Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: I Am Spartacus

A Fair Trade Book (awesome!)

Title: I Am Spartacus

Author: Kirk Douglas

Author's web site:

Date: 2012

Publisher: Open Road

Publisher’s web site:

ISBN: 978-1-4532-5480-6

Length: 207 pages

Illustrations: black-and-white photos

Quote: “I am not a political activist. When I produced Spartacus in 1959, I was trying to make the best movie I could make, not a political statement.”

For those who’ve not seen the classic movie, the original Spartacus was the leader of a slave uprising. “I am Spartacus” was what his followers said when questioned by the authorities about his whereabouts. Basically it meant "Go ahead and torture me or kill me; I'm not telling."

In 1950, Howard Fast wrote a novel about Spartacus. Fast had some ties to the old Communist Party. It had been a legitimate political party in the United States, with candidates on the ballots in some elections, before the Cold War. Some Communist Party activities were treasonous during the Cold War; some involved violence; many were unethical. Not all members of the party were directly involved in those activities. Several were, however, subpoenaed and asked to testify against their fellow believers. Some, like Fast, went to jail. 

Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter who adapted the novel Spartacus for a Hollywood movie, also went to jail for refusing to testify against friends. As Trumbo put it, “Eleven years later, I doubt that there are five members of the Communist Party in all of Hollywood. Most blacklistees have been out of the party for years. Some of them have become conservatives, some have become democrats" [sic; he meant Democrats], "and some have maintained a generally socialist point of view. But…they cannot in conscience admit the right of any legislative committee to judge their loyalty.”

Kirk Douglas, then a fairly young actor who wanted to produce a movie, and some other very talented actors he knew, proceeded to make the movie Spartacus. In the 1950s Douglas, “Larry” (later Sir Laurence) Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, and Peter Ustinov were a respectable cast of young actors, not yet legendary. Trumbo’s name was on an official blacklist; in order to use his script the five rising stars had to credit the script to “Sam Jackson,” Trumbo’s pseudonym.

According to Kirk Douglas, even moderate right-wingers made it onto blacklists in the 1950s. Douglas, Olivier, and friends were apolitical. Douglas’ circle of friends included John Wayne; they received and accepted social invitations from Richard Nixon. The original Spartacus was hardly a Communist, nor could the movie cast him as one. Still, a film about a rebel against the established customs of his society, based on a novel written by a Communist and adapted by a “Comsymp” (sympathizer), was considered a somewhat daring move for young, apolitical men to make…especially since they didn’t make it very hard for potential sponsors, much less law enforcement, to identify “Sam Jackson” with Trumbo in real life.

Other decisions were problematic at the time for Douglas, strengthening his identification with the protagonist of his movie. An ex-girlfriend wanted the closest thing Spartacus had to a leading female role, but was too drug-damaged to play even that. Stanley Kubrick was a young, unknown director whom the older actors in the movie saw “more as a beatnik than a boss.” The five future superstars’, and Kubrick’s, and other “[e]gos clashed like swords.” When Trumbo was smuggled into the audience (“in the backseat of [Douglas’] car, covered by a blanket”) to view a “rough cut” of the movie, he didn’t even like it. In his mind, at least, Kirk Douglas was taking a lot of risks for the sake of what would only later be recognized as a good movie.

Reminiscing at ninety-five, Douglas mentions a few things that would, at the time, have been unmentionable, including an alleged direct quote from Vivien Leigh showing the depths of…well…adult readers should remember that the 1940s and 1950s were also a time when doctors tried to cure hypochondria, as well as minor symptoms of many real diseases, by handing out “tranquilizers” the way too many doctors prescribe antidepressants today, and the direct result of all those “happy pills” was a massive population of hopeless, twitching survivors of schizophrenic-like brain damage. Several gifted young people wrote off their careers that way. The actresses the world remembers as Laura and as Scarlett O’Hara were apparently two of them. Douglas spares us any close-ups of his old flame Gene Tierney’s brain damage, but gives us one of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier that may spoil fans’ image of that couple. Though short, it’s bad enough to get this memoir “Rated R.”

Apart from that one detour into the squick zone, this memoir is shorter and more specific than Climbing the Mountain, perhaps equally valuable. One thing both books accomplish is to convince us that, unlike so many people who become famous for something other than writing, Douglas wrote his own memoirs. If he hadn’t been so busy acting and directing, he could have been a successful writer.

Kirk Douglas was born in 1916 but, according to Wikipedia, he's still alive, so this book (and Climbing the Mountain, and his other books) can still be purchased as Fair Trade Books. Buy any of them here, by sending typically $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the very bottom of the screen, and we'll send $1 per book to a charity of Douglas' choice. (We are fairly sure that his staff have more to do than cash money orders for $1.)