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.