Kirk Douglas, Spartacus, and the Blacklist (Preview)
by Larry Ceplair
The actor/producer/writer/philanthropist Kirk Douglas (staircase at the Margaret Herrick Library, playhouse in Culver City) has, for the past thirty years, assumed another role: the breaker of the motion-picture blacklist. He publicly assumed that role, to the best of my knowledge, in 1983, after his star had dimmed and the tide of popular opinion had swung in favor of the blacklisted movie people as the result of an excellent documentary (Hollywood on Trial) and three well-researched books (The Inquisition in Hollywood, The Hollywood Writers’ Wars, Naming Names). That year, in the documentary Trumbo Remembered, Douglas explained what motivated him to “break” the blacklist by giving Dalton Trumbo screen credit for Spartacus; he commented that though it may have seemed like a very courageous decision, at the time, he “had no inkling of being very courageous.”
Since then, in three autobiographies, several film documentaries, and every podium he can mount, Douglas has insisted that he alone broke the blacklist. There are, however, three distinct problems with Douglas’s assertion. First, the blacklist could not be and was not broken. Second, insofar as the blacklist was weakened, it was the work of several individuals, most notably, Dalton Trumbo, several fortuitous occurrences, and the changing tide of history. Third, though Douglas did make a decision, he told only a few people, in private, that he would, at some future point, if circumstances allowed, implement that decision. Otto Preminger was the first producer who had employed a blacklisted writer to announce publicly that he intended to give that writer, Trumbo, as it happened, screen credit for writing the script for Exodus (1960). Douglas never made a public announcement about Trumbo’s credit for Spartacus. Contractually, he did not have the power to make the final decision, and he probably feared that any such announcement by him might harm his career as an actor. (This fear was legitimate; the American Legion was continuing to put terrific public pressure on the movie industry to preserve the blacklist, and no one knew whether the Legion’s current boycott threats retained their effectiveness.)
The bulk of Douglas’s new book, I Am Spartacus!, is concerned with the making of Spartacus and, in that respect, it is worthy of note. No one was better placed to chronicle the production of this significant movie, and his accounts and descriptions of the processes, individuals, and personality clashes can be illuminating—if, that is, they actually happened, since some of Douglas’s recollections are open to doubt.
Another problem is that Douglas takes full credit for outcomes that were only partially of his doing. For example, Douglas narrates at length an episode about how the “I am Spartacus” scene was created. It is perhaps the most dramatic scene in the film: when the defeated slaves/gladiators are asked by a Roman general, “Who is Spartacus?” Spartacus rises to identify himself, but Antoninus, then the rest of the survivors, all rise, shouting, “I am Spartacus!” According to Douglas, he devised the scene, but director Stanley Kubrick did not like it and refused to shoot it. Douglas, in an angry and forceful manner, insisted that he do so. In fact, Douglas did write a memo to Kubrick about that scene, part of which he reproduces in the book. But he does not include the opening sentence of the original memo: “This scene, based on an idea that existed in one of the earlier versions…” Trumbo had written several variations of that scene, but he had used fewer people claiming to be Spartacus.
To read the complete article, click here so that you may order either a subscription to begin with our Winter 2012 issue, or a sample copy of the issue.