Kirk Douglas, one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, has died, according to a post on his son Michael Douglas’s official Facebook account. The actor was 103 when he passed away on February 5. He famously played the titular character in Spartacus.
Kirk Douglas starred in countless films during his long and fruitful career, earning Oscar nominations for his roles in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Lust for Life (1956) early in his career. His performances caught the eye of fabled director Stanley Kubrick, who enlisted Douglas for parts in his films Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960). The latter is one of the best-known films about ancient Rome ever made.
His work during Spartacus could have killed Douglas’s career, as it attracted negative attention and much vitriol from conservative groups as being anti-American and sympathetic to Communism.
Historical Hits and Misses in Spartacus
Movies often have historical inaccuracies in them, while others pay painstaking attention to detail. Whether these inaccuracies matter or not to audiences, they tend to make for good storytelling. So where did the creators of Spartacus get their inspirations?
“In 73 B.C., a slave named Spartacus was being trained at a gladiator school run by Lentulus Batiatus, located near the southern Italian city of Capua,” said Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete, Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. “This Spartacus led the gladiators in a rebellion, and about 70 of them escaped into a countryside. They took refuge on Mount Vesuvius, from where they raided nearby plantations, freeing more slaves, and building a slave army that ultimately numbered more than 100,000.”
Though they defied imprisonment and death for years, Dr. Aldrete said, they were eventually defeated by Marcus Licinius Crassus, and 6,000 slaves were executed as a deterrent against future rebellions.
Much of that basic story remains intact, and deserves credit. However, to serve the story of the film, some liberties were taken. The biggest change in the film is the hero’s background. According to Dr. Aldrete, the real Spartacus was born a free man and working as a paid soldier for Rome when he defected; neither he nor his parents were born into slavery as the film claims. Further, the real Spartacus’s wife was a native Thracian like himself rather than a Roman. Spartacus’s goals and his historical legacy are also different in the film, Dr. Aldrete said.
“In the movie, he is repeatedly depicted as a freedom fighter whose objective is not merely to escape servitude, but to destroy the entire institution of slavery,” he said. “In his autobiography, [Kirk] Douglas reveals that the idea of Spartacus as a kind of proto-abolitionist was what drew him to the topic in the first place. In reality, Spartacus never seems to have harbored any such grand ambitions, but rather was much more narrowly focused on gaining freedom for himself and his immediate companions.”
Communist Concerns over Spartacus
Of course, a movie about an uncaring ruling class being overrun and revolted against by its exploited workers rang a different bell in the era of McCarthyism than it might have if it were made in another period. It was immaterial to some that Spartacus depicted the horrors of slavery; the film and its source material had subversive fans and creators that made conservative Americans bristle.
“One person imprisoned by the [House Un-American Activities] Committee who legitimately had communist sympathies was popular novelist Howard Fast,” Dr. Aldrete said. “While in prison, Fast got the idea of writing a novel about Spartacus, but as he was blacklisted by the publishing industry; he ended up self-publishing the book in 1951. It turned out to be a huge success and a bestseller. In Fast’s novel, Spartacus is a true proto-Marxist hero fighting against capitalism and imperialism as embodied by the corrupt Roman Republic.”
Despite Fast’s blacklisting, Dr. Aldrete said, Kirk Douglas—who had just been passed over for Ben-Hur—discovered and chose the novel as the basis for an epic he wished to produce. Some years earlier, several filmmakers had been blacklisted as communist sympathizers and became known as the Hollywood Ten, but this didn’t trouble Douglas.
“Douglas opposed the Hollywood blacklisting, and since his film was outside the studio system, he decided to hire Dalton Trumbo, one of the original blacklisted Hollywood Ten, as the scriptwriter,” Dr. Aldrete said. “Trumbo had been writing under pseudonyms, but Douglas intended to credit Trumbo under his own name, defying the blacklist.”
Their involvement drew plenty of negative attention from anti-communist groups like the American Legion, which called for a boycott of the film; however, a bold move by one unquestionably patriotic American turned things around for the production and changed American history.
“A key turning point came when President John F. Kennedy, instead of watching the new film at a private viewing at the White House, as was common, attended a showing at a public movie theater in Washington, crossing a picket line to do so,” Dr. Aldrete said. “Afterwards, he commented favorably on the film. This action, along with the movie’s commercial success, did much to legitimize it in the public eye, and these developments effectively ended Hollywood’s blacklist era.”
Fearlessness and compassion like that shown to the writers of Spartacus were just one high point of Kirk Douglas’s life that came through in his career.
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete contributed to this article. Dr. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master’s degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan.