While 1960's Spartacus was the subject of plenty of behind-the-scenes drama, including a script by then-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, it should not be forgotten that the movie featured an embarrassment of riches on the screen, including legendary actors like Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, and Kirk Douglas as the title character, an illiterate slave who leads a revolt against the Roman Empire in 73 B.C. Here are some facts about director Stanley Kubrick's historical epic.
1. YUL BRYNNER TRIED TO MAKE HIS OWN SPARTACUS MOVIE FIRST.
A Spartacus film starring Brynner and Anthony Quinn was on the slate for United Artists, with the titles Spartacus and The Gladiators already trademarked. UA even paid for a full-page ad to be published in Variety in February 1958 for The Gladiators. However, Douglas and his film company owned the movie rights to Howard Fast's novel, Spartacus, and when Universal Pictures backed Douglas—along with Ustinov, Olivier, and Laughton all preferring Trumbo's script over the script for Brynner's project—Douglas had won. Brynner's film was never made.
2. HOWARD FAST WAS THE FIRST ONE TO TRY WRITING THE SCRIPT.
Universal gave Douglas four weeks to come up with a script if he wanted their backing. Unfortunately, Douglas considered Fast's attempt at adapting his own book to be a "disaster." Douglas turned to Trumbo to save the project, with Trumbo writing it under the alias "Sam Jackson"—he had won a writing Oscar years earlier for The Brave One (1956) under the pseudonym "Robert Rich."
Fast would later, according to him, be begged by Douglas to go out to Hollywood during filming to work with Kubrick to help. "They had started shooting the movie from Dalton Trumbo's script and they had about an hour and forty minutes of disconnected and chaotic film," Fast said in an interview. "While they had all this film, they had no 'movie' and no story — just pieces of film really." By Fast's estimation, he wrote 27 scenes to connect the footage that had already been shot into a cohesive picture.
3. STANLEY KUBRICK WAS NOT THE FIRST DIRECTOR.
David Lean (1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai) turned down an offer to direct, and Laurence Olivier was asked but declined because he thought both acting and directing would be too much. Douglas believed that the original director, Anthony Mann, was scared of the large scope of the movie, and he also didn't like how close he was to the British actors, so he fired him after two weeks of filming. Douglas turned to Kubrick, his director on Paths of Glory (1957), who agreed for a salary of $150,000.
4. JEAN SIMMONS WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL VARINIA.
Douglas wanted actress Jeanne Moreau (1959's Les Liaisons dangereuses) for the part, but she didn't want to leave her boyfriend in France. German actress Sabina Bethmann was then cast as Varinia, but once things got rolling with Kubrick, it was decided she wasn't right for the role, so she was paid $3,000 to go home. Then Douglas called Jean Simmons at her ranch in Arizona. "Kirk told me to get my ass on out to Los Angeles," Simmons said. "I did. Pronto." For what it's worth, Fast believed Ingrid Bergman should have gotten the gig all along.
5. PETER USTINOV WASN'T FORMALLY INTRODUCED TO DOUGLAS.
Ustinov (Batiatus) first met Douglas shooting the scene when his slave trader character discovers Spartacus chained to a rock. Because Douglas was so ragged looking, he didn't recognize the man.
6. CHARLES LAUGHTON AND LAURENCE OLIVIER DID NOT GET ALONG.
According to Ustinov, he had to act as a buffer between the thespians Laughton (Gracchus) and Olivier (Crassus). "For some reason—like animals—they just didn’t like each other," Ustinov remembered. "When you get two dogs that growl at each other, you don’t really ask why, you just accept it. But Olivier knew that Laughton was going to appear at Stratford in England as King Lear and tried to make up for this atmosphere by giving Laughton a little diagram with crosses on it and saying [mimicking Olivier], 'Dear boy, I’ve marked here the areas on the stage from where you can’t be heard.' And Laughton was delighted. [mimicking Laughton] 'Thank you so much, Larry. I shan’t forget that. Oh, you are kind.' And as soon as Olivier was out of earshot Laughton turned to me and said, 'I’m sure those are the very areas from which you can be heard.'"
7. OLIVIER WORE A FAKE NOSE.
It was fairly similar to his actual snout. Ustinov said on the DVD commentary he thought that the fake nose helped Olivier "feel safe."
8. KUBRICK TOLD THE HIRED CINEMATOGRAPHER TO TAKE A SEAT.
Because Kubrick was a cinematographer himself and very exacting in what he wanted, he eventually told Russell Metty, the man hired by Anthony Mann, to do nothing and let Kubrick do all the work for him. Metty would win his first and only Oscar for Best Cinematography for "his" work on Spartacus.
9. MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL ATTENDEES PROVIDED THE SHOUTING.
The 76,000 football fans at the October 17, 1959 showdown between Notre Dame and Michigan State were asked to scream "Hail, Crassus," "On to Rome," "Spartacus, Spartacus," and of course "I am Spartacus!" They were also tasked to make "shouts and noises of an army in combat," and told by actor John Gavin (Julius Caesar) to make sure not to scream any modern sayings like "yippee" or "yay" or "Charge!" Douglas later wrote in his autobiography, “It’s only natural for Spartacus to go to the Spartans for help.” Michigan State won that day 19-0.
10. THERE WERE INJURIES ON SET, AND EVEN A DEATH.
Douglas stopped production for 10 days when he came down with the flu. Tony Curtis (Antoninus) had to be "worked around" for five weeks after he split his Achilles tendon playing tennis with Douglas at Douglas's home. Art director Eric Orbom had a fatal heart attack during production; he would later win a posthumous Oscar for Best Art Direction in the movie.
11. KIRK DOUGLAS WAS LEFT HANGING ONE DAY.
"I remember a long, long day of filming and it took forever to get Kirk Douglas up on his cross," Jean Simmons once recalled. "When he was safely installed, the assistant director called lunch and left him up there. You have to have a sense of humour in this industry."
12. THERE WAS SOME CENSORSHIP.
The "snails and oysters" scene, where Olivier's character attempted to seduce Tony Curtis's character in a Roman bathhouse, only made it to two test screenings before the New York Legion of Decency demanded it be excised from the movie because it was considered obscene. Censors suggested changing snails and oysters to "artichokes and truffles," but Douglas and Kubrick opted to take the whole four-minute scene out instead. Curtis remembered that the studio wasn't a fan of the scene to begin with, to the objections of himself and Olivier. When it was only shot once, Curtis said, "We knew there was trouble right there." He added, "Stanley [Kubrick] and I were perhaps a little more progressive in our thinking than Kirk [Douglas] and all those other guys who were making the movie. Sure, let’s talk about everything but let’s not talk about homosexuality. That’s a no-no. Especially at Universal Pictures."
13. ANTHONY HOPKINS WAS BROUGHT IN TO VOICE THE DECEASED OLIVIER IN A CONTROVERSIAL SCENE.
A 1991 restoration pieced together long-lost footage discovered in studio vaults and saved by collectors to restore its original cut of 197 minutes, including the parts censored out. The sound of the "oysters and snails" scene had to be re-dubbed, so Curtis re-recorded his part, and from the suggestion of Olivier's widow, Anthony Hopkins voiced Crassus, in his best Olivier impersonation. Kubrick faxed instructions on how to play the scene.
14. IT TOOK 167 DAYS TO FILM AND ABOUT 10,500 PEOPLE TO MAKE.
Twelve million dollars was spent on Spartacus, a record for the most expensive movie made (primarily) in Hollywood at the time. Its budget ended up exceeding the total worth of Universal, which was sold to MCA for $11,250,000 during filming. Universal employees spent an estimated 250,000 man-hours working on everything. Italian museums and costume houses supplied 5000 uniforms and seven tons of armor, and 8800 Spanish army troops were captured on film for the battle scenes (the final battle was shot in Madrid). Overall about 50,000 extras were involved. All 187 stuntmen were "trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death."
15. DOUGLAS AND JFK HELPED END THE BLACKLIST.
Kubrick suggested using his own name as the writer of the film, even though Dalton Trumbo wrote the majority of the screenplay. This offended Douglas, who opted to just use Trumbo's real name as the credited screenwriter, despite the predictable opposition from the American Legion because of Trumbo's refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The American Legion protested, but after President John F. Kennedy saw it and said he enjoyed the feature, blacklisting was all but over. Douglas said in 2010 that as far as he was concerned, "the most important by-product of Spartacus is that we broke the blacklist."
16. STANLEY KUBRICK LATER DISOWNED IT.
He demanded that three of his movies, including Spartacus, not be included in the home video Stanley Kubrick Collection in 1999. It wasn't a surprise. In 1968 he said, "Then I did Spartacus, which was the only film that I did not have control over, and which I feel was not enhanced by that fact. It all really just came down to the fact that there are thousands of decisions that have to be made, and that if you don't make them yourself, and if you're not on the same wavelength as the people who are making them, it becomes a very painful experience, which it was." He added that the movie "had everything but a good story."