Movies That Made Us Us
Some of you responded to this ‘formative movies’ subject with your own titles, everything from Gidget to The Manchurian Candidate, and many more, and I thank you. Three of my fellow screenwriters sent their own essays, and so here I share their thoughts and memories with you. This is the first, and the others will follow over the next two weeks. I have taken liberties and condensed their writings a bit, but you’ll get the picture. (pun)
J. Kahn: SPARTACUS 1960
First, I was 12 when I saw Spartacus for the first time, starting high school, intensely interested in girls but too shy to act, not very good at sports, feeling like a weakling. Second, the country itself was going through an equally drastic identity crisis with the growing Civil Rights movement. And finally, I was the only Jew in a high school of 2000 gentiles.
SPARTACUS concerns a slave rebellion against the Roman Empire, led by Spartacus, a gladiator. The slave army marches toward the sea in order to sail to a land where they can be free, fighting and winning battles against Roman battalions along the way to the coast.
Like teenagers everywhere, I felt enslaved, more so for being Jewish, and feeling like I had to hide or risk humiliation or violence. So, in my heart, I was Spartacus.
There was this electric, sensual, but ultimately tender scene in which Spartacus is offered a slave woman to have sex with as a prize for having won a gladiatorial bout – an unimaginable temptation to my hormonally exploding self – and he declines because he respects her humanity, because of his recognition that if it was wrong for him to be a slave, it was wrong for her, too. And for me too! Me too!
The ships taking the escaped slave army away from the Roman Empire betray Spartacus and leave his army stranded. The rebel slaves turn to face the giant Roman army that means to crush them. The odds are impossible. The slaves are doomed. But they decide to fight anyway. Many are killed but many hundreds are captured.
Then the Big Cheese of the Roman army trots his horse over to the defeated remnants of the slave army, and he makes them an offer. He knows Spartacus is still alive among them, and has become a cult figure, and this general doesn’t want his mystery to haunt the Empire, or inspire future rebellions. So he says if Spartacus identifies himself, he’ll be killed, but all the rebel slaves will be spared and allowed to go back to their masters unharmed. If they don’t turn over their leader, all of them will be crucified.
Spartacus rises and starts to identify himself – I think he even says, I’m Sp…. But the slave rebel beside him stands up and says “I am Spartacus! This makes me weepy even just to write this sentence now. I mean it. Soon dozens of slave warriors, and then hundreds, men and women, captured from every country, are all standing up shouting, “I am Spartacus!”
And there’s this incredible sad, proud close-up of Kirk Douglas as he registers that all these people he’s tried to carry to freedom, like Moses, are now sacrificing themselves to crucifixion in order to save him, and to say they are all one, they’re equally the body and soul of this rebellion, what happens to one, happens to all. Their shouts, and their faces – that’s the Moment.
This resonated with me on so many levels… Spartacus said I wasn’t alone, and because of that I could be brave in making the right moral decisions. He said lots of us are slaves, but if we hang together, we can overcome slavery and history, even if the Roman army crucifies us. I think this was critical to my becoming, to my joining the Civil Rights movement, and the anti-war movement, and commitments to fighting various social injustices over the course of my life.