Today film legend Kirk Douglas died at 103. The actor had a long and illustrious career but is perhaps best remembered for his performance as the titular character in the cult classic, Spartacus.
The film, penned by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten (screenwriters and directors jailed for alleged Communist Party links after Congress cited them for contempt), was produced by Douglas and is credited with finally breaking the blacklist that had occurred during McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.
At the time Trumbo was hauled in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee he was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood with a slew of credits to his name, including Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday.
His appearance in court changed all that. Not only was Trumbo hauled off to federal prison for contempt for failing to name names, the ‘Waldorf Statement’, made by 48 of Hollywood’s biggest executives several weeks later, blacklisted the writer (along with 9 others) from all major motion pictures. That is until Douglas came along several years hence and had the audacity to produce Spartacus and give Trumbo the screen credit he deserved.
It might not sound like much: giving a writer a credit for a script that they wrote but in doing so, Douglas changed Hollywood forever, much like the character of Spartacus was to change the shape of Roman politics.
So, what does this have to do with business?
A few things. Spartacus is a story of resilience, as is the behind-the-scenes tale of its screenwriter and star. And resilience is something that small business owners need in bucketloads.
In his autobiography, I am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking a Blacklist, then 95-year-old Douglas wrote:
“When I look back at Spartacus today – more than fifty years after the fact – I’m amazed that it ever happened at all. Everything was against us – the McCarthy era politics, competition with another picture, everything!”
Often as business owners, we are challenged by circumstance and it can be easy to think everything is against us. Yet perseverance and resilience can help us to push through to achieve incredible things.
In the film, the Thracian slave Spartacus (Douglas) rises up to lead a rebellion that eventually becomes the deciding factor in the power struggle between two senators: the republican Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and the militarist Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier).
In the movie’s penultimate scene, a Roman general calls on a group of rebelling slaves to reveal Spartacus or face crucifixion. As Douglas’s character prepares to step forward, dozens of others step up and proclaim themselves Spartacus too until soon the whole crowd named themselves as Spartacus.
So what lessons are there here for small business owners?
How about trusting your gut and believing in your purpose? And what about harnessing that power to create change?
While it could be easy to dissect the scene as a popular culture reference for heroism, the Spartacus message is deeper than that. ‘I am Spartacus’ is better referenced as a reflection of the power in solidarity and the passion of a shared vision or core belief.
For small business owners, this is particularly nascent. Nothing trumps purpose. Your why is what drives your business and also helps you to inspire others and bring people together.
The scene also provides a valuable parable on solidarity. Just imagine what can be achieved when you share a vision and a voice.
As Douglas said in his autobiography:
“When I talk to my grandchildren about Spartacus it seems to them like fantastic tale from a far off time – the 1950s. They’re right it was a long time ago. Yet in a world where one man in Tunisia can set off events that topple the government of Egypt, the story of Spartacus is as important today as it was 50 years ago – and two thousand years ago.
“A revolutionary spirit is circling the globe. Is it contagious? We are surprised when we see leaderless crowds of people gathering in American cities. Speaking with one voice, challenging the power structure that seems impregnable. That was what Spartacus did. And tens of thousands lent their voice to his. Together they were all Spartacus.”
That’s why today, “I am Spartacus”.