Finite Focus: Ustinov & Laughton (Spartacus)



As much as I enjoyed each and every one of the 196 minutes of my first viewing of Spartacus (in wonderful 70mm no less!), I wasn’t even halfway through it when I was able to pick out my favourite scene. Oh sure, the long shots of 10000 extras are magnificent, the massive battle scene both stunning and exciting (real rolling logs of fire!) and the individual gladiator fights quite visceral (far more so than anything from Gladiator), but for my money the most gratifying footage of the entire epic is the 3 and a half minute master class on “How to deliver your lines” as given by Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton.

Granted, they had some fantastic dialogue to work with as Dalton Trumbo’s script hits some high points here (though perhaps not quite as high as the subversive “oysters and snails” bisexual subtext scene that follows it directly and which was excised from the film until its 1991 restoration), but the two actors are delighting in their characters so much they add a sense of joy to the entire scene. It opens shortly after Spartacus and his fellow gladiator slaves have rebelled and broken out of Batiatus’ (a Best Supporting Oscar turn by Ustinov) gladiator training facility (where slaves are turned into warriors to eventually battle each other to the death for the amusement of others). Life was good for Batiatus – his role as buyer and seller of slaves had left him wealthy and with few worries – until the revolt crushed his prison facility and forced him to flee to his friend Roman Senator Gracchus (Laughton).

Though he seeks compensation and a bit of revenge, it isn’t against the rebellious Spartacus, but against Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) – Gracchus’ main rival in the Senate. Crassus had stopped by to see Batiatus recently and demanded to be entertained by a private death match between several of the slaves. Though completely against the standard practice, Batiatus relented and set up the fight for Crassus and the “capricious, over-painted nymphs” who had accompanied him. This indignity, along with Crassus purchasing Spartacus’ new love and taking her away, sparks the uprising. Gracchus entertains the idea of vengeance against Crassus as he too is no big fan of the politically astute and power hungry Crassus.


Before that matter of business, though, there’s discussion on matters such as food and women. It’s in these initial moments where the two consummate actors play with the subtleties of their characters – Ustinov playing up the obsequious Batiatus who struggles to pay a solid compliment to Gracchus and Laughton who relishes being a womanizer. A sample exchange:


Gracchus – “I happen to like women. I have a permiscuous nature and unlike these aristocrats I will not take a marriage vow which I know that my nature will prevent me from keeping.”

Batiatus – “You have too great a respect for the purity of womankind.”

Gracchus – “Exactly.”

Batiatus – “It must be tantalizing to be surrounded by so much purity”

(both men’s faces develop devilish grins and they stifle a few giggles).

Gracchus – “It is.”


The pleasure of this conversation is not only the spoken words, but their method of delivery: Ustinov’s slight pauses to indicate his being in on a joke or Laughton’s avoidance of any pauses as he works through the phrases without a breath, but still manages masterful timing to change his inflection. The facial expressions are wonderful too as they provide much more than simple mugging for the camera. Batiatus’ little pained expressions and Gracchus’ cherub-like full-face smiles (complete with cheeks you want to just pinch) all come naturally from their characters. Another example of all of the above is in the following line from Gracchus as he and Batiatus let their gazes linger on a slightly robust maid servant:


“You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?”


There’s much to be said about whether Spartacus is a “real” Kubrick film or not, but it really has nothing to do with the sheer enjoyment this film brought me. To me this was old style Hollywood filmmaking on a grand scale filled with actors who relish the chance to take the written word and make it dance. I love the film for it.


Watch the full scene in question below (Drag Slider to 3:32 mark below, or click right here to go to Youtube)

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Kurt Halfyard

I think of this scene as the pre-cursor to Ed Harris and Alan Arkin verbally dancing in Glengarry Glen Ross.

It should be noted, that much of this comes up during the Spartacus portion of this weeks CINECAST.

**I took the liberty of embedding the scene above, as a bonus in that clip you also get the Oyster/Snail sequence mentioned, as it is right after**

Furthermore, did you know the entire 180+ film is on Youtube in parts? You should watch this beast in 70mm (albeit opportunities for this are sparse), but there you have it, instant watch.

Matt Brown

Charles Laughton is quickly becoming my cinematic MVP for this year. Forgot how terrific he was in Spartacus, and saw Night of the Hunter for the first time earlier in the year. This means he would displace Miles Malleson, my former MVP.

Kurt Halfyard

What Matt Said. It warms the cockles to think that Laughton the Actor was directing Night of the Hunter….I have no idea why the idea of this is so, but there it is…


Completely agreed about this scene. People don’t often think about how critical the believability is here to the story – of Ustinov finding his courage when he is lashed, of stealing Jean Simmons at the end (rather than running off with the money). As for Laughton’s observation about tyrants invariably being thin… I think of that one from time to time… It really was a great comeback for Trumbo and this entire team. Hollywood no longer does these great movies sans revisionism, and such great actors are even rarer. Fortunately for us, we have a wealth of film to review.