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American gladiators

October 18, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

Everyone can name classic books and classic movies, but almost no one knows the difference between them.

Well, here it is: Everybody has seen all the classic movies, but almost no one has read a classic book - at least not the whole way through (including the ones assigned in school).

I admit my own culpability: I'd rather drink a gallon of warm spit than struggle through "Moby Dick," "A Tale of Two Cities" or anything by James Joyce.

But as for classic movies? I've seen them all. From the silent classics with Chaplin and Keaton to Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, from comedies to dramas - you name it and I've seen it, in many cases repeatedly.

In my youth, I was a real movie buff, going to the flicks at least once a week. Then again, that wasn't unusual: In those antediluvian pre-VCR days, movies were an integral part of the "American way of life." Everyone went to the moves a lot, and to a great extent, we were socialized by them. We were doing John Wayne, James Dean and Humphrey Bogart imitations without even knowing it.

It didn't have to be the major, big-time classic stars and movies that made the greatest impressions, either. Sometimes the minor ones made the most impact. Certainly that was true of the Kirk Douglas shlockoganza, "Spartacus."

The plot was simple. Spartacus was a slave gladiator in ancient Rome who, along with a bunch of his fellows, launched a high-power slave rebellion. Of course they lost, as is evidenced by Rome not being known today as "Spartacusburgh," but like film underdogs everywhere, they made one huge and noble effort.

Any cliches aside, the movie had one brilliantly unforgettable scene. After Spartacus' last battle, he and all his followers, now captives, are addressed by Crassus (played by Lawrence Olivier). He gives them an offer they can, of course, refuse: Identify Spartacus and all the others will be spared. But if they don't identify him? Well, I'm sure you can figure it out yourself.

Anyhow, after Crassus speaks, there's a long, dramatic pause. Then, Kirk Douglas, uber-butch that he is, stands up and shouts, "I am Spartacus!"

Another long pause, and suddenly, his number-two man, played by Tony Curtis, stands, and in his horrid Brooklyn accent shouts, "No! I am Spahdderkess!"

Of course, the rest of the band follows suit, and the Romans, being the madcap law-and-order types they were, reward such stirring loyalty by crucifying the whole lot of them.

The hideous consequences aside, such devotion to one's comrades was permanently branded on the brains of every young guy who saw it, which I think was darn near every young guy in the nation.

The crime of the century

And now we fast forward years later to my dorm room at Potsdam State. It's way after midnight on a weeknight and I'm playing Scrabble with my roommate, Freddy, and Tony "The Tank" Talucci.

The Tank was a real piece of work. He was huge - 6'3", 225 pounds and all muscle. Plus, he looked like a troglodyte - sloping forehead, massive unibrow, prognathic jaw and covered with body hair so thick it looked like a pelt. In fact, according to Freddy, The Tank even had to shave the palms of his hands.

His looks, however, were deceiving. He was a finesse athlete, a solid student and a masterful Scrabble player. He also had a superbly ironic sense of humor, something almost no one knew, but that after that night, something no one forgot.

Mid-game, our RA stuck his head in the door.

"Hey," he said, "dorm meeting in the lounge in five minutes."

"Dorm meeting?" said Freddy. "It's almost one in the morning. What's this about?"

"Dunno," said the RA. "All I know is the dean called it."

"The Dean" was the only dean we knew - the dean of students, Dean Mallory. He was a roly-poly, decent guy who liked kids and wanted to help them. It was an attitude that backfired more than a few times.

Once we got settled in the lounge, Mallory told us the reason for this fiasco. Sometime between 9 and 10 p.m. that night, one of our more larcenous dorm mates had picked the lock on the vending machines, making off with a buttload of candy, crackers and soda.

"Now here's the thing," said Mallory. "If whoever did this admits to it, he'll be punished, but he won't be expelled from school."

"And what if no one confesses?" asked a kid who was obviously a political science major.

Dean Mallory flinched slightly.

"Well," he said, "in that case, he said,umthe whole dorm'll be held responsible."

A massive groan issued forth.

"Those are the terms, I'm afraid," said Mallory, looking very uncomfortable. He checked his watch and then looked back up at us. "I'll give you five minutes to think it overstarting now."

"What a crock," said Freddy. "I think this violates our civil rights."

"Sure does," said The Tank. "Problem is, I don't think we've actually got any."

Putting the "glad" in gladiators

And so it went - grumbling and whining all around for a full five minutes...then silence.

Dean Mallory cleared his throat.

"OK, fellas," he said, "who did it?"

No one moved and no one spoke for at least 30 seconds. Then suddenly, The Tank stood up.

Freddy and I looked at each other, completely baffled: Since The Tank had been with us in our room since supper, he couldn't have done it.

Mallory was frowning too -The Tank was one of the best behaved kids in the school.

"Tank?" Mallory said, "You broke into the vending machines?"

The Tank just stood there, huge, stolid, unwavering, and said nothing.

Suddenly he bellowed, "I AM SPARTACUS!"

The rest of us sat there, completely blanked, till Freddy scrambled to his feet.

"No," he shouted, "I am Spartacus!"

Then I caught on, but so had everyone else: Just as I started to stand up, some kid on the other side of the room did his Spartacus bit. And so it went for probably a full minute till the last of our Spartacuses had chimed in.

And now the weirdest thing: We were all standing there, at full attention, but no one was laughing - in fact, no one was even smirking. We were all in character: We weren't just a bunch of kids playing a movie scene - we were slaves after a failed rebellion.

Another minute or so went by, with Mallory looking over the whole room, left to right, then right to left, then left to right again.

Finally, he shook his head and smiled. Then he picked up his coat and hat and looked at us.

"Well, gentlemen," he said, "let me tell you something."

He took a breath and exhaled.

"I may not have been smart enough to get out of coming here tonight," he said, "but I'm sure not dumb enough to stick around any longer."

And with that he was gone.

It was the stuff of legends, and it got told and retold for years - at least by the students.

But when it came to the administration - as might be expected - mum was the word.

(Editor's note: This article appeared in the print edition of the Enterprise on Friday, Oct. 17 and was accidentally not posted online until today.)



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