Monday, September 19, 2005

I Am Spartacus!

You’ve probably seen the commercial starring Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. A Roman soldier with a paper lunch bag rides up to a convoy of prisoners and asks which one of them left the bag at the last rest stop. The name written on the bag is “Spartacus.” The soldier finds a can of soda in the bag, and prisoners begin rising to their feet, each one saying, “I’m Spartacus!” So, the soldier declares himself to be Spartacus and drinks the pop while a tear falls down Douglas’s cheek.

Spartacus was a slave. He led a revolt against Rome that lasted three years. The slaves were not fighting to overturn Rome; they were fighting to escape Rome. They didn’t make it, and they didn’t expect leniency. The episode now of soda pop fame was a Hollywood moment. Spartacus apparently died in battle, but his body was never found; so the Romans kept on looking and searching. That is why the prisoners in that commercial were offered a chance to turn him in. One after another, the condemned men rose with the same proud claim — “I am Spartacus!”

The dialogue was fictional, but the fate of the prisoners was not. The Romans crucified 6000 rebel slaves along the Appian Way. Six thousand men nailed to crosses.

Imagine entering Rome for the first time in your life, riding along the Appian Way, passing thousands of corpses. Do you sense the power and splendor of Rome? In closed session, the United States Senate reviewed over 1600 pictures of prisoners tortured or killed by interrogators in Afghanistan and Iraq. They reviewed videos which the public has not yet seen. Spaced thirty feet apart along both sides of the street, the photos alone would span over four miles. Did those Senators sense the grandeur that once was Rome?

Howard Fast wrote the novel, Spartacus; but he couldn’t get it published. It was the 1950s; the country was in the grip of another scare campaign; Americans were being investigated for their political views; and Howard Fast was a leftist. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to the firm of Little, Brown opposing publication of Fast’s book. After that, everybody turned him down. Publisher Alfred Knopf returned Fast’s manuscript unopened, insisting that he wouldn’t even look at the work of a traitor. Fast eventually published the book himself.*

Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay of Spartacus. In his long career, Trumbo was connected with dozens of films ranging from Papillon (1973) through Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Exodus (1960), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and Fugitives for a Night (1938).

In 1993, he was awarded an Oscar for his screenplay of Roman Holiday (1953). It was a posthumous award. You see, in the 1940s, he was accused of being a communist, which was a thoughtcrime. Trumbo convinced a friend of his, Ian McLellan, to pose as the creator of Roman Holiday. In the 1950s, the McCarran Act required U.S. citizens who were communists to register as foreign agents, denied them passports, and excluded them from government or defense-related employment. A national ID system was created for the ideologically challenged. Trumbo was briefly imprisoned for failing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. For a decade, his work appeared on the silver screen without accreditation, or credited to other persons. Sixteen years after his death, Dalton Trumbo was recognized as the screenwriter for Roman Holiday.

Spartacus, the movie, cost $12 million to produce, making it the most expensive film made up to that time. It was a great success and won four academy awards. It spoke to the universal aspiration for freedom. Now, it is part of an ad campaign. Which offense, if that is the word, is the most egregious? Writing the novel and screenplay for Spartacus, trying to suppress the novel and investigate the screenplay’s author, or using the movie to sell Pepsi?

* Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, New York, The New Press, 1999, p. 53