By Christian Gay
“Joey, do you like movies with gladiators?”
For gladiator movies, none can compare to Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 sweeping epic starring (and executive produced by) Kirk Douglas. The film assembled some of the most talented men working in Hollywood to transport audiences into two male-dominated social worlds of the first century B.C.: The Roman Senate, and a school where slaves are trained to be gladiators. Homosexuality was a common practice in ancient Rome, but the production code enforced by the Hollywood studios during the time of Spartacus’ production presented an interesting challenge for Kubrick and infamous screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. How might these artisans tell a story of the political and physical power of men, stay true to the times they sought to capture, and evade the wrath of the censors? Kubrick and Trumbo met this challenge admirably and artfully, creating one of the most homoerotic studio pictures of all time.
In the film’s opening sequence, Peter Ustinov’s slave trader and gladiatorial schoolmaster Lentulus Batiatus comes to the desert to scout male slaves. Batiatus dismounts his horse and walks alongside the line of chained men, shaded from the sun by a man carrying a small tasseled parasol. He complains about the expense of the trip, since he must pay for this escort. The foppish Batiatus seems quite out of place in the desert heat amongst these rough and rugged prisoners. He admires the working men and offers tongue-in-cheek commentary as he sizes them up: “I don’t like Gauls…. too hairy.” He spies Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus, who is tied to a rock as punishment for his insolence. “Nice muscle tone,” he observes. Then: “You smell like a rhinoceros.”
With this, Batiatus drafts Spartacus for his gladiator school. Ustinov’s Oscar-winning performance is campy and fun, but decidedly queer at the outset as he assesses the slaves’ body hair, musculature and even scent from under his tasseled umbrella. This scene begins what becomes a recurring theme of the film: the characterization of the Romans as effeminate and sexually ambiguous, compared to the staunchly heterosexual world of Spartacus and his slave brethren.
Under Batiatus’ supervision, Spartacus trains at becoming a gladiator, which demands a regimen of endless exercise among his scantily clad compatriots, who are segregated from the female slaves and also “oiled, bathed, shaved and massaged” as they await their arena debut. The homoerotic overtones are at their most apparent in these scenes, but, with the white-bread Douglas at their heart, these exercises become almost mechanical, rather than erotic, for the viewer.
Soon, Laurence Olivier’s Crassus and John Dall’s Glabrus visit the school with two women, and the foursome demand the spectacle of a gladiatorial battle. Crassus and Glabrus are delicate and refined men of politics, much more concerned with each other and their rivals than with the women who accompany them. While the women are responsible for choosing the best-looking gladiators to fight, the men take equal pleasure in these games. In another of the film’s queer inflections, viewers might recognize Dall from his earlier onscreen portrayal of one of the homosexual murderers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a memorable performance that could very well inform their interpretation of this actor and the character he embodies here.
No character in Spartacus is queerer than Olivier’s Crassus. Even the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), in their assessment of an early cut of the film, wrote, “There seems to be a mild suggestion that Crassus is very probably a sex pervert…the dialogue…clearly suggests that Crassus is sexually attracted to women and men. This flavor should be completely removed. Any suggestion that Crassus finds sexual attraction in Antoninus will have to be avoided.” This “flavor,” as the MPAA calls it, clearly survived subsequent edits of the film and is in its full glory in the 1991 restoration of the film. The dialogue referred to by the MPAA takes place most pointedly during a scene where Crassus is being bathed by his “body servant,” Tony Curtis’ Antoninus. During the intimate scene, which we observe from behind a sheer curtain, Crassus asks Antoninus about his taste for oysters and snails. Antoninus prefers the former, and Crassus asks whether this, or any, question of taste should also be a question of morals, to which Antoninus replies that it should not. After exiting the bath and being enrobed by his servant, Crassus confesses that he has a taste for “both oysters and snails” – the implication being that he desires both men and women. The music composed specifically for the scene is the Orientalizing “Oysters and Snails,” strange and exotic in its contrast to the film’s central love theme.
Earlier, Crassus and Antoninus meet when the former is presented with a roster of Sicilian slaves he has been given. The striking young Antoninus is the only one to catch Crassus’ attention, and he is interviewed by him in a flirtatious manner. Despite being told that Antoninus is a “singer of songs” by trade, Crassus quickly assigns this “boy of such varied gifts” to be his “body servant” – a job title full of ambiguous implications.
After Crassus assigns this role to Antoninus, but before the bathing scene, occurs another scene of Roman decadence wherein Charles Laughton’s Senator Gracchus explains to Ustinov’s Batiatus why he has never married, and only employs female slaves: “I like women!” he declares. This scene serves two rather queer functions: the first is a “methinks the lady doth protest too much” defense by two confirmed bachelors of their heterosexuality (played by two actors whose on- and off-screen sexualities have been the subject of much speculation); the second function is as a counterpoint underlining the fact that Crassus employs male slaves and might be driven by the same prurient motivations.
A viewing of Spartacus holds many delights for its patient and attentive audience, and one of the most thrilling is its campy, homoerotic style that begat an entire genre. Here, I’ve introduced just a few of the myriad threads one might unravel in exploring the film’s queer pleasures. I hope that, like me, you’ll watch Spartacus with rapt attention – especially when John Gavin’s Julius Cesar visits the Roman baths!