Beware the Ides of March
Everything you need to know about Spartacus you can learn during the Overture. First, by the very fact that is has an Overture (something I haven't seen outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia) tells the viewer that they are sitting down to an epic film. And, like Lawrence, Spartacus is a film grand enough in scale to lament only watching on a television. Scenes of the slaves' camp and the final battle are, simply put, awe inspiring in their size.
Second, the Overture sets up the general construct of the film. The Overture begins triumphantly before pulling into a slower lull. Finally, it returns to its triumpant beginning. The ending is very abrupt, as if leaving out the true ending. It is this ending that sets up the general pattern of the film. Almost every scene in which Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) succeeds is cut off either in its beginning or in its end. Spartacus' defeats, however, are shown from beginning to end. This is most notable in Spartacus' two gladiatorial matches with Draba (Woody Strode) and the two battles with the Roman army.
The first fight with Draba is a sparring match, with both using short swords. We see Spartacus knock Draba down against the surrounding gates, and the camera immediately cuts away to another scene. The second fight, probably the second most recognizable scene in the film, is the most exciting scene in the film, showing Spartacus with the short sword fighting Draba with a trident, apparently his natural weapon. Every motion is captured, both for the enjoyment of the senators watching the match and of the viewer watching the film. This is a battle the Spartacus loses, though Draba spares his life. In saving Spartacus' life, Draba gives his own. This is mirrored later in the film's most quoted scene.
Spartacus shows only two battles. The first comes against the forces of an arrogant Glabrus (John Dall), and the second pits Spartacus' masses against the entire Roman army, led by Crassus (Laurence Olivier). The viewers hear about Spartacus' battle plans against Glabrus, but the cut is not to troops marching into battle. The camera's next image shows tents blazing, Glabrus already in defeat. Sure, we get to celebrate the victory with Spartacus. But we do not get to enjoy the battle as it happens. That pleasure is reserved for the ultimate faceoff between Spartacus and Crassus. Unfortunately, the pleasure belongs entirely to Crassus.
This sad ending was practically unprecedented in a swords and sandals epic. The first such movie without the religious overtones, Spartacus splits its time between a savage critique of the (Roman) government, a celebration of a rebellion of the masses, and the near silent relationship between Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons). No one in the Roman Senate is clean, the slaves are defeated and crucified, and Varinia is lucky to be able to escape with her child. Though the story is filled with tragedy, Stanley Kubrick is able to portend the doom from the very beginning, filling the overall feel of the film with a sense of dread. No victory is short enough, and no defeat too long for Kubrick. And he lays it bare for all to see in the Overture.