“I Am Spartacus” by Kirk Douglas: A Tale of Revolts, Decamps, and Curses

“Spartacus” the movie is an epic tale of revolt, politics, crucifixions, and curses. But that’s also behind the camera and not just on the big screen.

The making of the blockbuster film took three years from inception to theater. That’s quite a gestation period for a movie, even for an epic. In “I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist”, Kirk Douglas lets us in on the “agony and the ecstasy” of the making of this classic. And he does it in a clear, highly readable, and straight-forward manner. I finished the book in one day.

I was captivated by Douglas’s take on personality profiles, disputes, and ego clashes among the actors; the politics and infamous McCarthyism of that early film period; and the sheer guts and determination it took to bring this film into the world.

As Douglas touches on his home life during these three tumultuous years, he allows us a glimpse into his enduring marriage of 61 years with Anne Buydens, whom he praises not only as his soul mate, but his help mate. When I read that she argued him out of the tragic plane trip with producer Mike Todd, it gave me chills. It was 1958 when Todd — married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time — crashed and was killed in his flight to New Mexico. He had been pressuring Douglas to go with him.

Douglas gives insight, and sometimes apology, for his often aggressive and forthright nature, but it was just such a disposition that could only have brought “Spartacus” to life. And yet, his wit and humor and love of people come across in the anecdotes and conversations he chose to include, which didn’t rely on memory alone for this 98-year-old actor, producer, and family man. He kept files through the years. Anne kept a scrapbook. He took advantage of the records of Universal Studios, and other sources to aid his memory. I have always been an advocate of “citing your sources”. And Douglas did.

Years ago, I read the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of “The Ragman’s Son”, which tells of his early years of poverty in a Russian Jew immigrant family, and a cold and abusive father. Born Issur Danielovich, Kirk Douglas not only helped put food on the table for his mother and six sisters, he also worked to assure that he would not pass through life unsung and unnoticed. This may have been because he so wanted his father’s love and approval, which he never got.

Becoming someone that the world takes note of (in a good way) takes a force of nature to accomplish. And Kirk Douglas did it. I think he was born a force of nature, and the fact that he has made a great difference in the lives of many, impresses me . I have never been a particular fan of Kirk Douglas the actor — though I like him — but after reading about his life, I am a great fan of Kirk Douglas the man.

Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, and Tony Curtis on t  he set of Spartacus

I have read some negative reviewers who feel that Douglas overstated his role in breaking the blacklist — a list of names of movie industry people — actors, writers, producers, etc. — who were banned because of alleged connections with the American Communist Party; which was true for some — others just got caught up in the stampede. Lives were ruined, livelihoods destroyed, some served prison terms, suicides abounded.

Dalton Trumbo – writing was his life.

I have read the reasoning behind these few negative reviews . I feel if the critics had read this book thoroughly, they might have noticed that Douglas does not stint on revealing his fear of going public with the name of the script writer for Spartacus — Dalton Trumbo — a man whose life was ruined by the early communist witch hunts; not only by serving time in prison, but by being blacklisted in the movie industry. Douglas struggles with this issue. It put his own life and livelihood on the line and he did not take that lightly.

But all is not gloom and doom and Friday the 13th misfortunes. Humor coasts through the pages like a skateboarder. You never know when it’s going to sideswipe you. As in when the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, tried to “sneak” in the theater with a friend, and just a “small” Secret Service detail, to see “Spartacus”. Spotting the secretary of agriculture sitting in front of him, JFK tapped him on the shoulder and said,

“Haven’t the leaders of the New Frontier got anything better to do with their time than spend it going to the movies?”

Not missing a beat, Secretary Orville Freeman replied:

“I wanted to be immediately available on a moments notice if the President wanted me.”

The end of the book is a treasure trove of archival photos of actors on-set, in costume, and one of Jean Simmons, robe and all, playing softball with her fellow thespians and the crew.

I can highly recommend the book, “I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist” by Kirk Douglas.

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NOTES ON THE DOWNFALL OF MCCARTHY AND RABID PARANOIA

 In june 1953, J.B. Matthews was appointed as McCarthy’s research director. In July, Matthews published an article called “Reds in our churches” in the conservative American Mercury. In it, Matthews referred to the Protestant clergy as ” the largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States.” The result was a public outrage at Matthews as well as his boss McCarthy.

https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~lillsie/McCarthyism/downfall.html

Then McCarthy took on the U.S. Army and insulted General Ralph Zwicker, a highly decorated World War II veteran of D-Day and the Battle of Brest. McCarthy said the general had the “intelligence of a five-year-old” and wasn’t “fit to wear the uniform”. This not only insulted the entire military, but President Eisenhower, who promptly called for the Army-McCarthy hearings. 

The following is the exchange between Joseph Welch, head council for the United States Army, and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Army-McCarthy hearings. An exasperated Welch finally asked McCarthy —

Have you no sense of decency?

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