I Am Spartacus!

Making a Film, Breaking
the Blacklist

By Kirk Douglas

Open Road Media. 242 pp. $16.99 paperback

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Reviewed by Irv Slifkin


At 95, Kirk Douglas has a helluva memory. Just read

I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist

, and you will be amazed by his stories about the creation of the 1960 epic he starred in and produced.

Douglas, through his Bryna production company, wanted to make the best picture possible from the tale of the slave leader who led his followers in an uprising against the might of ancient Rome. To do that, Douglas had to enlist two writers blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1940s.

One, novelist Harold Fast, self-published Spartacus, his exciting account of the slave rebellion, after he was blacklisted. Douglas optioned the book and gave Fast an opportunity to adapt it. When Fast had trouble translating the story for the screen, Douglas hired one "Sam Jackson" to rewrite the script.

"Sam Jackson" was Dalton Trumbo, who had been one of Hollywood's most famous and highest-paid screenwriters. Trumbo had not had his real name on a script since being imprisoned as one of the "Hollywood Ten" for refusing in 1947 to name names of friends who were Communists. Using the pseudonym "Robert Rich," Trumbo had won an Academy Award for "best writing" for 1956's The Brave One, about a Mexican boy who tries to save his bull from being killed in the bullring. Trumbo also won an Oscar posthumously in 1993 for writing William Wyler's 1953 romance Roman Holiday; credit for the script had originally gone to screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter, who had served as a front for Trumbo.

Bryna production executive Eddie Lewis initially served as a front for Trumbo on Spartacus, taking care of some of the potential problems the film faced during the preparation for shooting. But as Douglas recounts, a whole lot of other eye-opening incidents occurred. And he recalls them with insight, intelligence, and self-effacing humor. Ultimately, I Am Spartacus! offers a juicy look inside a film that once teetered on the brink of disaster and has since achieved classic status.

Referring to his own sometimes reckless physical prowess and indomitable spirit, Douglas draws parallels between his efforts to get the movie made and the efforts of the real-life Spartacus to lead a successful rebellion. Douglas also recalls that there was a prevalent element of anti-Semitism at work in the blacklist, which gave the son of Russian Jewish immigrants added incentive to stand up to McCarthyism.

I Am Spartacus! is chock-full of terrific anecdotes about the making of the film, which eventually became a big hit for Universal, taking in an impressive $60 million around the world on a then-substantial $12 million budget. There are entertaining tales concerning a competing project (The Gladiators, starring Yul Brynner), casting uncertainties (Gene Tierney, Jeanne Moreau, newcomer Sabine Bethmann, and others were considered for the role of the slave woman Varinia, but Jean Simmons got the part), directing changes after the film began shooting (easygoing Anthony Mann was replaced by temperamental wunderkind Stanley Kubrick), personality conflicts aplenty (involving costars Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Oscar-winning Peter Ustinov), and, finally, extensive recuts for political reasons by Universal.

Douglas' decision to use the name of Dalton Trumbo on the credits rather than "Sam Jackson" was a bold move that had major impact. Surviving writers, actors, directors, and others in Hollywood who had been living in fear or using others as fronts came back to life, discarding their anonymity to reclaim their names and work again.

Trumbo went on to write 1962's modern western Lonely Are the Brave, which Douglas considers his favorite film. Trumbo also went on to many other post-blacklist projects: scripting Exodus for Otto Preminger; adapting and directing his own antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun, for the screen; and writing the screenplay for Papillon, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

Douglas is adept at telling personal stories, as he showed in his other books, especially his compelling 1988 autobiography The Ragman's Son. In I Am Spartacus!, he dives headfirst into the particulars of the era and the fear that the witch hunts spawned in Hollywood, where some of Douglas' friends tried unsuccessfully to stop U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's hunt for Communist influence in the showbiz community. Douglas says he was too unimportant to be noticed when this all began, his career just in its early years, although he was in movies written by such blacklisted writers as Carl Foreman and Ring Lardner Jr.

Douglas uses letters and recollections of conversations to add color to his memoir. He is particularly sharp in discussing Trumbo, an iconoclastic writing machine who worked furiously while naked in his bathtub, sipping bourbon and chain-smoking cigarettes. There is also no shortage of insight into the obsessiveness of director Kubrick, who dismissed Spartacus throughout the rest of his career and relieved crack cinematographer Russell Metty of his duties - only to find Metty winning an Oscar for his work.

Douglas has come in for some criticism over his assessment of his importance in ending the blacklist. Members of the Trumbo family and others have claimed that the actor-producer has taken too much credit and undervalued the efforts of Eddie Lewis and others.

But Douglas, while not shy about tooting his own horn, has no problem acknowledging Lewis' input or willingness to help him when it came to protecting, then exposing Trumbo's work when the time was right.

I Am Spartacus! deserves mention with other great "making of" Hollywood tomes such as Steven Bach's Final Cut - about the production of Michael Cimino's disastrous Heaven's Gate - and Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy, detailing Brian De Palma's misfire on Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities.

I Am Spartacus! brings readers up close and personal with the temperamental talent, the creative forces, and the movers and shakers engaged in the high-wire act of making a major movie - one with much more at stake than most.

Irv Slifkin writes about films for www.moviefanfare.com and is the author of "Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City's Movies" (Middle Atlantic Press).