Irony — overused and often trite. Yet, there are times when it stands up and belts you in the face. This afternoon offered one of those moments. As the pundits gushed over the momentary courage of Mitt Romney and his small act of defiance against the oligarchy, I watched the Republican senators rush to acquit Trump, voting their fear rather than their convictions. They had witnessed the past three years, the lies, the speech last night that offered solace to racists, denigrated our public education system, and comforted those who want a nation in lockstep — white, cis, Christian, and Republican.
That’s just a given for today’s America — but the irony came as I was boarding the metro. My news alert flashed that Kirk Douglas had died. He was 103. There’s sadness because he was a fantastic actor — his teasing smile and dimpled chin elevated any role he took. I can tell you from the interviews, the books, and “gossip” over the years what a good man he was. It’s true. Yet, he will be remembered for Spartacus.
That’s the irony.
Born Issur Danielovitch of immigrant parents, Kirk changed his name before he served in the US Navy during WWII. After the war, he quickly became a name in Hollywood, forming his own production company in the 1950s. Small detour — I fell in love with his acting when the Wonderful World of Disney (Sunday night family TV) aired 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. To this day, hearing “Whale of a Tale,” can make me smile. Then, Daddy and I found Lust for Life on TV one rainy Saturday and I was enthralled — pretty much a fan for life.
But this is about Spartacus. Based on a novel by author Howard Fast, Kirk Douglas thought the story of a small slave revolt in pre-Empire Rome would resonate. To that end, he hired arguably one of the best screenwriters of the 20th century, Dalton Trumbo. Here’s the catch — both the author of the novel and the screenwriter were blacklisted by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) headed by the histrionic, red-baiting, liquor swilling Joe McCarthy. Yes, him — the “have you no shame” meme guy. Trumbo had had to resort to ghostwriting “B” movies to keep body & soul and children together. Together, Douglas and Trumbo, and director Stanley Kubrick (!!!) crafted one of the most celebrated movies about courage in the face of tyranny that has ever been made. Just a few notes about its production — twelve million dollars was spent on Spartacus, a record for the most expensive movie made (primarily) in Hollywood at the time. Italian museums and costume houses supplied 5000 uniforms and seven tons of armor, and 8800 Spanish army troops were captured on film for the battle scenes Overall about 50,000 extras were involved. All 187 stuntmen were “trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death”. (Cormier, 2017) One of my favorite trivia bits is that the crowd at the Michigan State vs. Notre Dame football game in 1959 provided the crowd shouts and the battle noises for the film. Douglas had such a passion and such a vision for the film that in later life Kubrick disavowed the movie, as it wasn’t totally his.
There’s a scene everyone knows — where the generals ask the captured slaves to turn on their leader, to turn from the truth — and embrace their slavery. In a slow pan building drama, each man declares himself Spartacus — because it’s the right thing. When Douglas insisted Trumbo’s real name was to be on the movie poster, and President-elect Kennedy went to see it and said it was incredible — the blacklist was broken.
It was one of Kirk Douglas’ proudest accomplishments — and his death today as the Senate turned their backs on truth — that is irony.
Fear is a terrible thing. It makes you do awful things –> Kirk Douglas
If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom, and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too. –> W. Somerset Maugham