Aug. 1 2012 12:00 AM

Kirk Douglas recalls a watershed epic


One morning in junior high school, I walked into class and saw a film-noir scene chalked in painful detail on the blackboard. I was stumbling down an alley, bleeding and clutching my stomach, with a huge smile on my face. The caption read:

“I’ve just been shot by Kirk Douglas … sigh!” 

So I’m not an impartial critic when it comes to “I Am Spartacus,” Douglas’ new book about the most conflict-ridden, talent-heavy, controversial films to come out of mid-20th-century Hollywood.

For decades, I’ve tried to persuade condescending friends that Douglas is much more than a chiseled chin and a vehement voice. In the most transcendent moments of “Spartacus,” he gazes abstractedly, even tenderly, beyond his brutal world. He’s a poet with biceps, the only actor who could embody both the muscle and metaphor of Spartacus.

At 95, Douglas is still helping me make my case. This taut little book is full of humor, frankness and class.

The subtitle —“Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist” — refers to producer-star Douglas’ decision to give the writer of “Spartacus,” Dalton Trumbo, on-screen credit, breaking the insidious Hollywood ban on openly hiring alleged Communist sympathizers.

In 2012, Douglas feels a new urgency to set the record straight about Trumbo and other victims of the McCarthy era. Right-wing revisionists have recast the blacklist as a self-pitying Hollywood melodrama fabricated over martinis at poolside. Douglas counters with first-hand testimony of colleagues who lost jobs and committed suicide over the blacklist. He describes what it was like to live and work on a daily diet of corrosive lies, half-truths and silences.

Like most of the creative team behind “Spartacus,” Trumbo was brilliant and eccentric. He wrote most of the film in his bathtub, sending off the pages by courier, under the name “Sam Jackson.” Douglas was in awe of Trumbo’s gifts — he bought the writer a parrot to keep him company — but couldn’t acknowledge him publicly, or even bring him to the set. The daily subterfuge began to eat at the pit of his stomach.

To his credit, Douglas downplays the heroics of his final decision to break the blacklist. Late in the game, Trumbo threatened to quit the film because two cast members (Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov) wrote their own scenes without his knowledge. To keep Trumbo on the film, Douglas played the only card in his hand  — an onscreen credit.

The offer was desperate, but brave. The country was in lingering thrall to McCarthyism. Universal Studios might pull the plug on “Spartacus” if word got out that a Commie was in the kitchen. Gossip columnists would — and did — urge the public to boycott.

As it turned out, “Spartacus” was a critical success and would remain Universal’s biggest moneymaker for a decade. President John F. Kennedy went to see the film and gave it a public thumbs-up. The blacklist was history.

Douglas serves up lots of juicy anecdotes in “I Am Spartacus,” many of them directly taken from letters and memos from his archives. There were battles with censors over bare breasts, hacked-off limbs and bisexual flirting in the Roman bath. The book’s title, inspired by the movie’s most famous scene, has a direct link to East Lansing and Michigan State University. In October 1959, a Universal sound crew recorded that famous cry, “I’m Spartacus,” and other mass sounds during halftime at the MSU/Notre Dame game.

More important, Trumbo’s script drew vivid parallels between the Roman slave revolt of the first century A.D. and the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. A prominent hero is an Ethiopian slave who turns on his masters. Joseph McCarthy takes a direct hit when Laurence Olivier’s proto-Fascist Roman general brandishes a “list of the disloyal.” Douglas writes that Spartacus is a figure for the ages, and compares the rebelling Roman slaves to the Occupy movement.

The outsize egos and talents assembled for the film clashed in every possible combination. Early in production, Douglas fired the film’s first director, action specialist Anthony Mann, and hired 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick, then at the threshold of his career as a film visionary. The director did his best to wring the sentiment and kitsch out of the movie and recast the film in his own cerebral terms, but later disowned “Spartacus” and assumed full control of all his work after that.

The uneasy relationship between man of action Douglas and Brooklyn intellectual Kubrick led to some strange blowups that are vividly described in the book. Douglas even dragged Kubrick to his psychiatrist to try to work things out between them. Douglas admits he isn’t proud of his anger back then, but the emotions — and the money — riding on “Spartacus” were scaled to the Roman Empire. The war stories are great fun, but “I Am Spartacus” is more than a Hollywood-insider junk read. It will last in your mind, like the movie, because it’s about doing the right thing.

Sigh — Kirk Douglas shot me again.