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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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What's the story?
Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave in the Roman empire, about 70 years before the birth of Christ. A rebellious and proud man, he is sentenced to death for biting a guard but rescued by Biatius (Peter Ustinov), who buys him and takes him to his school for training and selling gladiators. Varinia (Jean Simmons), a British slave, is given to Spartacus. She's eventually sold to another man, and, after killing a man, Spartacus leads the other slaves in a revolt. The Romans send troops to capture them, but the slaves defeat them, sending back the message that all they want is the freedom to return to their homes. Crassus uses the slave revolt to gain political power. He eventually cuts off the slaves' access to ships, and surrounds them with troops. Many are killed on both sides, and the slaves are recaptured. Crassus promises them their lives if they will just give him Spartacus. As Spartacus is about to step forward, each of the slaves cries out, "I am Spartacus!" This leads to a mass crucifixion by the Romans, however, they keep Spartacus alive. He faces yet more tragedy ahead, but in the end, he is able to see Varinia and his son, now both free.
Is it any good?
This epic saga of the price of freedom is thrilling to watch, the struggles of conscience as gripping as the brilliantly staged battle scenes. When we first see Spartacus, he strikes out at an oppressor almost reflexively. He does not care that the consequence is death; as he later says, for a slave death is only a release from pain. When he strikes out again later in the film, he is armed not only with the fighting skills he has learned, but also with an ability to lead, founded in a new sense of entitlement to freedom.
The characters are especially vivid and interesting. Varinia has a wonderful grace and a rare humor, which adds warmth to her character. She is able to shield her emotional self from the abuse she is forced to endure without deadening her feelings. Gracchus conveys the essential decency of a man who has made many compromises, political and spiritual. Both the author of the book and the screenwriter were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and families should discuss how that influenced their approach to the story. Kids may also be interested to know that this was among the most popular movies show in the former Soviet Union, and should consider what it was that appealed to the communists.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why it was important for the Romans to spread the rumor that Spartacus was of noble birth. What did Biatius mean when he said he had found his dignity? How was he changed? What did it mean when Gracchus responded that "dignity shortens life even more quickly than disease?" Why did Crassus say he was more concerned about killing the legend than killing the man? Why did each of the slaves claim to be Spartacus?
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