Spartacus was released by Universal Pictures in 1960 and starred legendary actor Kirk Douglas as the title character. The movie followed Spartacus’ journey from slave to rebellion leader during the Roman Empire. A box-office smash, the film was not without its own controversies behind the scenes. The screenplay was written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in his triumphant return to Hollywood. Co-stars Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton clashed on set. Despite it all, the film became the most financially successful for Universal at the time. This is everything you need to know about Spartacus.
United Artists Tried To Make Spartacus First
Two years before Universal released Spartacus, rival studio United Artists tried to make their own version starring Yul Brynner. The film would have been called Spartacus and The Gladiators. The studio was so confident their movie would get made, executives even took out a full-page ad in Variety to announce it.
Kirk Douglas’ production company owned the rights to the novel the movie was being adapted from, though. He, along with backing from Universal Studios, blocked UA from making their version.
Time Was Not On Kirk Douglas’ Side
Kirk Douglas may have blocked United Artists from making Spartacus and The Gladiators, but that didn’t put him at ease. Universal gave him four months to come up with his own version, or they would pull their offer to back him financially.
To get things going, Douglas hired Howard Fast to adapt his novel into a screenplay. The script was a disaster, leading Douglas to hire one of the most controversial figures in Hollywood to help him out.
Dalton Trumbo Saved The Day… Kind Of
Under the alias “Sam Jackson,” blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was hired to fix the script for Spartacus. Just a few years prior, using a different alias, Trumbo had won an Oscar for writing The Brave One.
Howard Fast detailed a different version of events though, claiming that Trumbo’s script was filled with holes, “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 then worked with the film’s director to write up to 27 new scenes to make the story cohesive.
Stanley Kubrick Was Hired Two Weeks Into Filming
Spartacus went through several potential directors before Kirk Douglas hired Stanley Kubrick. His first choice to direct was David Lean, who turned down the opportunity. Laurence Olivier was then offered the job but said “no” believing that acting and directing would be too much to handle.
Anthony Mann was finally hired, but two weeks into filming it became clear he couldn’t handle the massive scope of the movie. In 1957, Douglas had worked with Stanley Kubrick on Paths of Glory and offered him $150,000 to replace Mann after he was fired.
Jean Simmons Was Hired After Kubrick
After Kubrick came on board to direct Spartacus, actress Sabine Bethmann, who was cast as Varinia, was paid $3,000 to leave the production and go back home. Howard Fast wanted to replace her with Ingrid Bergman, but Kirk Douglas had other plans.
Douglas called up Jean Simmons, who recalled, “Kirk told me to get my [expletive] on out to Los Angeles… I did. Pronto.” With a new director and new leading lady in place, things should have settled down on set, but did not.
Peter Ustinov Met Kirk Douglas In Character
Before filming their first scene together, Kirk Douglas and Peter Ustinov had never met. Douglas, who was chained to a rock in the scene and looked as grungy as he could, was unrecognizable.
Ustinov would go on the win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work on the movie. It was the second time he had been nominated and the time he won. Four years later he would win a second Oscar for Topkapi.
Actors Fought On Set
In an interview years after Spartacus came out, Peter Ustinov revealed that Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton did not play nice with each other on set:
“For some reason—like animals—they just didn’t like each other. When you get two dogs that growl at each other, you don’t really ask why, you just accept it.” Ustinov also revealed he would often have to be the middle man between the two in order to keep some semblance of peace on the set.
Kubrick Made His Cinematographer Take A Seat
Throughout Stanley Kubick’s career, he gained a reputation for being incredibly detailed. This need to control every aspect rubbed Russell Metty, his cinematographer on Spartacus the wrong way. Tension rose so high between the two that Kubrick told Metty to “sit down.”
While Metty wasn’t happy initially, Spartacus won him an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, the first of his career. Metty’s career would last another 17 years and would see him work on high impact television shows including Columbo and Rich Man, Poor Man.
Real Spartans Were Used For The Film’s Shouting
On October 17, 1959, the Michigan Wolverines college football team played Notre Dame in front of 76,000 fans. The crowd noise was used for the shouting scenes in the film. During the game, the Spartan fans were asked to scream several phrases including, “I am Spartacus” and “On to Rome.”
Michigan beat Notre Dame 19-0 on that day, about which Kirk Douglas remarked in his autobiography, “It’s only natural for Spartacus to go to the Spartans for help.”
Filming Had To Halt After An Injury On Set
Filming for Spartacus proved to be filled with more issues than just actors disagreeing. Production was delayed by ten days when Kirk Douglas got the flu. Later, filming was stopped for another five weeks when Tony Curtis split his Achilles tendon.
Then, tragically, Eric Orbom, the art director for the movie, suffered a heart attack and passed away. He would win a posthumous Oscar for his work on the film before his untimely death.
Kirk Douglas Was Pranked On The Set
For as much drama as there was on set, there also needed to be humor. One prank, in particular, targeted Kirk Douglas while he was hanging from a cross in character as Spartacus.
Actress Jean Simmons said, “I remember a long, long day of filming and it took forever to get Kirk Douglas up on his cross… When he was safely installed, the assistant director called lunch and left him up there. You have to have a sense of humor in this industry.”
One Scene Was Censored
In 1991, Spartacus was restored and added back in a scene involving snails and oysters that were originally censored by the New York Legion of Decency. In the scene, Laurence Olivier’s characters attempts to seduce Tony Curtis’ character in a Roman bathhouse.
Surprisingly, the censorship committee wasn’t opposed to the seduction attempt, they objected to the snails and oysters. The legion even suggested replacing the animals with “artichokes and truffles.” The studio also objected to the scene, though, resulting in it being removed from the original cut.
The Censored Scene Was Only Shot One Time
Tony Curtis knew the snail and oyster scene was doomed from the get-go when they were only allowed one take, “We knew there was trouble right there. 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.”
Restoring the scene in 1991 proved just as difficult as trying to get originally approved, just not for the reasons you might think.
New Actors Were Brought In To Restore The Scene
The original, 197-minute cut of Spartacus was restored in 1991 and included the famously controversial snails and oysters scene. The only problem was the scene, because it was only shot once, needed to be entirely re-dubbed and Laurence Olivier was dead.
To solve the problem, Olivier’s widow recommended having Anthony Hopkins voice the character. To make sure he got it right, Stanley Kubrick even sent Hopkins detailed instructions for the role.
The Production Was Massive
Spartacus was one of the most expensive movies Hollywood had ever made at the time with a production budget of $12 million. That price was even more than Universal Studios was worth as a company!
Not only was it an expensive shoot, but it was also a long one. It took a total of 167 days to wrap filming on Spartacus with over 10,000 people involved in the production process. The battle scenes were some of the largest ever filmed as well, involving over 50,000 extras.
The Film Ended The Blacklist
In the 1940s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began blacklisting screenwriters who refused to testify about Communist relationships. This made the hiring of Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus fairly controversial.
To help settle the controversy, Kubrick offered to have his name used instead. Kirk Douglas refused and chose to use Trumbo’s real name. The American Legion protested the film until John Kennedy said he enjoyed the movie, ending the blacklist for good. Speaking about the movie’s impact, Douglas said, “the most important by-product of Spartacus is that we broke the blacklist.”
Kubrick Didn’t Get Final Say On Spartacus
Stanley Kubrick was 30-years-old when he was hired to replace Anthony Mann on Spartacus. As part of his negotiations, he was not given as much control as he normally would get. This led to the director later disowning the film, despite its commercial and critical success:
“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… if you’re not on the same wavelength as the people who are making them, it becomes a very painful experience, which it was.”
Kirk Douglas Regretted Firing Anthony Mann
After his fall-out with original director Anthony Mann, Kirk Douglas brought in Stanley Kubrick to direct Spartacus. Unfortunately, he reportedly had just as bad a time with Kubrick as he had with Mann.
Later, when Douglas was signed onto star in The Heroes of Telemark, his only condition was that Mann is brought on as the director. The movie was released in 1965 and followed Norwegian resistance soldiers during World War II.
Ben-Hur Inspired Douglas To Make Spartacus
When Ben-Hur was being made by William Wyler, Kirk Douglas desperately wanted to be cast in the movie as the lead. Wyler chose Charlton Heston over Douglas, who was instead offered the role of Messala.
Not wanting to play second fiddle, Douglas turned down the role and instead began developing Spartacus. Years after the movie came out, Douglas admitted the truth about why he made his gladiator film, “That was what spurred me to do it in a childish way, the ‘I’ll show them’ sort of thing.”
Kirk Douglas Tricked His Co-Stars Into Signing On
Kirk Douglas had big aspirations when he began developing Spartacus. To make the movie as large a spectacle as possible, he shot for the moon when it came to casting. This meant he had to get a little tricky to convince A-list actors to take smaller supporting roles.
To do this, Douglas gave each actor different versions of the script that emphasized the characters they were meant to play. The trick worked, although it also led to major egos clashing on the set.