(On TV, April 2018) The fifties were big on sword-and-sandal epics, and Spartacus is in many ways just another link in the chain that goes from, at least, Quo Vadis (1951) to Cleopatra (1963). That it happens to be a Stanley Kubrick film (directing a script by the equally legendary Dalton Trumbo) is almost immaterial—Kubrick famously disliked the end result, and reacted to his experience making the film by staying as far away from Hollywood as possible for the rest of his career. Still, there’s a lot to like here, starting with Kirk Douglas’s spectacular performance as Spartacus, or Laurence Oliver sparring with him as Crassus, or notables such as Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov (back in sandals!) Tony Curtis or Jean Simmons in other roles. Trumbo’s script is quite good (the “I’m Spartacus ! ”scene lives on) and the execution does live up to Kubrick’s exacting standards. As historical epics go, Spartacus is one of the better ones, and it warrants watching as more than a historical reference.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Despite my best intentions, I have something of an irrational aversion to Shakespearian dialogue. My first language isn’t English, for one thing—and while I can appreciate modernized versions of Shakespearian works, the source material itself nearly always leaves me cold. You can imagine the problem with Laurence Oliver’s 1948 Hamlet, as strict a representation of Shakespeare as you can imagine (minus some judicious editing to bring the play down to feature-film length). The only thing that kept me going is the strikingly stylized imagery on-screen—as a director, Oliver went for stark, nearly-noir depictions of the story, and it remains interesting to watch even today. Never mind the dialogue and appreciate the images. Still, as far as movies go (and as far as Oscar-winning movies go), this is really dull stuff. It doesn’t help that, for all of the violent twists in the tale, much of Hamlet contains few surprises today in terms of plot given its familiarity to nearly every high-school student in the Anglosphere. It (barely) remains watchable today solely by dint of execution … which, all things considered is about as high praise as you can get from filming the Bard’s work directly for the screen.