When we were kids, growing up in Northern New Jersey, Sundays meant two things: church (where our Dad was the minister) and one of the great TV lineups in the history of broadcasting. First you had Sunrise Semester and Agriculture Today, which you only watched if you woke before 7:00 AM and were desperate, and even then, only for the farm safety commercials which featured tractors flipping over and crushing their drivers because they weren't front-weighted properly. But then came the early morning's real treat, Davey and Goliath., "Gee, Davey, you shouldn't have pushed that boy down the hill. That's not the Christian thing to do." Then breakfast, church & home in time for Roller Derby. Abbott & Costello movie at 11:30, hopefully a monster one. And then you faced the big question: what was the 1:00pm movie on WWOR, Channel 9, going to be?
Some entries you could blithely blow off and head outside for baseball or kick the can; others would only kill a couple hours and would still leave you plenty of time to play outside in the afternoon. But a couple of times a year, oh blessed days, you would get that four hour long day-killer, Stanley Kubrick's epic Spartacus. I mean, this thing wasn't just long, it even had a musical intermission for cripes sake. Of course, as kids we little suspected that this was a controversial movie--that the book and screenplay had been written by American Communists or that Laurence Olivier's Crassus was more interested in Tony Curtis's buttocks than his baritone. All we knew was that Kirk Douglas was a quintessential hero, there were amazing gladiator fights and battle scenes, Jean Simmons was babeolicious and even the music made you feel like having a sword fight. What more could any red-blooded American kid want in a movie? I believe we watched it every single time they showed it, an honor shared only by The Great Escape.
Several years ago, they issued a restored version of the film. Besides touching it up, they included a scene the censors had cut, with Laurence Olivier asking Tony Curtis if he liked oysters or snails, the supposed import being to determine his sexual preferences. Even as an adult this scene is so subtle that it's homoeroticism went soaring over my head. Nor, even watching it as an adult, could I discern much Communist propaganda to the film. It's message is clearly one of freedom, rather than of class warfare, despite a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (see Orrin's review of Johnny Got His Gun).
This emphasis is entirely consistent with what we know of the true course of events. In his informative little book, Gladiators, the great popular historian of the Ancient World, Michael Grant, offers the following account of Spartacus and the rebellion he led. Spartacus (c. 109-71 B.C.), reputed to be a man of high intellect and sterling character, was a Thracian who had served in the Roman Legions and then become a brigand before being sold into slavery as a deserter. He was sent to Capua to train as a gladiator, but in 73 B.C., he and 70 other slaves revolted. The rebels, mainly Thracians and Gauls, set up a camp at Mount Vesuvius to await Roman attack. There they defeated a Roman army under Claudius Glaber and were soon joined by local shepherds and herdsmen who swelled their numbers. They further fortified their forces with freed slaves as they won successive victories.
Spartacus, who harbored no illusions about their ability to defeat Rome in the long run, consistently tried to restrain the fury of his pillaging troops and hoped to escape across the Alps. However, Crixus, one of his lieutenants, wished to go on ravaging Rome, so he left, taking the Gauls with him. Crixus and his band were subsequently crushed in battle at Mount Garganus by four Roman legions, led now by two consuls, Lucius Gellius and Lentulus Clodianus. But when they turned their attention towards Spartacus, he managed to fight and defeat them separately at Picenum.
Spartacus managed to move his band as far north as Cisalpine Gaul, where he defeated the governor, but for undetermined reasons, he then retreated south. Grant speculates that he may have been unable to control his unruly army. This was the high water mark of the rebellion as the Romans now sent out Crassus, a powerful millionaire/politician, who managed to corner Spartacus in the toe of Italy and proceeded to build a wall of fortifications to hold him there.
Spartacus did manage to break through this defensive line and the two sides battled across Italy, but the rebels were eventually vanquished by Crassus's superior numbers. The defeated followers of Spartacus, some six thousand of them, were strung in a line of crucifixes stretching from Rome to Capua, a savage reminder to their fellow slaves of the fate that awaited them should they too challenge Rome.
Howard Fast wrote his version of this tale in 1950, while imprisoned for refusing to provide names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Perhaps not surprisingly, his novel, though the tide of events forces him to acknowledge the degree to which the revolt Spartacus led was mainly a bid for freedom, periodically lapses into the rhetoric of class warfare, wishing to see the episode as a conflict which fits neatly into Marxist historical determinism. This would be more legitimate if he had chosen to focus on Crixus, whose story lends itself more easily to anti-Roman themes. Fast seems to wish that Spartacus had been more like Nat Turner (see Orrin's review), and that he had engaged in a suicidal attempt to wreak vengeance and overthrow the upper class rulers of Rome, rather than trying to win to freedom. These ideological yearnings somewhat mar the narrative, creating a weird tension between the course of events and the author's desires.
The narrative technique is also somewhat annoying. The story is told in quite elliptical fashion, beginning with Spartacus already dead and looping back and forth in time to relate the story piecemeal. This also means that the characters through whose experiences Fast tells the story are sometimes peripheral to the main storyline and are always less interesting than Spartacus himself.
One interesting aspect of the novel is that it is much more direct about the homosexuality angle than the movie, and not at all tolerant of it. Fast leaves the overwhelming impression that the homosexuality of Roman nobles like Crassus was an indicator of the decline of Rome. Their sexuality is contrasted, quite unfavorably, with the brotherly love between Spartacus and his fellow gladiators and rebels. It's a historical oddity that though we associate American (and British) Communists so closely with homosexuality--think of Hiss and Chambers or Philby, Burgess and MacLean--this most famous of Communist novelists evinces a real hostility towards "the love that dare not speak it's name."
The book has been reissued in a nice new edition, in an apparent attempt to cash in on the release of the movie Gladiator. It's merely an okay novel. But I heartily recommend the movie version. Be sure you get the restored version and that it's widescreen (preferably DVD too). Oh, and also make sure that you leave yourself an entire Sunday afternoon to watch it.
Movie GRADE: A+
See also:Historical Fiction
-OBIT: Howard Fast: Prolific radical novelist who championed the cause of America's common people (Eric Homberger, The Guardian)
-OBIT: Howard Fast, Best-Selling Novelist, Dies at 88 (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, March 13, 2003, NY Times)
-PROFILE: Behind the Best Sellers (Edwin McDowell, 11/22/81, NY Times)
Book-related and General Links:
-Howard Fast: Bibliography & Texts
-EXCERPT: THE PEEKSKILL RIOT - Howard Fast's account from Being Red (1990)
-ESSAY: Our Unsingable Anthem (Howard Fast)
-BIO: Noticing Howard Fast (Daniel Traister, Prospects, An Annual of American Cultural Studies)
-BIO: Howard Fast (Spartacus)
-BIO: HOWARD FAST (b. 1914) (ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN LEFT)
-PROFILE: The word ... and Howard Fast: At 82, prolific author still has stories to tell (Amy Selwyn, Associated Press)
-INTERVIEW: The view from Greenwich : Howard Fast on his hometown, politics, and modern fiction (EDWARD MORRIS, Book Page)
-ARTICLE: HOWARD FAST IN A NEW MODE WITH LATEST NOVEL (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, NY Times)
-ARTICLE: Behind the Best Sellers; HOWARD FAST (Edwin McDowell, NY Times)
-ESSAY: THE PEEKSKILL STORY (PARTS 1 & 2) (MARIO CASETTA) (1949) Tune: "Hold the Line" (LEE HAYS/PETE SEEGER)
-ESSAY: Mr. Fast Explains (Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.)
-REVIEW: of BEING RED By Howard Fast (Maurice Isserman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of THE DINNER PARTY. By Howard Fast (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of THE CONFESSION OF JOE CULLEN By Howard Fast (Morton Kondracke, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Spartacus (Steven Zoraster, Fictional Rome)
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