Movies for the Resistance: Spartacus

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Herbert Lom
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Running time: 197 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 1960


I cite the Hero’s Journey a lot on these columns; Joseph Campbell’s philosophy holds a great deal of wisdom and comfort in the midst of The Late Unpleasantness. We live in an era of extremities, and his lessons stand out all the sharper when social behavior – both good and bad – gets pushed to extremes.

Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus makes an easy fit for the Hero’s Journey, and I’ve avoided writing about it before now simply because it’s a little too on the nose. Underdog-rebels-who-stick-to-their-principles stories run the risk of overwhelming every one of these entries: second only to dystopian future movies on that front. And certainly, if you need inspiration to sign up for the next protest march or give the poor bastards answering your Congressman’s phones a hard time, you could do a hell of a lot worse than watching Kirk Douglas take on the Roman Empire. But for now at least, we’ll set more obvious issues aside, and look at the road to Spartacus’s rebellion… which holds more interest than the rebellion itself.

The media (who aren’t off the hook for their part in all of this) has made a great deal of hay in the last few days about the grotesquely blasé responses from GOP officials regarding the ongoing shitshow at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “What, me worry?” is the order of the day on the right, and while Paul Ryan and his slimy opportunists clearly know how bad the White House has gotten, they show no inclination to act on it. Fear of losing their seats and the prospect of judicial appointees, tax cuts, etc. holds more importance to them than the institutions of democracy that Trump lays siege to every day.

It beggars a simple question: “When does one decide that Trump’s threat to the country outweighs short-term benefits or supposed fealty to the system?” In other words, can one answer the call late in the game? The future of the republic may hinge on the answer, for the longer we go and the higher the excrement rises, the harder it will be for the “This Is Fine” crowd to dig themselves out. So at what point does that arise? At what stage does anyone – elected Republican official or loyal voter alike – say “nuts to this” and turn on the cancer at the heart of our country? Some will ride the Trump train to the end of the line of course (to quote Anderson Cooper, “if he took a dump on his desk, you would defend him”), but sooner or later, reality comes crashing through for even the most stubborn partisan, and the straw that breaks the camel’s back may arise from comparatively minor events.

And that’s where Spartacus holds interest beyond just being a stalwart underdog battling a corrupt institution. We’re used to heroes arriving fresh-faced and untested: the bright young lad or lassie either answers the call or doesn’t, but the road of trials arrives before they have a chance to see the world. Spartacus is interesting on that front because the hero who answers the call is well into middle age. Douglas was 44 when Spartacus was released, and while we know only a little about the character’s past, he’s clearly seen his share of living before being captured and dumped into a gladiator’s academy, where he will presumably battle to the death.

At this stage, he has no wish to start a revolution and no inkling of destiny’s plans for him. He desires only survival and escape from his condition. The seeds of defiance burn in his eyes – indeed, he’s sent to gladiator school to snuff out that fire – but he has no plans to act on it. And no single event drives him to it either: it takes multiple affronts to push him over the edge.

The cascade starts with his refusal to rape Varinia (Jean Simmons) for the amusement of his captors. It grows when the slave Draba (Woody Strode) turns on the Romans rather than murder him in the arena: this after the same slave told him not to form attachments to men he may have to kill. (Strode is African-American, and the racial overtures of his character’s self-sacrifice becomes hard to deny.)

But the final moment comes after all of that that, when his trainer (Charles McGraw) mocks his feelings for Varinia as she’s carried off to Rome. It’s a simple act of humiliation, not a life-or-death struggle or an attempt to turn him into a rutting animal. But it’s the match-head that sparks the riot that frees the gladiators that leads to a revolution. It ultimately fails, of course, though the defiance remains until his death and beyond. Indeed, that becomes film’s primary emotional punch and forms a key component in its status as a classic. But for Startacus – and for history – that one comparatively small moment officially kicks it all off.

In this case, it’s less that moment than all the moments leading up to it: the pattern of abuse that creates a snap just when his captors think they have him broken. The slow steady drip of embarrassment and humiliation prove too much at a point even he may not be entirely aware of.

That makes him a rebel, but he becomes a hero only when he rises past petty revenge. With the goal of freedom in mind, he organizes the slaves into an army capable of challenging Rome itself. Yet he doesn’t seek battle or its own sake, and his goal consist only of liberation for people held in chains.

That, in and of itself, becomes intertwined with his initial act of rebellion. He refuses to be treated like an animal because he has a sense of decency, and his decency keeps the freed gladiators in those early days from devolving into just another gang of bandits. Does the act elevate the temperament or does the temperament engender the act? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma, but it’s also part of what makes Spartacus more than just a desiccated period piece.

Certainly, we’re a long way from such extremities here in 2017, no matter what the lunatics on the fringe left claim. But there’s no doubt we’re in a profound crisis, the outcome of which will determine the future of this country. Spartacus’s riddle of motivation bears no small part in how we resolve this as a nation. Politicians stay aligned with Trump because they believe it’s expedient to do so, knowing full well the damage he causes every day he remains in power. Trump’s rank-and-file followers engage in similar willful denial, either out of hope that he will keep his ludicrous campaign promises or because they love the spectacle of hate and destruction that he embodies.

But understanding Trump means understanding how readily and easily he turns on those he once called allies. (The term is “idealization/devaluation” and it’s a key part of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.) He clearly has no problems throwing underlings under the bus when he finds it convenient, and his willingness to alienate ostensible allies through petty displays of dominance have already caused considerable damage to our security and reputation.

Few subjected to such torments like it – witness the farcical display on June 12th, as Trump’s cabinet sang his praises beneath furious eyes and gritted teeth – but to date, all of them have kissed the ring. At what point do they crack? At what point does the combination of abject humiliation and overt damage to the institutions of democracy cause them to say “no more!”?

Clearly, it takes a lot, and I fear that few of them possess the solidarity and ethics of Douglas’s hero. But Trump’s mendacity knows no bounds, and if the better angels of the GOP’s nature can’t save them, perhaps their own egos and unwillingness to endure such arrogant incompetence will.  Whoever it is that finally takes a stand – whichever ostensible Trump supporter turns on their master and helps end this insanity – may be spared the terrible judgment of history.

As for the rest of us – those opposing the Trump gasoline fire for almost two years now – we need to be ready to pick up the second half of Spartacus’s trick: the part where we don’t let the need for justice slide into the howl of the mob. Luckily, he gave us a damn good catch phrase to rally around… and a standard that we can’t afford to let slip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *