“When I look back on Spartacus today, more than fifty years after the fact, I am amazed it ever happened at all,” 95-year-old Kirk Douglas writes in I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, his account of how he made the epic movie and, in the process, helped break the Hollywood blacklist. “Everything was against us. The McCarthy era politics. Another picture. Everything.”
Spartacus was just one of several projects Douglas had taken on as an independent producer in 1957. He optioned Howard Fast’s novel as soon as he read it, mesmerized by the powerful legend of Spartacus who, as one critic put it, stands for resistance to tyranny: “The story of a slave who lived before Christ and led a slave rebellion against the entire Roman Empire.”
However, there were competing epics: Yul Brynner was about to star in The Gladiators, a similar film, for United Artists, and as a result, no movie studio would touch Douglas’ project except for Universal. Executives there wanted to see a script, but Douglas hedged, knowing Fast’s first draft was not good. And so he telephoned Dalton Trumbo, who had been one of the most prolific screenwriters in the business until the McCarthy era had derailed his career.
In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Washington, D.C., had begun investigating “alleged Communist infiltration in the film industry.” Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, who, along with his colleagues, was jailed for contempt of Congress because he refused to divulge his political beliefs. Following the Hollywood Ten’s refusal to testify, the motion picture industry instituted a blacklist, declaring the group would not get work until they cooperated with the committee and recanted. For the next seven years, Trumbo wrote screenplays under pseudonyms such as “Sam Jackson.”
The Communist paranoia had a domino effect in Hollywood. More directors, producers, and actors were fired because of suspect political affiliations. Douglas hated what was going on and wished it would stop. He had a top-secret meeting with Trumbo, at the time a pariah in Hollywood, and they agreed to work together.
With the blacklist raging on, Trumbo as “Sam Jackson” delivered a terrific screenplay in which Spartacus is transformed from a brute animal to a civilized human being, “a flesh-and-blood man with a heart and soul and a brain,” Douglas writes. (Brynner’s The Gladiators had been edged out by its more expensive and star-studded rival.)
By then, everybody wanted to meet “Sam Jackson.” People asked Douglas for Sam’s phone number, but he put them off. Meanwhile Trumbo composed endless drafts, smoking and drinking in his bathtub with a parrot on his shoulder, as Douglas explains in his book.
Back on set, Douglas had fired his original director, Anthony Mann, and replaced him with the brilliant but cold Stanley Kubrick, who never changed clothes and insulted everyone until Douglas had a stand-off with him in front of the entire cast and crew. Infuriated by Kubrick’s constant rewrites, Trumbo quit, and Douglas realized there was only one way he could get him to return. Douglas told Trumbo he would give him name credit on the film—his real name, not “Sam Jackson.” Trumbo knew it would mean breaking the blacklist.
Dalton Trumbo as he is about to be dragged out of the HUAC hearings for refusing to testify. His lawyer Bart Crum (author Patricia Bosworth’s father) stands behind him. (Photo: Bettman/CORBIS)
Douglas kept his word, and in an immensely courageous gesture, he put Trumbo’s name in the credits at the beginning of the movie. The American Legion immediately protested, as did other right-wing groups. Universal had agreed publicly to use Trumbo’s name, but the studio was afraid if the character Spartacus “even appeared to have a chance at overthrowing the Roman Empire, anti-Communist critics would say this was part of Trumbo’s hidden message designed to foment revolution in America.” Douglas had to watch helplessly as Universal removed much of the film’s potentially controversial content.
When Spartacus was released in October 1960, audiences and critics were enthusiastic, and today it’s considered a classic. In later years, friends would congratulate Douglas on breaking the blacklist, but he would maintain, “I just wanted to make a good movie.”
About the author:
Patricia Bosworth is an acclaimed journalist and the bestselling author of biographies on Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Diane Arbus, and Jane Fonda. Bosworth’s father, attorney Bartley Crum, was one of the four lawyers who defended the Hollywood Ten during the HUAC hearings, a period she documents in her memoir Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story.