Stanley Kubrick had just bailed on Marlon Brando during development of One-Eyed Jacks when he got the call from Kirk Douglas and Universal about directing Spartacus. Stepping in for a director (Anthony Mann) who Douglas believed was intimidated by the scope and acting talent, a 30-year-old Kubrick walked into his first major Hollywood picture with a cast crawling with the very top of the A-list and a budget more than 10 times that of Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s 1957 WWI masterpiece. There was only one problem: His vision of Hollywood essentially involved tucking the producers and studio heads into a dark corner somewhere on the set, with only enough light to sign checks and accept coffee from assistants. After churning out what would become one of the most celebrated films of the sword-and-sandals revival, Kubrick would ultimately look at the Spartacus experience as an expensive bender to laugh at and deny responsibility for. Yet, in true Kubrickian irony, the much-hated production of Spartacus would also open many doors that he would take full advantage of, ultimately making Spartacus the (alleged) artistic failure that would lead to a series of bona fide classics at the peak of Kubrick’s legendary filmography. And it’s all Hollywood’s fault.
The troubles started when Kubrick began to clash with Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis about the screenplay. Unimpressed by Dalton Trumbo’s whipped-together script, Kubrick thought it would be a better idea if he rewrote it and took the screen credit instead, which would have saved Universal the inconvenience of having to put the name of a blacklisted screenwriter up on the big screen. Or having to admit that they thought it was a good idea to use a script that took two weeks to write. Kubrick would say of the script that it “had everything but a good story.” After the solution to let Kubrick takeover the screenplay was soundly rejected, Kubrick would next tussle with cinematographer Russell Metty, who Kubrick thought would be better served twiddling his thumbs while he personally took over the cinematography. Metty would go on to win the Best Cinematography Oscar. Shooting a script he didn’t like with a holdover crew that didn’t appreciate his famously meticulous instructions, Kubrick put his efforts into attempting to craft the best ancient war scenes ever filmed, and to keep Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier from fisticuffs. All while figuring out how to film in color for the first time.
After making it through the shoot, Kubrick’s distaste of the process resurfaced when the studio powers assembled the unfinished film for screen tests. When several key battle sequences of Spartacus’ historically-based triumphs were nixed following early screen tests and the Laurence Olivier bath scene was scuttled after the premiere, Kubrick’s journey towards disowning the film was complete, though it would be a while before he admitted it publicly.
While Kubrick could have easily headed off into the ‘60s to direct expensive historical epics until he threw up, like original Spartacus director Anthony Mann, he instead determined to become a renegade who used his Hollywood clout to make films that gave producers and bean counters nightmares. Kubrick had already flirted with doing Lolita right after the acclaimed Vladimir Nabokov novel came out in the mid-1950s, but fresh off the commercial and critical success of Spartacus, he leapt into deeply controversial territory by making the film dubbed unmakeable. Although he did have to tap-dance a bit for the film censors to tell the darkly funny story of a professor lusting after the underage girl of a widow, Lolita hit theaters in 1962 as an unlikely follow-up to an Academy Award-winning Roman epic, announcing Kubrick’s divorce from the traditional power dynamics in making a film.
But arguably the best showcase of Kubrick’s newfound freedom came when he was started to adapt the novel Red Alert into Dr. Strangelove in the early 1960s. After Columbia Pictures bought the novel rights of the Cold War drama and gave Kubrick nearly total control, Kubrick famously decided that it was really a comedy and created the bizarre title character out of thin air. Though the studios did force Kubrick to cast Peter Sellers as four different characters (he was also the original Major Kong), the budding mid-30s auteur was starting to make bold creative decisions that would have been outright impossible if he was still operating under stricter Hollywood supervision.
He would then retreat into almost total secrecy to make 2001: A Space Odyssey – skipping the audience screen tests this time – and then settled in to make his dream project about Napoleon Bonaparte, the iconic military genius whom Kubrick had apparently read 500 books about in preparation for the film. It was only after Columbia got cold feet and pulled the funding, partly because of the commercial failure of Waterloo, that Kubrick went to Warner Brothers and doubled-down on controversy with A Clockwork Orange.
A decade after his hands were tied during the making of Spartacus, Kubrick was halfway around the world from Hollywood shooting an X-rated art film nearly without a screenplay, a fully liberated filmmaker who had A-list talent and studio dollars without having to listen to hardly any of the studios’ pesky ideas.
That sense of liberation certainly was still central by the time he turned his eyes to Barry Lyndon, which was actually the second novel by William Makepeace Thackeray that Kubrick wanted to film. The first was Vanity Fair, a story that Kubrick felt was perfect for the expanded pallet of a miniseries. But a 10-hour Kubrick series only would have encouraged producers to seek the nearest German-held ant hill, and Kubrick settled for a three-hour comedic drama about an 18th century Irish drifter scheming and lucking his way to the top of English society. Ultimately, Kubrick had to move that shoot because of a credible death threat by an IRA member who wasn’t happy with a film about English soldiers in Ireland – a move that might have been for the best. Word is that Kubrick was a little too fond of his cottage in the countryside of Ireland during the 350-day shoot, and he might have kept shooting until they had to carry Ryan O’Neil out on a stretcher.
If 2001 left little doubt that Kubrick intended to make up his own artistic rules (while playing with studio toys), he emerged from Barry Lyndon completely defying the traditional studio timetable while trying new filming techniques – like the gorgeous, oft-celebrated all-natural interior shots – never previously pulled off. Though he was cognizant of Barry Lyndon’s lack of commercial success when he looked for his next project, The Shining shoot only proved Kubrick was determined to stay away from the norm – a trend that would also carry through Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.
Spartacus is, in many ways, the perfect dose of irony at the launching point of a legendary film career. Though early great films like The Killing and Paths of Glory are rightly celebrated as well, it was only the muddled, Oscar-winning disaster of Spartacus that prompted Kubrick to blaze a completely original path, to fully embrace artistic impulses that might never have been possible without the overall success of his disowned film. Kubrick learned that the traditional machinery of the studio system was a surefire way to temper his brilliance, while studios were forced to acknowledge he was simply too talented to abandon. Once Spartacus was in the can, Kubrick was going to sink or swim under his own talents and artistic visions. As long as he could still borrow studio cameras and some of the greatest actors in the biz.