It seems appropriate that the blockbuster that broke the Hollywood blacklist in 1960–by crediting a blacklisted filmmaker (screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) and adapting a best-selling novel by leftist Howard Fast–should be the apotheosis of Kennedy liberalism, to the same degree that The Ten Commandments (1956) was the apotheosis of Eisenhower conservatism. This movie is special in other ways as well: perhaps the most literate of all the spectacles about antiquity, it is probably the first major Hollywood film with a central character who is bisexual (a fact made more evident in this restoration, which includes a scene originally cut by the censors); and it is the only movie on which Stanley Kubrick has served as a hired gun, having been brought in after Anthony Mann (who directed the first sequence) was fired. Kubrick has remarked that he enjoyed the most freedom in the scenes without dialogue, and one can spot eye-filling, dynamic sketches for both the battle scenes in Barry Lyndon (albeit realized here on a much larger scale) and the training sequences in Full Metal Jacket. Executive producer Kirk Douglas stars as the eponymous rebel slave, and he and Jean Simmons are both appealing as the romantic leads; no less juicy is the Roman triumvirate of Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov; the embarrassing accents and performances of Tony Curtis, John Dall, and Nina Foch, among others, and some outright kitschy stretches are some of the drawbacks. It’s too patchy to qualify as a masterpiece, but its genuinely noble intentions, Alex North’s romantic score, the sheer scale of its emotions and spectacle, and its strong and unorthodox ending all make it uncommonly moving. With Woody Strode, John Gavin, Charles McGraw, John Ireland, and Herbert Lom; the film runs for 197 minutes including the overture but not including intermission. (McClurg Court)

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