Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 6: Musical Statues: Spartacus, 1960

Essays by Emily King
3 854 words20 min read

4: Musical Statues: Spartacus, 1960

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the production of epic films was at its height in both America and Europe. Derek Elley, author of The Epic Film, suggests that Ben Hur, made in 1959, marks the zenith of the Hollywood cycle. This puts Spartacus, which was released in 1960, at the cusp of the genre’s decline.

Kirk Douglas (b.1916), star and executive producer of the film, was the controlling presence on the production, to the extent that Stanley Kubrick (b.1928), the director, claimed that he was nothing more than a ‘hired hand’ on the set. Douglas sacked the film’s original director, Anthony Mann, and most of the production crew after the first few days' filming. Saul Bass was one of the few members of the original production team to survive the change-over. He had been hired in the earliest stages of the production to design the opening credits and to create the film’s climactic battle scene.

In an interview Saul Bass described the evolution of his role on the film:

I was working on the battle, because at first, it wasn’t going to be a big epic picture, just reasonable... 2 or 3 million dollars. So they thought it would be very interesting to do a symbolic battle, and they thought symbolic battle... that’s Saul Bass, so they called me in and I was working on a symbolic battle. Then things started getting a little out of hand, budget rising - it was now about 4 or 5 million - so they said, let’s have a little more... let’s do an impressionistic battle. So I redid the whole thing. Well, they were enlarging the picture, putting more and more things in, and finally they said - Well gee, we can’t go down the line and then have somebody look through the window and say "That’s a helluva battle going on down there…what we need is an all out battle. So by this time I was the battle expert, and that’s how I wound up doing what for me is this most unlikely thing.

That Spartacus was originally conceived as a film with a relatively modest budget differentiates it from the plethora of ‘epic’ movies. It was traditional to advertise the record breaking budget of an epic film as a selling point, so spending money was an activity justified in itself. Central to the 1959 remake of Ben Hur was the absurdly extravagant chariot race. Andrew Marton, who directed that scene, became keenly sought after in Hollywood as a man who could blow millions to great effect. Along with the ‘symbolic’ battle, Bass’s opening title sequence was part of a package of relatively low budget features intended to distinguish the film. The opening credits of Ben Hurappear in a ‘classical’ typeface over a static image of a detail of Michelangelo’s Creation of Man. Similarly, the titles of other major epics are in the traditional Hollywood mould of typography over appropriate static image. Bass’s modern graphics would have set Spartacus apart from the rest in its first few minutes.

The opening sequence of the film lasts 5 minutes 17 seconds and credits 57 separate individuals and companies. Bass himself suggested that film makers were paying more attention to credit sequences because they were becoming so long. He explained that, ‘In spite of all efforts to control the situation, the lists of credits on films grows larger each year.... Since trade requirements demand these extensive credits, it seems that this usually neutral interlude should be converted into a positive introduction to the film.’ After the studio system broke down the entire production team of a movie would be hired on contract. Whenever possible the contractee would include a clause demanding a screen credit. Visibility on screen had become key in the industry where your next job depended upon how prominent you were able to make yourself in your last. By the mid 1950s the length of the credits at the start of films had become the subject of jokes shared by film-makers and audiences. In A Star Is Born (1954) the James Mason character is told that his career is finished in the time it takes for the credits on the film he is watching to roll. Significantly, this climactic scene is played against the background of a baseball game on television, making the connection between lengthy credits and the decline of the movie industry. It was the shifting power structures in Hollywood, which many believed would hasten the collapse of the film industry, that were responsible for extending credit sequences.

In many cases, when and where and in what form credits appeared seems to have been up for constant renegotiation. Between January and August 1960 memos regarding screen credits on Spartacus flew back and forth between members of the production team (fig.20). The complete list of credits was revised several times before the final version was reached in mid August 1960, after shooting of the titles had already begun. Saul Bass’s own credit appears to have been the source of debate. A memo dated July 14, 1960 announced, ‘The Saul Bass title has been resolved. He will be the first name on card 17 and the credit will read as follows: Main titles and design consultant ... Saul Bass.’ The memo concludes wearily, ‘We all hope we shall resolve the other credits within the next two weeks. I will let you know.’

Alex North, the composer of the Spartacus score, was sent the ‘final counts’ of Bass’s sequence on 10 June 1960 (fig.21). On 19 July he was sent the revised counts (fig.22) and nine days later a schedule was drawn up which projected that his score would be completed by 12 August. Despite the repeated delays in the production of Spartacus, to the extent that by early 1960 the film was nearly a year behind its original schedule, the post-production work on the film was completed to extremely tight deadlines.

In the sequence as it appears on the film (fig.23) Alex North’s score opens with a harsh trumpet fanfare just before the first image appears on the screen. Described in the counts sent to North as ‘Hand Entering Field at Right’, a sculptural hand points authoritatively from right to left and the first credit, for Bryna Production Company, fades in over it. Seconds later a manacled hand tightly clenched in a rebellious fist breaks through from the left of the screen and Kirk Douglas’s credit appears in elegant serif capitals [‘Slaves Hand - Static’]. Next, Laurence Olivier’s credit is superimposed onto an image of the head of an imperial sceptre [‘Eagle’]. Jean Simmons, the only female lead, is given a credit against the background of an image of a hand holding a water jug [‘Hand With Pitcher’]. The images and text of this part of the sequence fade in and out within regular time intervals. The doom-laden drum beats of the Spartacus theme keep time, but the auditory and visual rhythms are not synchronised in any detail.


Each of the film’s principal characters is given this style of solitary credit. The photographed fragments of apparently classical statutory juxtaposed against their names are intended to symbolise their role in the production. After six individual credits, which take up the first 74 seconds of the sequence, the film’s title appears in the centre of the screen in the same typeface as the major credits, but in slightly larger script. It is superimposed onto an image of two sword blades which appear to challenge each other. This symbol is accompanied by some dramatic trumpet flourishes in the score emphasising it as a key point in the sequence.

After the film’s title, other acting credits and minor technical credits appear in text blocks of smaller type superimposed onto either fragments of classical statues or blocks of Roman script. The respective authors of the screenplay and original book, Dalton Trumbo and Howard Fast, are credited in the same frame, their names superimposed onto a screen filled with Roman script, which must refer to the process of authorship. The men who had an overview of the film’s production, Kirk Douglas and Edward Lewis, the executive producer and the producer, are given their credits at the end of the sequence over the profiles of classical busts. Stanley Kubrick, the film’s director, is given the last credit, superimposed over the centre of a full face view of the sculpted head of a young Roman man. After Kubrick’s name disappears from the screen the statue appears to age. Cracks appear in the marble [‘Head Starts Cracking at 293’] and eventually the statue crumbles [‘Cracks Occur At 294; Ear 295; R.Cheek 296; Jaw 298;’ etc]. After it has virtually fallen apart, the head fades from the screen [‘Cracking Completed At 307; Dolly In Starts at 309; Dolly Completed at 315’]. At the last glimpse the audience catches of the bust, its noble face is reduced to mere fragments of a nose and an eye.

Bass looked for statues to photograph for the sequence in the Los Angeles County Museum, the Getty Museum and the Anthropological Museum at Berkeley. If he could not find the right statue to symbolise a certain role he would commission it from Sylvestri, a craftsman who specialised in 'classical' statuary. Almost certainly the manacled fist of the slave, the symbol of defiance in captivity, was made for the sequence rather than found in a museum. The nobility and strength of the slave was not a theme explored in the statuary of ancient Rome. This emphasis on research in tandem with a cavalier approach to the facts is characteristic of the production of the entire film.

Liberties taken by the film, both with the facts known about the true Spartacus story and with what was known about life in ancient Rome, were motivated by the desire to draw parallels between the politics of the Spartacus fable and those of the mid-twentieth century. Derek Elley called the film a ‘misty meditation on freedom’ and claimed that while Howard Fast, who wrote the novel Spartacus on which the film was based, saw the story as a fable about equality, ‘Douglas saw Spartacus as an opportunity to make a large-scale Zionist statement’. Douglas described the theme of the film as ‘the individual, fighting against society’ and went on to remark, ‘its always obsessed me ... it doesn't matter if you're a nice guy or a bastard. What matters is that you won't bend’.

What Kirk Douglas has ingenuously described as his ‘linguistic scheme’ is possibly the device that conveys the film’s most blatant political message. Romans, upholders of a decaying political order, speak with English accents. Slaves, who seek to overthrow Roman authority and establish a just society, have American voices. Jean Simmons, the only exception to this rule, was cast as a slave ‘from Britannia’. Hers is the only English accent that the audience is not intended to associate with a rotting society. This ‘scheme’ was common among Hollywood epics and the message, that modern American society was challenging the degenerate European establishment in the new world order, was reinforced again and again through these movies.

Manipulation disguised as attention to detail was not motivated solely by politics. The battle scene was advertised in the publicity around the film as ‘the first time audiences may view the unique formation which military experts call history’s most efficient’. Bass describes his design for that scene as ‘a highly interesting mechanistic expression of the Roman army, where their centurian groups operated like Venetian blinds’, he was aiming to give the impression of a ‘terribly machine-like, efficient, frightening kind of thing’. Though Bass has claimed that little of his work on the battle survived in the movie, it is obvious from his descriptions which scenes are to his design. While Bass was using the formation of the 'army' to create a graphic impression on the screen of mechanistic efficiency, the publicity was selling his design as an accurate representation of Roman military efficiency.

Publicity released with the movie boasted, ‘All the research was not aimed solely at visual effects. Alex North, for one, was concerned about authenticity for the ear.’ In an interview North claimed, ‘What I tried to do in the picture was to capture the feeling of pre-Christian Rome using contemporary music and techniques. Because the struggle for freedom and dignity, the theme of Spartacus is so pertinent in today’s world, I tried to combine research and period authenticity with contemporary composition’. 'Authenticity' is not a straightforward concept in regard to the music of an extinct culture and can often be identified in the score of Spartacus by jarring brass fanfares. Among other 'contemporary music and techniques', North used elements of jazz music. The surprising juxtaposition of jazz and togas must have been intended to wake audiences up to the immediate relevance of the Spartacus fable.

It would be unfair to claim that the political content of the film Spartacus was fabricated entirely by movie makers adopting historically questionable devices to draw arguably spurious contemporary parallels and that its message amounted to nothing more than vague ideas about freedom from old world orders. However, the most pertinent political message of the film lay not in its substance, but in the credits appearing in the opening sequence. On 1 August 1960 it was finally agreed that Dalton Trumbo and Howard Fast would be openly acknowledged for their roles in writing the film. Both were writers who had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era. For Trumbo, who had been working in Hollywood under pseudonyms for many years, it was the first time his role in the production of a film had been acknowledged since the hearings of the Un-American Activities Committee. The Hollywood Reporter, while suggesting that the employment of blacklisted writers might prevent the film being accepted, admitted that ‘there is nothing more subversive in Spartacus than contained in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.’


As well as the opening credits and the battle scene, Saul Bass designed a graphic symbol for the film Spartacus (fig.24). He returned to Guernica as a source for this symbol. The figure of the gladiator, head thrust back, arms upstretched and sword in hand, is a more defiant version of the unarmed figure at the far left of Picasso’s canvas. In drawing on the visual language that had been derived from the painting, Bass was communicating a metapolitical message about liberty that would have been widely understood. By 1960 Guernica had come to epitomise the appropriate way to visually express the abstract rhetoric which dominated the political language of United States. North Americans were not only exposed to 'misty meditations on freedom' through their films, they were also hearing them from their President. John F Kennedy delivered a speech concluding, ‘My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man’, at his inaugural address only three months after the release of Spartacus. With minimal changes, Kennedy’s speech could have been slotted quite comfortably into the script of the film.

Bass’s symbol for Spartacus, though expressive both of America’s political conscience and of the film’s message, did not appear in any form in the credits. The visual language employed by Bass in the sequence suggests a completely different source. The surrealists had been engaged in exploring the psychological and subconscious impact of classical imagery through their paintings and films since the 1920s. The images of fragments of sculpture appearing in the Spartacus titles are reminiscent of this recurrent motif of avant garde art. While European designers working in both Europe and America, such as Cassandre (1901-68) (fig.25), had already brought the language of surrealist art into graphic design, it seems likely that Bass was directly informed by the medium of film. Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), in The Blood Of The Poet, 1930, had let the camera linger on brightly lit statuary and subsequently the imagery had made its way into mainstream film. In Citizen Kane, 1940, German Expressionism met Surrealism in the halls of the mythical mansion, Xanadu. Kane’s bizarre collection of antiques included classical, medieval and Renaissance statues which stood out against the eerie shadows of the Great Hall.

Bass’s use of classical motifs in the Spartacus sequence obviously makes sense in terms of the film’s subject. But, while the use of classical sculpture in the opening sequence of a film about the Roman Empire could be seen as prosaic, the style of the sequence implies more than a straightforward visual representation of the film’s historical context. Tantalisingly incomplete images are left on screen for merely a few seconds. It is impossible to view this collection of fleeting images simply as a gallery of remnants of a bygone age. Bass described the image used to symbolise Tony Curtis’s role in the film as ‘Friendly Hands’. This suggests that the sequence was intended to convey emotional as well as symbolic messages. The statues are not the inert artefacts of an ancient culture but collectively become the communicators of complex meanings.

No element of Bass’s title sequence for Spartacus was used in the advertising campaign for the film. Bass’s graphic symbol appeared as only a small trademark on the American posters and not at all on those offered to British theatres. The film was the object of a coordinated world-wide promotion, but Bass was not responsible for any part of its design. The poster format which was adhered to consistently in both America and Europe was a series of mix and match portrait medallions of the film’s major stars against a plain background (fig.26), a style which followed the conventional graphic formula of most blockbuster advertising. At this point Bass was no longer confined in his film-work to post-production packaging and publicity, he had defined a role for the graphic designer at the core of production process.

The publicity material released worldwide by Universal Studios as part of the coordinated campaign emphasised how much the film did eventually cost to make. Over the years it had taken to produce Spartacus the budget had grown to conventionally epic proportions. A promotional book titled The Portrait of a Production claimed that Spartacus was ‘the most expensive motion picture ever made in Hollywood’. The press excitedly repeated the rumour that the film’s budget was $12 million. Within that budget, the less than $39,560 it cost to make the titles must have seemed insignificant. Graphically interesting title sequences were not part of the blockbuster culture. Unlike Bass’s other credits of the same period, the Spartacus sequence received no attention from contemporary reviewers, who instead concentrated on the film’s ‘Vast Panoramas’, ‘Superior Acting’ and ‘Marathon Length’.

The modest budget for the titles would have met the fee charged by Saul Bass & Associates for the original design and the costs of actually shooting the credits under Bass’s supervision at National Screen Service. The responsibility for the opening titles of Spartacus as they appear on screen lies with a team. As well as the technicians from National Screen Service, some of the credit for the sequence must go to Bass’s colleagues from Saul Bass and Associates, chiefly Art Goodman who designed the typography and Elaine Mack who appears to have been responsible for a substantial amount of the research behind the sequence.

By 1960 the work of Saul Bass and his team had become well known and popular. They had designed opening sequences for 9% of the films which grossed over $5 million at the box office in the period between 1951 and 1960, as well as those for a number of films which were successful on a smaller scale. From the late 1950s, Bass increasingly used live action within these sequences and became more involved in working on scenes within films. In a filmed interview made by his own production company in the early 1970s, Bass explained that although he had begun his work on titles by animating graphic symbols, ‘somewhere down the line’ he ‘felt the need to come to grips with the realistic or live action image’. Sometimes Bass used these live action sequences symbolically: the titles for Walk On the Wild Side (1962) posit a fight between a black and a white cat as a metaphor for the gang wars on the streets of Chicago (fig.27), and the closing sequence of West Side Story (1961), which wanders round an urban landscape finding credits in the graffiti, symbolises a tale which was supposed to have been plucked from the city’s streets (fig.28). Other times Bass made what he called ‘totally integrated’ titles. Explaining this development Bass said ‘it occurred to me that the title could make a more significant contribution to the story telling process, it could act as a prologue’. The opening sequences to The Big Country (1958) and Grand Prix (1966) function in this way.

The continuity between these live action title sequences and the films they open may appear seamless. However Bernard Lodge, who has designed graphics for television since 1962, suggests that the sequences are evidently the work of a graphic designer, arguing that what characterises a graphic designer’s eye for film is ‘looking for shapes and patterns’. Lodge, explained that having seen Saul Bass’s work in the early 1960s he ‘realised that there was a graphic designers way of shooting live action’ which has become a ‘common language’. Discussing Bass’s use of a telephoto lens to shoot the opening sequence of Grand Prix he observed that ‘you get instant super-graphic images using one of those things...... You get an instant composition ...its very much a graphic designers look’. Lodge went on to complain that this style of film making has become cliched suggesting that, ‘One almost wants a stringent ungraphic thing now.’

Throughout the sixties, graphic designers became increasingly involved in the production of films. The positive reception of Saul Bass’s work in the late 1950s must have encouraged film-makers to employ graphic designers to work on the opening credits and other sequences within their movies. Making a feature of the titles and creating sequences within films with that distinctive 2D graphic look became common elements of mainstream movies in the mid to late 1960s.