Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Spartacus: Alex North's Opening Theme


By Nicholas Stix

In 1960, Alex North composed one of the movies' most powerful and ambitious themes for Kirk Douglas' production of Spartacus. He traveled as far as the Balkans, in order to find an ancient instrument unique to the region.

In spite of being nominated 15 times, North never won an Oscar for his scores, and so the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar in 1986. He died in 1991, at the age of 80.

Some readers may recall that Stanley Kubrick is credited as director of Spartacus. Douglas, the producer and star of the picture, had originally hired Anthony Mann to helm it, but the two had personal and creative differences, and so Douglas fired Mann, and brought in Kubrick, who had directed the anti-war masterpiece, Paths of Glory (1957), which Douglas had produced and starred in. But Kubrick disavowed any credit for Spartacus, which he derided as a mere work-for-hire.

Spartacus functions on at least two levels. As an epic story of the ancient Roman slave rebellion, it works beautifully. On the level at which Douglas and Trumbo conceived it, as propaganda supporting the civil rights movement, and as an exercise in political vengeance, including even gay-baiting, against the dead Senator Joseph McCarthy--played by Laurence Olivier as Crassus ("I have a list!")--it is a laughable failure. But then, to my knowledge, none of the many movies of the period devoted to kicking the dead McCarthy worked as propaganda, though some, e.g., High Noon, were splendid pictures, in spite of their creators' motives.

(In one respect, Douglas was a typical lefty: He could go from making a movie condemning war as fundamentally evil, to one glorifying it, based purely on political allegiance, without missing a beat.)

Kubrick had no idea just how right he was. His movies, even the masterpieces Dr. Strangelove (1964), and especially A Clockwork Orange (1972), lacked the human touch. Conversely, Paths of Glory and Spartacus, even in scenes massed with extras, were brimming with humanity. Douglas and both pictures' screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, made all the difference in the world. I don't know that Kubrick deserves any more credit for Paths of Glory, than for Spartacus. Note that after making Spartacus, Douglas produced and starred in the modern Western, Lonely are the Brave (1962), as small and focused a movie set in the then-desolate Southwest, as the movies with Kubrick were epic and sweeping. And yet, Lonely, a tale of an anachronistic cowboy named Jack Burns, who refuses to accommodate himself to modern times, is as brimming with humanity and pathos as the two epics, and was a masterpiece made on a shoestring budget.

The following year, Douglas starred off-Broadway as tragic rebel Randall McMurphy, in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Douglas had hoped to film the story as a personal vehicle, but could not secure financing in time. By the time his son Michael put together a production his father was hitting 60, and though still virile, was unfortunately too old to play McMurphy. Milos Forman instead cast an over 20 years younger--but already paunchy--Jack Nicholson, and the rest, as they say, is history. In what had to be a bittersweet evening, in 1976, the Academy honored Kirk's son Michael, Forman, and Nicholson with Oscars.

Kirk Douglas, now 94, is a man of the Left, and yet, recognizable as quintessentially American. At least he is to people who still recognize Americanness, and appreciate that certain types are worth being recognized as American.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I once saw Kirk Douglas in person. He was signing books he had authored at an upscale book store in Nashville, including a novel. I picked up his autobiography, "The Ragman's Son," in paperback, and had it signed by the man himself.

This was around 1991 so he would have been about 75. You would have recognized him as Kirk Douglas anywhere.

There was an enormous line waiting for him to sign a book.

David In TN