After fighting off a rival production with Yul Brynner, Spartacus was a labour of love for Douglas that quickly turned into a nightmare. During a shoot that went massively over time and budget, actor Tony Curtis is reputed to have told co-star Jean Simmons, “Who do I have to f*** to get off this film?” Douglas himself was the driving force behind getting it made, fuelled by his disappointment at losing out on Ben-Hur to Charlton Heston. Seeking a Roman epic of his own, he brought Howard Fast’s novel to Universal and was executive producer. Douglas’ clashes with Fast were just the start of an explosive shoot, with the author dismissing the actor as an “exhibitionist stuntman.”
The 1960 movie ended up costing over $12million on a $5million budget, which was more than the entire Universal Studios was worth at the time (it was soon after sold to MCA for just over $11million.) More than 50,000 extras were used, including 8,800 real Spanish soldiers.
The actors clashed with each other (particularly Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton), Kubrick clashed with Douglas and his writers and cinematographer. John Wayne and the right-wing National Legion of Decency denounced the film as ‘Marxist propaganda’ and then picketed it on release – primarily because the blacklisted screenwriter and alleged Communist-sympathiser Donald Trumbo was officially recognised for his work on the script.
In the heat of Spain, following the filming of one of the most powerful and emotional scenes, things came to a head between Douglas and his director.
Simmons recalled: “I remember a long, long day of filming and it took forever to get Kirk Douglas up on his cross. We played a terrible joke. As soon as he was safely installed the assistant director called lunch and left him up there.
“He could have had the lot of us fired, but he was very good about it. You have to have a sense of humour in this industry.”
However, Douglas found nothing remotely amusing when he saw what Kubrick had done with the footage. He later recalled that the director originally removed all close-ups of his long, painful and arduous work on the cross. Work that the actor was particularly proud of.
Douglas admitted that, in a towering rage, he picked up a folding chair from the set and threatened to strike Kubrick with it if he didn’t restore the close-ups. The finished film, of course, has many.
Just before his 100th birthday in December 2016, Douglas said: “He was a bastard! But he was a talented, talented guy.
“Difficult? He invented the word, but he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent.”
Although Kubrick’s unhappiness with his lack of preferred absolute control over the film prompted him to disown it, the movie went on to be the biggest box office smash of 1960 in North America and eventually grossed $60million.