In a brisk memoir, actor Kirk Douglas revisits the unusual intersection of personalities, politics and perfidy that swirled around the creation of a Hollywood classic.
Fans of “Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, will revel in the details of how Howard Fast’s novel struggled to reach moviegoers in 1960. The movie remains a standout among swords-and-sandals epics, a rare action film that tells an exciting but personal story amid a historical sweep.
Douglas was the film’s top producer as well as its star, and he narrates himself as being very much in the driver’s seat. Besides the usual headaches of moviemaking, such as hiring a cast and keeping an eye on the bottomline, he had to deal with a problem unique to the era: the blacklist.
For more than a decade, film studios wouldn’t openly employ anyone who was uncooperative with the congressional hunt for communist influence in Hollywood. Those who said they had or were suspected of communist ties also faced the prospect of being denied a job. Some blacklisted writers, though, could find work using a pseudonym or a “front,” a person who falsely claimed to be the author of a script.
As a producer, Douglas played the game, hiring Trumbo under the table to work on a script for a different movie. A member of the Hollywood Ten whose imprisonment had kicked off the blacklist era, Trumbo was used to writing in secret. His “front” had won an Academy Award for “Roman Holiday” in ’53. Three years later, one of his aliases won for “The Brave One.” Douglas decided his producing partner Edward Lewis would be Trumbo’s latest front as he worked on “Spartacus.”
With Trumbo doing a great job, Douglas writes that the sham didn’t sit well with him or Lewis. Not unlike Spartacus deciding whether to risk everything by leading a slave revolt in ancient Rome, Douglas debated whether to give Trumbo his screenwriting credit even if Universal might pull the plug on the movie. He had to deal with censors and ballooning costs – the film eventually cost three times more than expected – as well as an irascible actor in Charles Laughton and a brilliant if cold director in Kubrick.
A lively narrator, Douglas puts the “I’’ in “I Am Spartacus!” No more as modest as half-century ago, he takes lots of credit for a fine movie made against bigger odds than most films faced. He gives credit, too – and plenty of hell to those who tried to deter what has become his signature film.
Douglas is admirable not just because he’s still writing at 95 – this is his 10th book – and pushing back against a speech-impairing stroke he sustained in 1996. His voice in “I Am Spartacus!” carries the power of a self-made man who continues to meet life on his own terms but with grace.
Kirk Douglas’ “I Am Spartacus!: Making a film, Breaking the Blacklist,” 242 pages, is published by Open Road.