Spartacus: The Blockbuster

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“Spartacus: The Blockbuster” is an essay that explores blockbusters by writing a critical assessment of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. The essay addresses the film’s characteristics that makes Spartacus a notable blockbuster. 

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus is an epic tale of the Thracian slave and gladiator, Spartacus, who struggles and fights for the freedom of slaves. The term “epic” is important for considering Spartacus as a blockbuster in the film world. As Sheldon Hall states, a blockbuster is, “something of great power, or size, especially an epic film” (Hall, 11) but also continues its definition at a financial perspective: “When a picture grosses $10,000,000 or more it’s blockbusting” (Hall, 11). Kubrick’s grand storytelling and filmmaking accomplishments reflect in the film’s ambitious distribution strategies that held Spartacus as the biggest financial success for Universal Studios for a decade (Link, 87).

Spartacus was released as a road show basis in the fall of 1960 (Pictures, 19), which is a distribution strategy applied to blockbuster films (Hall, 12). All the components of the road show were found in its release. Unlike film’s standardized 35mm prints, Spartacus was viewed in 70mm Technicolor film. Fifty color prints of 70mm were ordered making it the largest in Hollywood history. This resulted in over 900,000 feet of film! (UI’s big, 13). Alex North’s powerful and moving orchestral overture opened the film (Music, 59) and its grand length of over three hours was divided with an intermission. Souvenirs, including booklets providing the film’s info, were found in the lobbies of theaters.

Spartacus’ marketing also suggests Justin Wyatt’s high concept theory that the marketability of a film may be based on a narrative that is popular in a certain time period (Wyatt, 12). The epic narrative films were expensive but in a time period that brought in major profits (Miscellany, 2). These included The Robe (Koster, 1953), The Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1956) and Ben-Hur (Wyler, 1959).

Witnessing the work that Kubrick and the fine cast and crew accomplished in Spartacus, its blockbuster treatment was well deserved. Taking place in the 1st Century BCE, the film is decorated with set designs, props and costumes that reflect the historical setting magnificently. It serves well when the casts of thousands interact in that setting for great battle sequences, and likewise when smaller casts intimately interact, leaving the audience with great dramatic substance. As Pry critiques, this whale of a motion picture satisfies the multitudes (Pry, 6). Its success is not solely based on the sweeping landscapes and large-scale production. Kirk Douglas, the star of Spartacus, believed that “no matter how much is spent on a picture, its success depends first on the story and the character relationships” (Pictures, 7).

In conclusion, Spartacus was dealt with great craftsmanship under the mind of Stanley Kubrick. Its production value served well for the story, and the story served well for the characters. Because of this dynamic, the film received a diverse audience who were accustomed to epics in that time period, which led to its blockbuster performance. Something special about the hero himself, Spartacus, had an impact on audiences – a lasting impact that inspired people to repeat the lines: “I’m Spartacus, I’m Spartacus!”

List of Works Cited:

Ben-Hur. Dir. William Wyler. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1959. Online.

Hall, Sheldon, “Tall Revenue Features: The Genealogy of the Modern Blockbuster,” in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale, London: BFI Publishing, 2002, 11-26.

Pictures: Sparking ‘spartacus’. (1960, Feb 10). Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 217, 19-19.

Pictures: ‘spartacus’ soars to $10-mil, new coast-made high. (1959, Aug 26). Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 215, 7-7, 20.

Miscellany: Cost the most, make the most? (1960, Nov 02). Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 220, 2-2, 17.

Music: New film directors accenting music as potent dramatic angle: Alex north. (1960, Oct 12). Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 220, 59-59.

Pry. (1960, Oct 12). Film reviews: Spartacus. Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 220, 6-6. Retrieved from

Spartacus. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Universal Pictures. 1960. DVD

The Robe. Dir. Henry Koster. 20th Century Fox. 1953. Online.

The Ten Commandments. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille. Paramount Pictures. 1956. Online.

Ui’s big 70m print order for ‘spartacus’. (1960, Aug 24). Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), 219, 13-13.

Wyatt, Justin, “A Critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept,” in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994, 1-22.

Link, Tom (1991). Universal City-North Hollywood: A Centennial Portrait. Chatsworth, CA: Windsor Publications. p. 87

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