This doesn’t have the stunning action scenes of Ben-Hur nor the parting of the Red Sea like The Ten Commandments, but it is certainly the best of the swords-and-sandals epics of the 1950s and ‘60s. What it does have is a good, non-religious story, and a crackerjack battle scene near the end. Kubrick always wanted to make a movie about Napoleon, and he would have included battles where you could actually see the troop movements and the strategies of the commanders. He accomplishes a lot of that here, with phalanx after phalanx of Roman soldiers coming over a hill in the distance, to face the rabble of rebelling slaves. It is a daunting scene. The slaves have a few tricks up their sleeves, but the bottom line was that no one ever defeated the Roman legions when they were well led. Their tactics were simply superior. As was their cruelty, as they crucify the survivors all the way back to Rome …
Kubrick was brought in after filming had already begun, as differences arose between Kirk Douglas and the original director, Anthony Mann. Mann’s only contributions were the scenes at the quarry in the beginning. This was the last film over which Kubrick did not have complete control, and of his major works, it is probably the least innovative, the least interesting. But it was a big hit, and established him in Hollywood for all time. Kirk Douglas hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write the script (and also, to my surprise and delight, my old blacklisted friend Peter Brocco, to play Peter Ustinov’s head servant, Ramon) and the two didn’t get along. Kubrick didn’t like the final version, but couldn’t do much about it. He also took over the cinematography, basically firing Russell Metty. Metty remained in the credits, and thus, in a stunning irony, won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for something he hardly had anything to do with! Kubrick would repeat this pattern later. If you look in the credits for Eyes Wide Shut, you will see the famous … Larry Smith? And if you think Larry shot that film, I’d like to sell you some prime swampland in Florida. His previous credits were as gaffer (chief electrician) on The Shining and Barry Lyndon. Basically, what Stanley wanted in a cameraman was someone to load the film and move the lights. He was such a good photographer he could get away with that.
With all its flaws, it’s still great fun to watch. It was a mammoth production, with 10,000 of Francisco Franco’s finest infantry dressed up as Romans. (That might have been a good time to invade Spain and kill that asshole, while his army was playing Hollywood out in the boondocks.) It was cut down after its original release, but was restored in 1991, along with 14 minutes that had been cut before the original release. Included was the infamous scene where Olivier comes on to Tony Curtis in the bath, asking him if he preferred eating oysters or snails. Wink, wink. Way too bold for 1960!