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Spartacus lives! Remembering Kirk Douglas on his 100th birthday

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

“I am Spartacus!” was a rousing battle cry of right standing up against might, of showing solidarity in the face of brutality. Urchins in Beirut, youngsters in Moscow, recalcitrant youths in Hell’s Kitchen; all of them yearned to be Spartacus – or, more precisely, the actor who played him in the 1960 Hollywood epic.

The rebellion of slaves had started out small, a ragtag group of bandits really, as they scrambled furtively from place to place under cover of darkness. In the beginning they were little more than cornered rats, outcasts with a price on their heads. But gradually, as their numbers swelled, so too did their ambitions. Theirs became not merely a desperate fight to stay alive, nor even a frantic dash to the shores of Brandisium and thence to safety. With a growing sense of their self-worth, they realised they were men after all. And men don’t seek a cowardly escape to the shadows – they claim their true and rightful freedom. And the man who inspired them, who first made them believe in the possibility of reclaiming their freedom, was their leader, Spartacus.

Spartacus! The name itself became the stuff of legends. Men poured out from the villages and the forests and the countryside to join him. They were prepared to take on the might of the Roman Empire just for him. Spartacus!

When, as it always had to, Roman might had finally prevailed, and after Rome had viciously suppressed the slave revolt, the vengeful general Crassus demanded from a field of the wounded that they give up their leader so that he be crucified in front of them. Only by giving him up could they be spared.

Then, in a show of courage for the ages, one of the wounded struggled to his feet. “I am Spartacus!” he shouted, even though he was not. He was replaced by another. “No, I am Spartacus!” And then another. And another. The real Spartacus’s voice was drowned out by his men. They were all crucified together.

I mention this story because for generations of kids from all over the world, the words “I am Spartacus!” were a rousing battle cry of right standing up against might, of showing solidarity in the face of brutality. Urchins in Beirut, youngsters in Moscow, recalcitrant youths in Hell’s Kitchen; all of them yearned to be Spartacus – or, more precisely, the actor who played him in the 1960 Hollywood epic.

Kirk Douglas, hero immemorial, was that actor. This week, he turned 100 – and, like he did at 90 when he appeared on stage to rapturous applause to receive a Lifetime Honourary Oscar, he probably shouted out to celebrate, “I am Spartacus!”

Alongside Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas is probably the last of the stars from the Hollywood Golden Age, a time when studios were supreme and places like MGM boasted of their production lots having “more stars than in heaven”. And Kirk Douglas certainly was a star. In Lust for Life, he dyed his beard ginger and became the foaming, unsettled Vincent van Gogh set amongst his strange palettes. Growing up at a time when fathers still took their sons to see Westerns, I remember him playing Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral. The Bad and the Beautiful is still one of the finest exposes of Hollywood hypocrisy, and here his double-breasted suits were set alongside a fierce snarl as he played a Hollywood producer who carelessly breaks others’ careers for his own gain.

Kirk Douglas the rascal. Who else still alive can claim to have bedded both the incandescent Joan Crawford as well as Marilyn Monroe? Or written of his time acting alongside Ann Sothern in A Letter to Three Wives: “Ann played my wife. We rehearsed the relationship offstage.”

Kirk the hellraiser. The man who could drink other macho actors under the table, and frequently did – not that he would remember much of it the next day. Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quinn, Lee Marvin – none was any match for him or his antics.

Kirk the iconoclast. Born desperately poor as Issur Danielovich, the son of a Russian peddler, as a child he would go for days without food. Issur would grow up with a chip on his shoulder, but fame caused him even more to despise elites and the leisure class who fawned over him. Unlike other Hollywood actors who shunned memories of their penurious beginnings, he always acknowledged his.

Kirk the unconventional. In reality he shouldn’t have been a film star. His acting was often shallow and he didn’t have matinee idol looks. But rather than being a hindrance, the prominent cleft in his chin became a jutting symbol of his defiance.

Finally, Kirk the hero, and the real story behind Spartacus. This is what I want to pay tribute to.

Difficult as it is to imagine now, Hollywood during the 1950s Cold War was a maelstrom of paranoia and suspicion, as those accused of being left-leaning or Communist sympathisers were ruthlessly spied on, hounded and put out of work. Stars were forced, under threat of jail, to testify about their friends and their political beliefs.

There were suicides. Those who didn’t succumb, like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, were “blacklisted”. On the odd occasion where he could work on major films, others took the credit. So in 1954 when Roman Holiday won the Oscar for best screenplay, its real author was not mentioned – or paid. When The Brave One did the same, Hollywood shamefully announced the writer was one Robert Rich, “who was unfortunately not able to make it to the ceremony tonight”. Receiving little or no money for such scripts, being forced to make ends meet by churning out B-grade horror films, Hollywood’s most talented writer in a generation was on the verge of penury.

That’s where Kirk the unconventional, Kirk the iconoclast, perhaps even Kirk the hellraiser, stepped in. To hell with the craven studios. To hell with shameful Congress, which allowed such blacklisting. To hell with Senator McCarthy. If Spartacus was about right standing up to might, then it was a metaphor for standing up to the blacklist and only Trumbo could write it. And get full screen credit.

The night the film premiered in Hollywood, the audience gasped as Trumbo’s name prominently appeared in the titles. But, as is often the case with bullies, once someone has the courage to stand up to them, their game is up. That night in Hollywood, the blacklist effectively ended a decade after it began. The same night, Trumbo rang Kirk. “Thanks for giving me my life back,” he said. He wasn’t the only one.

Kirk Douglas, hero at 100. DM


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