The Movie That Never Was: The Long-Lost Screenplay of Abraham Polonsky’s “The Gladiators” *****

This is the second volume of The Gladiators vs Spartacus opus, published separately to the tome I reviewed on February 24, 2021. Reading Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay is like having a piece of history in your hands. And it is a fascinating read. Polonsky’s take on the Spartacus legend was quite different to that of Dalton Trumbo for Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus. Based on works presenting alternative visions, Polonsky’s on the book by Arthur Koestler and Trumbo’s on the Howard Fast novel, suggested there would be differences.

The most initial significant departure is that Polonsky gives considerably less emphasis to Roman politics. It’s a classic three-act film, the first section revolt and escape, part two battle against pursuing Romans, the final segment betrayal and defeat. Rather than viewing the uprising as a glorious event, Polonsky concentrates (as does Koestler) on conflict among the escapees. Where the relationship between Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons follows a pure Hollywood arc, the female lead here, Lydia, is a more unusual character and for most of the time Spartacus fends her off. 

Top pic: Variety, June 24, 1959, p44; above Variety, February 12, 1958, p3. Ira Wolfert was a “front” for the blacklisted Polonsky.

And the revolt kicks in right away. Within 25 minutes (allowing one minute of screen time for every screenplay page), Spartacus spares the life of rival gladiator Crixus and together with their compatriots they rise up against their oppressors and escape to Vesuvius. Immediately, the differences between Spartacus and Crixus become apparent, the former wanting to press on, while Crixus wants to stop at an inn (“half-brothel, half resting place”), eat his fill, get drunk and have sex. To Spartacus, self-indulgence risks turning the men into a drunken horde, but to others (as expressed by the poet Fulvius) “this is freedom…the first thing a man wants back is his vices.”

But unexpected freedom brings a rebellion “without leaders, without plans, without hope” and the gladiators have attracted a rag-tag of other slaves. Crixus wants to discard these camp followers, head south, steal a ship and get home. Addressing the horde, Spartacus is brutal in his assessment, “I see a host of dead men” unless they submit to his authority and “swear by the gods never to surrender.” Crixus refuses and leads his Gauls away. With the Roman legions in pursuit, and blocking the one path up the mountain, Spartacus begins to train his horde. In a brilliant scene, the slave army, “faces and bodies blackened with charcoal,” descend on vine ropes on the outside of the crater in the darkness to surprise the Roman encampment.

When Crixus returns, he sees not a rabble but a proper army, Spartacus the undisputed commander. Spartacus plans to build a Sun City in alliance with the “old Greek cities conquered by Rome.” But such coalitions require compromise, forcing Spartacus to return to the Greeks slaves who have run away to join his army. “Every road has its detours,” says Spartacus. Naturally, his decision causes dissension, especially from Crixus. In order to win, Spartacus is willing to become a tyrant. (“It’s survival. It’s a detour. It’s a way around what we can’t go through.”)

Divisions within the army lead to a showdown. Crixus and Spartacus fight, at one point Crixus sparing his opponent’s life, to repay the debt from their skirmish  in the arena, and, reprieved, Spartacus kills him. But, eventually, Rome exerts its power, the slaves are betrayed, Spartacus refusing an opportunity to save himself, and in the final battle overwhelmed by superior forces, resulting in “eight thousand slaves on eight thousand crosses, all the way from Capua to Rome.” The screenplay ends in mythical fashion (i.e. true Hollywood). Spartacus’s body cannot be found. “They say the ground opened beneath him and swallowed him up. And some say he’ll be back.”  The final scene is of Spartacus’s infant son in the desert of Qumrum “empty, formidable, immense, the barrenness everywhere and yet here the spirit and first sign of modern man.”

Polonsky’s epic (two hours forty minutes by page count) is driven by conflict, not just against the pursuing Romans, but by different attitudes within the slave army as to the best way to achieve – and enjoy – freedom. The Crixus approach would be to loot every city. Spartacus adopts a policy of the end justifying the means. These “detours” were crucial to Koestler’s assessment of the true cost of revolution (taking the Russian revolution as his starting point). This is not a story of an impotent leader, driven to destruction by more powerful forces, but one where an individual, taking up the mantle of leadership, must make cruel decisions. This is the battle commander as politician. He faces a chorus of dissent from his own chief supporters – the poet Fulvius, the priest and scribe John, and his “wife” Lydia – who challenge his rulings, each with their own idea of how the revolt should fulfill its destiny. Spartacus himself is under little illusion, resisting attempts at deification, far more realistic than your standard Hollywood revolutionary. He does not believe in the gods or destiny and, ultimately, considers the revolt has little chance of success.

Polonsky, too, ignores the rules of the Hollywood romance. There is no meet-cute, Spartacus distrusts the willful and obsessive Lydia, possessor of mysterious powers, and, unlike the Hollywood standard attraction of opposites, there is no happy reconciliation. “I would never pick a wife who wanted to rule all men, the gods, and the world,” he tells her, “I would never choose a superstitious woman like you, with a tongue like a snake.” As for many a slave, the only freedom he enjoys, beyond a brief period unshackled, is the freedom not to die in servitude. From reading the screenplay, this is very much a movie I would have liked to see take its place on the big screen as an intelligent and challenging epic.

However, the actual screenplay only forms part of this 500-page-plus volume. Dr Fiona Radford provides extensive annotations and a critical commentary to the screenplay, drawing on both historical and literary sources and on Koestler’s book and Polonsky’s own notes. The commentary is worth reading in itself. Also included are draft scenes omitted from the revised script, lengthy excerpts from Polonsky’s Journal (which touches upon the screenplay and the blacklist) plus a survey of Roman gladiators in fiction and film from 1822 (Susanna Moodie’s Spartacus: A Roman Story) to 2020 and an examination of how Polonsky’s screenplay drew upon the source material, what he left out and what he invented. Henry Macadam and Duncan Cooper contributed the background essays. The combined volumes of The Gladiators vs Spartacus come to around 1,000 pages and a thousand more informative and highly readable pages would be hard to find. Dr Radford, by the way, along with Dr Peta Greenfield, runs a fascinating podcast-driven website “The Partial Historians” focusing on ancient Rome.

Note: I have not previously awarded marks to book reviews, in part since some are mine, modesty forbids, but if I ever there was a case for a five-star review, both these volumes fall into that category.

As with volume 1, The Gladiators vs. Spartacus Vol 2 is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.