The Element of Sound in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus

In Spartacus, director Stanley Kubrick and Music Director Alex North utilize sound, including music, sound effects, and dialogue, in historical drama Spartacus to emphasize the types of romance the characters offer. Gladiator and slave revolt leader Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and house slave Varinia (Jean Simmons) live and love outside of their confinements to produce a rich relationship that is synonymous to the strength of Spartacus’s legacy. The jealous and lonely Crassus (Laurence Olivier) attempts to stifle Spartacus’s influence as the leader of the Third Servile War and an exemplary lover by killing the gladiator and buying Varinia to make her his wife. The Roman general successfully ends the Third Servile War of 1st century BC Rome; nevertheless, he has a dull love life and the legend of Spartacus will continuously haunt him. Through two sequences that begin with “Spartacus Love Theme” and “Oysters and Snails,” respectively, North uses irony to contrast a Thracian slave’s love to that of a wealthy Roman; the film’s pointed music unveils that those who are monetarily and influentially rich may lack some fundamental pleasures of life.

North’s arrangements mock a wealthy slave owner’s quest for something that a slave has, and they point out the irony in Varinia and Spartacus’s prevailing relationship. Varinia and Spartacus share a bond that North makes audible through “Spartacus Love Theme.” The tune presents the audience with a warm feeling of home and provides a sense of peace that is synonymous to the lovers’ relationship, especially during their enslavement. “Spartacus Love Theme,” allowing the audience to view intimately Varinia and Spartacus’s relationship, suggests defiance to any obstacle that attempts to come in between their relationship. In contrast to the specific aura of Varinia and Spartacus’s interactions propelled by “Spartacus Love Theme,” North scores a tune that spells out Crassus’s sexual intentions with Varinia “Oysters and Snails.” The tune itself has a taunting vibe that frequently uses the sound you would imagine to accompany someone waving a wand to complete a magical act. The off tempo chords, mixed with the song’s soft melody, gives the song a chilling effect. The later song of Varinia and Crassus’s sequence, “Varinia in Crassus’s House,” exposes Crassus’s despairing attempt to replace Spartacus and mocks his courtship. The calming melody of “Spartacus Love Theme” highlights an emotional vulnerability that is exclusively available to viewers. The “Spartacus Love Theme” begins to play just seconds before he sees Varinia in the kitchen as he waits for breakfast. The diegetic sound offers a subconscious insight for the audience that the characters cannot see or hear but suggests Spartacus’s feeling of anticipation to the audience. It is obvious that he is thinking about her to the audience, because we hear their song. But to the guards, Spartacus must appear to be nonchalant to disguise his true feelings. As reiterated through later instances, such barriers that have the potential to affect their song (their relationship), like Crassus, become minuscule. Spartacus and Varinia know that the guards would not allow such intimate communication, or any at all for that matter. Nevertheless, the lovers subtly eye each other and eventually do speak to each other. In this sense, the love song also carries an aura of defiance. Rather than abruptly pausing in lieu of the additional sound, the song fluidly surrounds the few words shared between Varinia and Spartacus as if they were lyrics. Spartacus rebelliously whispers to Varinia with concern, ignoring the posted guards equipped with whips and ready to attack anyone who disobeys them. The fluidity of the melody surrounding this instance suggests an encouragement of rebellion. The song foreshadows the beginning of a long-lasting partnership and expresses the unbreakable boomerang-like effect of Varinia and Spartacus’s love.

After the breakfast scene, bits of “Training, Part II” during Spartacus’s training abruptly interrupt the love song. The hurried and harsh sound of “Training, Part II” versus the comforting sound of “Spartacus Love Theme” suggests that the lovers serve as stagnant symbols of peace for each other. Immediately after the training scene, the gladiators go to the kitchen again for dinner, and the love song begins again. Though reminders of their unfortunate enslavement constantly permeate their lives, Varinia and Spartacus find happiness in each other. The building familiarity of “Spartacus Love Theme” that North consciously constructs foreshadows feelings to the audience that may not be as obvious to Spartacus and Varinia. The sound of gladiator trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw) kicking a slave, accompanied by the addition of darker chords to the love theme, gradually interrupts the soaring tune. North drew the high-pitched melody down into a somber mood but just for a few seconds before the familiar tune blares back twice as loudly, almost countering the guard’s entrance into the scene and empowering the lovers. Thus, Marcellus, who repetitively attempts to prevent Spartacus and Varinia from acquiring any romantic relationship, is only an acute distraction. The gradual transition from the love song to the lower-pitched notes over Marcellus’s cameo entrance suggests an underlying text. It seems like the darker melody was really always there but harder to hear under the flowery tone of the “Spartacus Love Theme.” The song presents Spartacus and Varinia’s love as more than just an escape. The lovers are aware of their enslavement, but their love is a supplementary aspect that enhances their admittedly subservient lives. The disruption reminds the audience of Varinia and Spartacus’s enslavement while letting us know that Marcellus, or a larger barrier like slavery, cannot stop Varinia and Spartacus’s love.

Even if some darker notes have found their way into the arrangement, the song’s uplifting overtone prevails –their love will prosper through whatever feats that may come. This sentiment reappears during later scenes when Crassus presents himself as a barrier between Spartacus and Varinia, a sequence introduced by the lingering tune “Oysters and Snails.” The first time the audience hears the song is during Crassus’s encounter with Antoninus, a scene that implicitly states Crassus’s sexual desires for both females and males. This theme of intense sexual desire is continued during the scene where Crassus attempts to seduce Varinia with Roman life, the only other scene where North plays “Oysters and Snails.” “Oysters and Snails” begins creeping almost silently under the scene as Crassus eyes Varinia from the entrance of the room. Parallel to the volume of the song, Crassus lowers his true intentions in order to seem more genuine to Varinia. However, Crassus’s eyeing indicates lust as confirmed by the tune’s previous use. The first dialogue of the scene is Crassus’s polite demand that Varinia do away with the shawl covering the upper half of her body; he wants to see more of her skin. He goes on making conversation about the material items that he has provided for Varinia and how she “of all people should respect the work of slaves” who were worked at the expense of such items. At this instant, the sound of the magical wand emphasizes how Crassus sees himself as a fairy godfather that lifted Varinia from the depths of slavery and into a “rich” Roman home as his queen. He expects to be paid by Varinia’s love and returned lust. This disguise Crassus paints does not fool Varinia. The organically sincere “Spartacus Love Theme” illustrates Varinia and Spartacus’s minimalist relationship. Whereas, “Oysters and Snails,” an eerie melody complete with magical swishes addresses the additional layers of fortune that Crassus wears to please Varinia. While in the breakfast scene during Varinia’s enslavement, she was confined to minimal speech by the guards. Nevertheless, she and her lover swiftly communicated via various methods: eye contact, handholding, and whispers.

During the scene in Crassus’s home, she can speak as much as she wants. However, this fact does not foster a less hostile environment. Crassus’s small talk of the material items does not provoke more than two words from Varinia. Varinia’s engagement with Spartacus did not require luxury items and actually flourished under some of the most dehumanizing circumstances. On the other hand, Varinia’s engagement with Crassus goes nowhere even with all the wealth that Spartacus did not have as a slave. The second arrangement North introduces into the sequence has the melody of a love song, a noticeable contrast to the content of the dialogue. The sympathetic tune satirizes Crassus’s attempt at seducing Varinia with threats and wealth. The high-pitched violin of “Varinia in Crassus’s House” mocks Crassus as he forcefully offers Varinia food but asserts that he is not demanding. Crassus is under the impression that Varinia has developed feelings for him and his money or he is pretending that they are in a relationship in hopes that she will follow his lead. Varinia eventually bursts his bubble of self-entitlement: “Why am I here?” The song ridicules Crassus’s attempt at banding together a family when he does not refer to Varinia’s child as a being, rather “it.” He assumes that Varinia will want as he does, for a servant to nurse the baby–which Varinia protests. The explicitly sarcastic and sympathetic tone of “Varinia in Crassus’s house” is especially applicable when Crassus threatens the life of Varinia’s child for her love. This twisted and desperate call for affection tops off the major theme of the song –loneliness. The tune highlights that pitiful Crassus cannot even get the girl after wooing her with jewelry and nice clothes, feeding her, or taking away everything she loves. The song virtuously expresses the sense of longing that both Crassus and Varinia do possess; Crassus longs for love and affection, and Varinia longs for Spartacus. The pattern of “Varinia in Crassus’s House,” following the short arrangement that mocks Crassus, slips in a few notes from “Spartacus Love Theme” and is surrounded by gloomier notes that strangle its free flowing and familiar ambiance.

Crassus desperately tries to ruin the legend of Spartacus both in the nation of Italy as a symbol of revolution for the slaves as well as in the heart of Varinia as her one true love. The piercing notes reminiscent of “Spartacus Love Theme” seem to be the most noticeable as Crassus asserts that “one shouldn’t grieve forever.” This juxtaposition brings Varinia’s thoughts, as well of Crassus’s misunderstanding, to the forefront. Crassus assumes that Varinia would not be able to speak of her late lover, but she gallantly shares her memories of Spartacus over the increasing sound of horns. The horns highlight the legend of the brave and courageous Spartacus, thus adding an oratory visual to her remembrances. The high-pitched sympathetic notes enter the arrangement as Crassus jealousy questions Spartacus’s authenticity: “What is he, a God?” At this point, the audience can grasp that Crassus is incapable of understanding Varinia and Spartacus’s love, just like he cannot quite understand Varinia. Instead, he masks his ignorance with anger. The addition of “Spartacus Love Theme” to this specific scene indicates Crassus’s intention to imitate Spartacus’s love. In his eyes, Spartacus is a low-life and penniless slave who could not possible obtain the love of a woman like Varinia. Nevertheless, Varinia and Spartacus’s love theme still prospers, a mocking sign that Crassus will never be Spartacus. Through these sequences, that are in many ways opposite of each other, North reiterates a central theme of Spartacus: Varinia and Spartacus’s love is everlasting. It lasts through the difficulties of slavery and Varinia’s forced pairing with Crassus. North does not shy away from ridiculing Crassus’s Roman courtship, exposing his loneliness –a theme of Spartacus that is much less obvious through the plot alone. North attacks the myth that slaves have nothing of value and yearn to be more like their owners. In fact, the matter is quite the opposite. Though Crassus has the means the capture and crucify Spartacus, North proves the rich and powerful slave owner to be less rich and powerful on the battlefield of love.

North suggests that Varinia and Spartacus are wealthy in a way that not even the most influential man of Rome can imitate. Spartacus questions the value of material items of life and compares wealth to romance. Kubrick credits wealthy people for their commercial successes and mocks them for falling short in other aspects of life. Kubrick demonstrates a vigorous relationship between two people who fell in love with each other when they were legally seen as property. By emphasizing that two people who aren’t even seen as human beings can share a love that a rich man fails to reproduce, Kubrick rips away the idea that money equals happiness. Instead, Kubrick suggests that only the most uncluttered version of oneself is able to obtain an honest love.