On the silver screen: The cinematic lives of Kirk Douglas, Part II: Was...

On the silver screen: The cinematic lives of Kirk Douglas, Part II: Was Spartacus Jewish?

By Bill Simons

The classic 1990s television dramedy “Northern Exposure” found humor in a young, nerdy Jewish doctor, Joel Fleischman, paying off his medical school debts by taking a position in a remote area of Alaska. Maurice Minnifield, a burly former astronaut and erstwhile resort developer, lured Joel to the Alaskan wilds so the area would have a doctor in residence. To parry Maurice’s needling, grounded in the stereotype of intellectual, physically inept, neurotic Jews, Joel shows him a still photo from the movie “Spartacus” of the muscular gladiator slave turned rebel general, sword in hand, on horseback. An incredulous Maurice asks if Spartacus was Jewish. Joel says Spartacus wasn’t Jewish, but Kirk Douglas is. 

Kirk Douglas and Spartacus did, in fact, share some common attributes, most notably, dramatically recreating themselves. Paralleling the transformation of Izzy Demsky from the bullied son of an immigrant Jewish ragman into the hypermasculine movie star Kirk Douglas, who defied authority on and off the screen, Spartacus morphed from gladiatorial slave into the leader of servile insurrectionists battling for their freedom against the armies of imperial Rome. Movie star and slave revolutionary met and melded in the 1960 movie “Spartacus.” 

“Spartacus” is Douglas’ most famous film and one of cinema’s great epics. With a cast of thousands, something no longer practical in our age of computer-generated crowds, “Spartacus” integrated an intimate story of the struggles, loves, triumphs and martyrdom of its eponymic hero within the context of a panoramic drama of rebellion against tyranny. Douglas invested a lot of himself into the film. Douglas’ Bryna company, named for his “Yiddishe” mother, produced the film in conjunction with Universal Studios, and Douglas personally recruited several of his big-name co-stars, among them Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov, as well as director Stanley Kubrick. As Spartacus, Douglas’ muscular physique, athleticism and fierceness rendered his scenes as brutish slave, gladiator and military commander compelling, particularly in juxtaposition with demonstrations of loving devotion to his wife, even while gasping for breath during execution by crucifixion. 

The defining scene in “Spartacus” comes when a legate of the Roman commander Crassus promises the now prostate survivors of the slave army that Rome will return them to bondage, but spare them execution, provided they identify their leader. If, however, the defeated slave soldiers refuse to yield Spartacus, the Roman legate warns that they will all endure the agonies of crucifixion. To spare his men, Douglas’ Spartacus rises to proclaim his identity, but before he can do so a few, then dozens, and finally hundreds of his men rise to proclaim “I Am Spartacus!” The scene is a memorable dramatization of collective solidarity by courageous – and doomed – freedom fighters. 

The “I Am Spartacus!” scene moved audiences, inspired real-life campaigns of liberation and led Douglas himself to a demonstration of moral courage. When Douglas, then in his 90s, published his memoir of the making of the film, he titled the book “I Am Spartacus!” In it, he revealed his role in breaking the Blacklist, Hollywood’s system of punishing and exploiting individuals accused of radical affiliations during the height of Cold War anti-Communist hysteria. 

Douglas hired the gifted wordsmith Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter for “Spartacus.” Trumbo had served nearly a year in a federal penitentiary for refusing to incriminate others before the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Producers had previously employed Trumbo, but had done so covertly, identifying the disgraced screenwriter by a pseudonym and grossly underpaying him. By hiring Trumbo and listing him in the credits under his own name, Douglas risked exposing himself to charges of Communist sympathies and thus the possible deconstruction of his own career. Instead, Douglas’ championing of Trumbo, in conjunction with the stand taken by the Jewish-American director Otto Preminger, contributed significantly to breaking the spine of the infamous Blacklist. As Joel Fleischman said, Spartacus wasn’t Jewish, but Kirk Douglas is. 

Some historians claim that Jewry failed to confront the significance of the Holocaust in the 15 years following World War II and that it took the 1960 Argentinian capture of Adolf Eichmann, an engineer of the Final Solution, by Israeli Shin Bet agents to address genocide’s legacy. Douglas’ 1953 film “The Juggler,” shot on location in Israel, belies that canard. In “The Juggler,” Holocaust survivor and pre-war vaudevillian Hans Müller arrives in 1949 Israel as a refugee wracked by survivor’s guilt over the concentration camp extermination of his family. Douglas’ tormented Müller attacks an Israeli police officer, mistaking him for a Nazi, flees to a kibbutz, and, armed with a rifle, engages in a standoff with authorities until persuaded to surrender and receive needed psychiatric care.

Douglas’ cinematic career also intersected with Israel’s response to terrorism in the 1970s. On the Fourth of July 1976, the Bicentennial of American Independence, 100 elite commandoes of the Israeli Defense Force, after a covert, nocturnal flight of 2,300 miles, mounted a bold lightning strike on Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport to free Jewish hostages held by Palestinian and German terrorists. Of the 106 hostages, 102 survived; all of the terrorists and several collaborationist Uganda soldiers were killed; and only one Israeli soldier – Yonatan (Jonathan) Netanyahu, brother of the future Israeli prime minister – died in the rescue mission. Despite much triumphant celebration, there was a segment of American and international public opinion that condemned Israel’s violation of Ugandan sovereignty.

To bolster support for Israel, a television film about the raid on Entebbe was rushed into production. “Victory at Entebbe” made its ABC broadcast debut on December 13, 1976, only five months after the events it depicted. Douglas, along with a number of other major stars, participated in the project. Besides Douglas, the cast featured a host of Jewish luminaries, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Dreyfus and Theodore Bikel. Douglas played Hershel Vilnofsky, a frantic father whose daughter Chana is one of the hostages. 

A concluding article will examine the defining episodes in Douglas’ relationship with Judaism and Israel. 

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.