Spartacus

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave in the Roman empire, about 70 years before the birth of Christ. A rebellious and proud man, he is sentenced to death for biting a guard but rescued by Biatius (Peter Ustinov), who buys him and takes him to his school for training and selling gladiators. Slave women are provided to the men as rewards. Varinia (Jean Simmons), a British slave, is given to Spartacus. He is awestruck by her grace and beauty, but when he sees that Biatius is watching them, he screams, “I am not an animal!” and will not touch her.

Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a Roman dignitary, visits Biatius’ home with two spoiled and decadent women, who insist on seeing a fight to the death. Spartacus is paired with Draba (Woody Strode), an Ethiopian, who fights with net and trident. Draba corners Spartacus but refuses to kill him, and intstead rushes toward Crassus, who slits his throat. Crassus buys Varinia, and when a guard taunts Spartacus about her, Spartacus kills him, and leads the other slaves in a revolt.

They escape to the countryside, and other slaves join them as they make progress toward the sea, where they hope to escape. Varinia and Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a slave singer and magician, escape from Crassus, and join the slaves. The Romans send troops to capture them, but the slaves defeat them, sending back the message that all they want is the freedom to return to their homes. Crassus uses the slave revolt to gain political power, by promising “order” if he is given complete control. When he is successful, triumphing over his political rival, Gracchus (Charles Laughton), he cuts off the slaves’ access to ships, and surrounds them with troops. Many are killed on both sides, and the slaves are recaptured. Crassus promises them their lives if they will just give him Spartacus. As Spartacus is about to step forward, each of the slaves cries out, “I am Spartacus!” The Romans crucify them all except for Spartacus and Antoninus, lining the Appian Way with 6000 crucifixes.

Crassus takes Varinia and her new baby back to his home. He wants her affection, as the ultimate triumph over Spartacus. Spartacus and Antoninus are ordered to fight to the death, with the survivor to be crucified. Each tries to kill the other, to save him from the slow death of crucifixion. Spartacus is successful, killing Antoninus out of love and mercy, and then he is crucified. Before he dies, he is able to see Varinia and his son, now both free, thanks to Gracchus.

Discussion: This epic saga of the price of freedom is thrilling to watch, the struggles of conscience as gripping as the brilliantly staged battle scenes. When we first see Spartacus, he strikes out at an oppressor almost reflexively. He does not care that the consequence is death; as he later says, for a slave death is only a release from pain.

His life is spared when he is purchased by Biatius. His training as a gladiator gives him his first chance to form bonds with fellow slaves. His exposure to the guards and to the degenerate women from Rome, who insist on watching muscular men kill each other, shows him that power is not based on worth. When he shouts, “I am not an animal!” he is saying it to himself as much as to Biatius. When he strikes out again, he is armed not only with the fighting skills he has learned, but also with an ability to lead, founded in a new sense of entitlement to freedom.

The characters in this movie are especially vivid and interesting. Varinia has a wonderful grace and a rare humor, which adds warmth to her character. She is able to shield her emotional self from the abuse she is forced to endure without deadening her feelings. Gracchus conveys the essential decency of a man who has made many compromises, political and spiritual.

Both the author of the book and the screenwriter were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and families should discuss how that influenced their approach to the story. Kids may also be interested to know that this was among the most popular movies show in the former Soviet Union, and should consider what it was that appealed to the communists.

Questions for Kids:

· Why was it important for the Romans to spread the rumor that Spartacus was of noble birth?

· What did Biatius mean when he said he had found his dignity? How was he changed?

· What did it mean when Gracchus responded that “dignity shortens life even more quickly than disease?”

· Why did Crassus say he was more concerned about killing the legend than killing the man?

· Why did each of the slaves claim to be Spartacus?

Connections: The movie cuts back and forth between the speeches given by Crassus and Spartacus to inspire their followers. Compare the speeches to each other, and to the most famous such speech in literature, Henry V’s “we few, we happy few” speech, delivered by Olivier (who also played Crassus) in the 1945 version of “Henry V,” and delivered with a very different interpretation by Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 version. The sense of community and loyalty of the slaves is reminiscient of similar scenes in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

This was the first screen credit for scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo after he was jailed for refusing to cooperate with Senater Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, though he wrote under other names during that period, and even won two Oscars for best screenplay under other names.

Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for his performance as the slave dealer who runs the gladiator school. He is a rare actor who is able to keep his character as interesting after becoming (at least comparatively) virtuous as he was before.

All of the performances are outstanding. Jean Simmons can also be seein in “Guys and Dolls” and “Great Expectations.” Charles Laughton can be seen in “Witness for the Prosecution,” and “Advise and Consent.” The movie also won Oscars for art direction, costume design, and cinematography.

In 1991, an expanded version of the film was released, restoring scenes that had been cut for the original release, including a bathing scene with Cassus and Antoninus with an implication of sexual interest. Because the original soundtrack was not available and Olivier was dead, his voice was dubbed by Anthony Hopkins.

Activities: Kids who like this movie might enjoy the novel by Howard Fast, also the author of a novel about the American revolution, April Morning.

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Classic Drama Epic/Historical Tragedy

The Yearling

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: This quiet, thoughtful, visually striking adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings covers a year in the life of the Baxter family, post-Civil War settlers in remote Florida. The focus is on Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), 12, a dreamy boy who loves animals and wishes he could have a pet, “something for my own, something to follow me.” Pa Baxter (Gregory Peck) is warm and understanding. Ma (Jane Wyman) seems harsh and rigid, but only because she has been so devastated by the loss of three children that she feels she has to contain her feelings, that if she allows herself to be vulnerable she will not be able to stand the pain.

The only other boy Jody knows is a frail boy named Fodderwing, who lives nearby. Jody loves to visit him, to hear his imaginative tales and play with his pets. Over Ma’s objections, Pa insists that Jody be allowed to have a young deer as a pet, and Jody goes to Fodderwing to ask him to name the deer. Fodderwing has died, but his father tells Jody he once said that if he had a deer, he would name it Flag, and that is the name Jody chooses. Jody loves Flag, and does everything he can to keep him, even building a high fence to keep Flag out of the corn crop, which is essential to the family’s livelihood. But Flag cannot stop eating the crop and has to be destroyed. Ma shoots him, and then Jody has to put him out of his misery.

Jody runs away, but returns. His father notes approvingly that Jody “takes for his share and goes on,” and tells Ma that “He’s done come back different. He’s taken the punishment. He ain’t a yearling no more.”

Discussion: This is a classic story of loss, not just of a beloved pet, but of the innocence and freedom of childhood that Flag symbolizes. Pa says to Jody: “Every man wants life to be a fine thing, and easy. Well, it’s fine, son, powerful fine. But it ain’t easy. I want life to be easier for you than it was for me….A man’s heart aches seeing his young ‘uns face the world knowing that they got to have their insides tore out the way his was tore.” All parents want to protect their children this way. And yet, all parents realize that having one’s “insides tore out” is a necessary part of growing up, that no one ever learns how to make responsible choices without these painful experiences. Pa tells Jody that life is “gettin’, losin’, gettin’, losin’.”

In the last moment of the film, as in the book, the boy and the deer run off together in Jody’s imagination. In part, this means that Jody’s innocence is gone with the deer. But it also means that a precious part of his spirit, the part that loved the deer so deeply, will be with him always, and will be a part of everything that he does.

Questions for Kids:

· Who is “the yearling?”

· What do you think of Pa’s strategy for trading his dog for a gun? What did he mean when he later said that his words were straight, but his intentions were crooked?

· What do Jody’s friends Fodderwing and Oliver tell you about him?

· Why was it hard for Ma to show affection? How can you tell?

· How was Jody different when he came back home?

Connections: Mature teenagers may be interested in “Cross Creek,” a fictionalized account of Rawlings’ life, including the writing of The Yearling, and “Gal Young ‘Un,” a film based on one of her short stories, about an exploitive husband his wife and his girlfriend.

Activities: Middle school kids will enjoy the book.

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Based on a book Drama Family Issues For the Whole Family Tragedy

Life is Beautiful

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This Oscar-winner for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film is a “fable” is about a father’s love for his wife and son in the midst of the Holocaust. Writer/director Roberto Begnini stars as a Chaplinesque character who charms a beautiful teacher by creating a world of gentle magic around them. The first half of the movie is their sweet love story, with only faint foreshadowing of the tragedies that lie ahead.

But then Begnini and his wife and child are sent to a concentration camp. To protect his son’s life, he teaches him to hide from the guards during the day. To protect his son’s heart, he constructs an elaborate fantasy that they are participating in a very difficult contest to win the ultimate prize, a real tank. And his son finds that this make sense, and he goes along with it.

This movie inspired a lot of controversy from people who said that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Holocaust, and that it was wrong to set a comedy, even a gentle bittersweet one, in a concentration camp. But the movie is never less than respectful of the suffering during the Holocaust, and of the impossibility of any kind of real portrayal of that experience. Even “Schindler’s List” is not a portrayal of the Holocaust. That experience is fundamentally incomprehensible. The best we can hope for from art is that it gives us glimpses. This movie gives us such a glimpse, but it is really about love, and the indominability of humanity even in the midst of inhumanity.

We often see in life and in movies that people react to extreme adversity by magnifying whatever sense of control they have left — think of Mrs. Van Dam’s focus on her coat in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” absurd in light of the fact that they never go outside, so she has no real need for a coat, but important because somehow she has chosen the coat as a place to locate her sense of herself as not having lost everything. In “Life is Beautiful,” the father focuses on his special talent for creating a feeling of magic to protect his son from the worst reality of the Holocaust, the sense of utter betrayal. Very importantly, he gives his son a sense of control, by letting him think that he has made the choice to participate in the contest. And knowing that he has kept his child’s faith intact gives him a sense of control, and purpose, that keeps him going.

This is an excellent movie for families to watch together, to discuss not just the historical framework but challenges that parents face when they see their children learn about tragedy and unfairness.

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Classic Comedy Drama Family Issues Romance Tragedy

Titanic

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Classic Greek tragedies explored the theme of hubris as human characters dared to take on the attributes of the gods only to find their hopes crushed. This is a real-life story of hubris, as the ship declared to be “unsinkable” (and therefore not equipped with lifeboats for the majority of the passengers) sank on its maiden voyage from England to the United States.

In this blockbuster movie, winner of ten Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director and on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time, the disaster serves as the backdrop to a tragic love story between Rose (Kate Winslet), an upper class (though impoverished) girl and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a lower class (though artistic) boy who won the ticket in a poker game. Parents should know that the movie features brief nudity (as Rose poses for Jack) and suggested sex (in a steamy car). A much more serious concern is the tragedy itself, with hundreds of frozen dead bodies floating in the water, which may be upsetting or even terrifying for some kids.

The movie raises important questions about choices faced by the characters, as we see a wide range of behavior from the most honorable to the most despicable. The captain (whose decision to try to break a speed record contributed to the disaster) and the ship’s designer (whose plan for additional lifeboats was abandoned because it made the decks look too cluttered) go down with the ship, but the owner and Rose’s greedy and snobbish fiance survive. Molly Brown (dubbed “Unsinkable” for her bravery that night) tries to persuade the other passengers in the lifeboats to go back for the rest. But they refuse, knowing that there is no way to rescue them without losing their own lives. They wait to be picked up by another ship, listening to the shrieks of the others until they all gone.

Many parents have asked me about the appeal of this movie to young teens, especially teen-age girls. The answer is that in addition to the appeal of its young stars, director James Cameron has written an almost perfect adolescent fantasy for girls. Rose is an ideal heroine, rebelling against her mother’s snobbishness and insistence that she marry for money. And Jack is an ideal romantic hero — sensitive, brave, honorable, completely devoted, and (very important for young girls) not aggressive (she makes the decision to pursue the relationship, and he is struck all but dumb when she insists on posing nude). If he is not quite androgynous, he is not exactly bursting with testosterone either, and, ultimately, he is not around. As with so many other fantasies of the perfect romance, from Heathcliff and Cathy in “Wuthering Heights” to Rick and Ilse in “Casablanca” the characters have all the pleasures of the romantic dream with no risk of having to actually build a life with anyone. It is interesting that the glimpses we get of Rose’s life after the Titanic show her alone, though we meet her granddaughter and hear her refer to her husband. Parents can have some very good discussions with teens about this movie by listening carefully and respectfully when they explain why it is important to them, as this is a crucial stage in their development.

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Based on a true story Classic Romance Tragedy
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