, was captured, sold into slavery, and ended up being trained at the gladiatorial school of Batiatus in Capua. In 73 B.C.E. Spartacus escaped with 70-80 other gladiators and camped on Vesuvius, where they were joined by other slaves who ran away from their masters and began plundering and pillaging the region. Spartacus wanted to escape Italy by crossing the Alpus, but the slaves from Gaul and Germany wanted to stay in southern Italy and continuing the plundering and pillaging. That first year Spartacus and his men defeated a force of 3,000 raw recruits led by Cladius Glaber and then two forces of legionary cohorts. In 72 B.C.E. Spartacus had an army of approximately 70,000 slaves and the Roman Senate sent two consuls, Publicola and Lentulus, with two legions each against the rebels. Publicola defeated the Gauls and Germans, and Crixus was killed. At Picenum in central Italy, Spartacus then defeated first Lentulus and then Publicola, having 300 prisoners from the battles fight in pairs to the death. The slave army then moved north and defeated the proconsul of Cisalpine Gual at Mutina. With the Alps open as a way out of Italy, the Gauls and Germans refused to go, and Spartacus returned to southern Italy intended to try and cross to Sicily.

At the height of the revolt Spartacus had about 120,000 followers and the Senate sent Marcus Licinius Crassus with six new legions in addition to the four consular legions to defeat Spartacus in 71 B.C.E. Exactly how Spartacus died is not known, although it is believed he died in the battle near the headwaters of the Siler River. Six thousand of the slaves that were taken prisoner by Crassus were crucified along the Appian Way from Capua, where the gladiators had been trained, to Rome. Another five thousand slaves escaped and fled north, but they were captured by Pompey's army and the following year Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls.

Enough of the history lesson. The point is that the slave revolt was not as unified or as simplistic as it appears in either version of "Spartacus." Following the lead of Fast's novel, it is not the conflict between Spartacus (Goran Visnjic) and Crixus (Paul Kynman) that is at the center of the drama but the collision course between Spartacus and Crassus (Angus Macfadyen), who are such mirror opposites. You have the former slave who is uncomfortable with being declared the leader of the slave revolt and the rich Roman who is just begging to be put in command of troops. Then there is Varinia (Rhona Mitra), the wife of Spartacus, created by Fast from a reference in Plutarch to Spartacus having a wife who was a former slave.

I wondered about the casting of this version of "Spartacus" in terms of the ages of the actors playing the historic figures. Overall, they are slightly younger. The year the slave revolt was crushed Spartacus was 38 (Visnjic is 32), Marcus Licinius Crassus was 45 (Macfadyen is 41, but looks much younger), and Pompey the Great was 36 (George Calil is 31). Although Pompey actually enjoyed a triumph when he was 24, he was the exception and not the rule. Yet in this production it is like the junior executives are fighting over who gets to run the firm. No wonder a giant slave army is running around the Italian countryside for a couple of years and no wonder after watching this remake you will be more impressed with the performance of Kirk Douglas in the original.

Visnjic's Spartacus comes across as bored rather than brooding. Before a big battle his idea of strategy and tactics is to hope that maybe they will get a break and be able to win. I can appreciate the idea that it is better to die free than to live as a slave, but you should try to avoid rushing off to die. Macfadyen's Crassus is rather petulant. He wants to rise to power in Rome but is thwarted by the machination of Agrippa (Alan Bates), and he sees Spartacus as the key to every thing he wants. That explains why he postures like he really believes he can defeat the gladiator in one-on-one combat on the field of battles, and why he is fixated on Varinia. This guy cannot be in charge of himself, so how can he run the Roman Republic? Bates and Mitra turn in the two best performances in "Spartacus," which makes their supporting characters the two most interesting ones. Spartacus has been an idealized champion of the masses because he stood up to the Romans at a time when they were carving out their empire, but the idea that he was a sensitive guy who accepted gender equality is just a bit too much. Hopefully, the next time the story of Spartacus is filmed they will just go with getting the history right instead of being concerned with political correctness.
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