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Spartacus: A Jewish Epic

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Nathan Abrams explores the Jewishness of a landmark film on its sixtieth anniversary.

Conceived by Kirk Douglas and executed by Stanley Kubrick, the Roman epic Spartacus is still considered one of the best examples of its genre. It has left an indelible mark on our popular culture and has been much mimicked as well as parodied.

Three of the principal agents behind this legendary movie, which celebrates its sixtieth birthday this month, were Jewish. These were screenwriter Howard Fast, on whose 1951 novel the film was based; star and motivating force behind the film, Kirk Douglas; and director Stanley Kubrick. To this list we can add co-star Tony Curtis, titles and battle sequence designer, Saul Bass, and editor Irving Lerner.

The Death of Spartacus by Hermann Vogel (1882). Photo: Wikipedia

This resulted in references in the film to the Exodus from Egypt, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, as well as other issues of contemporary concern to Jews in the late 1950s such as anticommunism, the civil rights movement, intolerance, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations into the movie industry and the Hollywood blacklist. The film also commented on other issues of toleration – not specifically involving Jews, but other ‘minority’ races in order to preach a liberal message.

Even more Jewish

Had the non-Jewish screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was brought on board to beef up Fast’s first script had his way, though, the film would have been even more Jewish.

Colorado screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo with Wife Cleo at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, 1947. German poet and Marxist Bertolt Brecht is visible in the background. Photo: Wikipedia

Tough and muscular Jewish men pervaded Fast’s novel. Fast constantly stressed how Jews had a reputation for their sica-fighting skills. One whole chapter was devoted to the viewpoint of ‘David the Jew’.

If Fast made frequent and detailed references to Jews in his novel, these were amplified by Trumbo in his various draft screenplays. Trumbo expanded the role of David and magnified his Jewishness. Under Trumbo’s penmanship, David became a rabbi and one of Spartacus’s trusted aides, a brother-in-arms. Trumbo even has David organize a mass marriage ceremony preceding the final battle sequence. In considerable detail, Trumbo painted a very Jewish scene, which consisted of a fabric roof place on four poles to stand for the temple, beneath which is another smaller wedding canopy. Beneath that is an altar on which a seven-branched Menorah is standing. David wears a tallit. He chants in Hebrew and invokes ‘Talmudic law’. He makes a speech in which he compares the slaves to the Hebrews of the Exodus: ‘Behold us here in the wilderness – a little company of slaves’.

Kubrick rejected this marriage scene, however, because, according to Trumbo, it reminded him of the marriage of Adolf Hitler to Eva Braun. But it might well have been because Trumbo’s vision was full of anachronistic images, either showing little understanding of the historical development of Judaism or betraying the presumption that a mainstream American audience would not know either.

David the Jew

Although David played a much bigger role in Fast’s novel, as well as in Trumbo’s various drafts, his explicit Jewishness is eventually made invisible in the finished film. While the character remained, he is never referred to by name, and with little actual dialogue, the only clue to his Jewishness is the actor playing him. Harold J. Stone was born Harold Jacob Hochstein. A third-generation actor, his father was the Yiddish actor Jacob Hochstein.

The downplaying of David’s central role in Fast’s novel and Trumbo’s scripts allowed for the growth of Spartacus as a Jewish character. The novel supplies various clues to reading him as Jewish. Spartacus was a ‘Thracian’ and, as Fast pointed out in his novel, Thracians were ‘a grouping or profession more than a race, for there were many Jews and Greeks among them – who were most desired at this time. They fought with the sica, a short, slightly curved dagger, the common weapon in Thrace and Judea, where most of them were reunited’. Furthermore, ‘in the sporting language of the city of Rome and in the common slang of the arena, a Thracian was anyone who fought with the sica. Thereby, the Jew was a Thracian’.

In the title role, Kirk Douglas’s Jewishness certainly motivated him to make Spartacus in the first place. He recalled:

Looking at these ruins, and at the Sphinx and the pyramids in Egypt, at the palaces in India, I wince. I see thousands and thousands of slaves carrying rocks, beaten, starved, crushed, dying. I identify with them. As it says in the Torah: ‘Slaves were we unto Egypt.’ I come from a race of slaves. That would have been my family, me’.

As a result, Spartacus very much resembles a Moses-like liberator who, having killed an overseer, leads the slaves out of captivity and into a Promised Land he will never see.

Douglas was also a passionate supporter of Zionism and Israeli independence. This was showcased in his earlier role as a traumatized death-camp survivor in The Juggler (1953). It helps to explain the depiction of Spartacus’ army as, in the words of Jewish critic Pauline Kael, ‘a giant kibbutz on the move’. It also explains the parallels between Spartacus and Otto Preminger’s Exodus which Trumbo began working on while he was finishing up on Spartacus. An adaptation of Leon Uris’s hugely successful 1958 novel, it promoted a fantasy of the muscular ‘New Jew’, the modern warrior reborn in violence from the ashes of the gentle old-world shtetl Jew and supplied a counterpoint to the Holocaust’s images of Jewish weakness, victimhood and passivity.

Antoninus

The removal of the explicit Jewishness of David also allowed for the further exploration of Jewish masculinity through the introduction of a character that did not appear in Fast’s novel. This is the Greek slave boy Antoninus who becomes like a son to Spartacus. It is nowhere found in the film that Antoninus is Jewish; however, as with the character of Spartacus, the casting of the Jewish actor, Tony Curtis, in the role – which was specially created for him offers a big clue. Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in 1925 at the same Flower Hospital in Manhattan that was part of the medical school at which Kubrick’s father had trained.

Onscreen, Antoninus certainly reveals some stereotypical Jewish traits. As voiced by Curtis, he sounds like he is from the Bronx where many Jews like him and Kubrick grew up. Antoninus is a poet and a scholar who taught his master’s children. He is also a singer and performer of magic tricks. He is defined by his intellect, having what is known, approvingly, in Yiddish as Yiddische Kopf (Jewish brains). This is emphasised when Spartacus and Antoninus first meet. Fingering Antoninus’ fine white linen tunic, Spartacus inquires with some scepticism (assuming, as many anti-Semites do of Jews, that Antoninus has not done a hard day’s work in his life): ‘What kind of work did you do?’

Antoninus: Singer of songs.

Spartacus: Singer of songs? But what work did you do?

Antoninus: That’s my work. I also juggle.

Much more could be said and although Trumbo’s ideas were quashed, in the way that Kubrick and Douglas adapted Spartacus, the film fitted into a period in which filmmakers, both Jewish and otherwise, began to introduce a wider range of Jewish themes and characters, including the Holocaust and Israel, into their films in a fashion not seen since the 1920s.

To mark sixty years since the release of Spartacus, Bangor University in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University, is hosting a virtual conference, ‘Spartacus @ 60’ on Monday 21st December. It’s free to register and attend. Further details can be found here.

All movie stills courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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A.L. Hern
A.L. Hern
7 months ago

“Three of the principal agents behind this legendary movie, which celebrates its sixtieth birthday this month, were Jewish. These were screenwriter Howard Fast, on whose 1951 novel the film was based; star and motivating force behind the film, Kirk Douglas; and director Stanley Kubrick. To this list we can add co-star Tony Curtis, titles and battle sequence designer, Saul Bass, and editor Irving Lerner.”

Add to that the film’s composer, Alex North.

And the character of David does identify himself in dialogue in the Revised Final Draft of the script, dated 1/16/1959.

Norma Brewer
Norma Brewer
Reply to  Nathan Abrams
7 months ago

I watched the last 2/3 rds of Spartacus this afternoon, But was unabloe to hear most of the dialogue
I was amazed by the enormous armies oif men- both those who were with Sapartacus and the Romans, and hiow much work had tro be done to get them to march moive, attck. The rolling fireballs were terrifying.
The avenue of crucified man was striking.
Norma

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