Ancient Rome has often been depicted in film through sprawling epics, mining historical accounts and Biblical scripture for sweeping stories of love, governments, religion and war. As the environment they depict is one of slaves, imperialism and hedonism, many of these stories fall into the traditional historical epic of a slave freeing themselves (and others) from tyranny. The 1960 film Spartacus is most certainly one of those films, a powerful and expansive work by Stanley Kubrick, depicting the slave Spartacus' rebellion against the Roman aristocracy who enslaved them. However, this same self-serious scope can often be mined for comedy, as in the 1966 musical comedy adaptation A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In both of these films, the protagonist is a lowly slave trying to better themselves and others in the face of oppressive governmental and societal forces, but the humor in the latter comes from that protagonist's lack of heroism. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Spartacus have similar treatments of enslavement and occupation, but shift the tone from drama to comedy based on the heroism of the protagonist.
In the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus, Spartacus (played by an icy and heroic Kirk Douglas) is an effective presentation of the heroic character. Douglas' steely presence, indicated by his fierce eyes and imposing physicality, shows a character of immense strength and courage. He is a man of action, using few words, especially in the beginning, to convey his inner thoughts; like many slaves, his thoughts turn only to survival, lashing out with an economical sense of force in the many gladiatorial training and battle scenes he is to endure throughout the film. His aged, weathered face is a deep well of emotion, and he successfully conveys the sense of leadership that leads him to victory in the end against the Roman Empire and his nemesis, Crassus (Laurence Olivier). The film is well-served by this portrayal of Spartacus, as a noble and sensitive leader whose command of love and loyalty from his troops is inspirational to him and to Crassus alike. His love story with Varinia (Jean Simmons) is also sensitively portrayed, with Douglas emitting a deep well of masculine energy. The film itself martyrs its protagonist, as the film turns Spartacus into a literal Jesus figure - starting from nothing, struggling for an ideal and the freedom of others, leading his soldiers/disciples into a great victory, then being crucified for their sins. Kubrick's treatment of the character is serious and dark, with barely a hint of humor in Douglas' measured performance
The same cannot be said of Zero Mostel's character in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; his character, the fat, jocular and pandering slave Pseudolus, described as "the lying-est, cheating-est, sloppiest slave in all of Rome." Unlike Spartacus' noble savagery, Pseudolus' character plays up the comedy by making him a broad Jewish stereotype juxtaposed against a grand Roman backdrop. Mostel is neurotic, stammering, unattractive, compared to Douglas and his stately stillness.
The film's status as the film that broke the Hollywood Blacklist (screenwriter Dalton Trumbo actually uses his real name in the credits) suitably informs the film's themes; the "I'm Spartacus" scene, where everyone takes on a single name, is especially telling in a film whose screenwriter stops using a pseudonym. Douglas' single tear at the end of the scene, his tacit endorsement of the bold move that just happened, makes Spartacus an integral character who cares deeply about the freedom of others. Pseudolus, on the other hands, fights for no one else - his schemes are entirely self-serving, as his complete superobjective is to gain his freedom. While he does attempt to work as a Cupid figure, getting his master Hero (Michael Crawford) the girl of his dreams Philia (Annette Andre), he only does so because his one and only wish is to be able to purchase his freedom. Spartacus fights as a hero of the people, while Pseudolus is remarkably antiheroic.
The stakes are much smaller in each film; Spartacus leads a gladiatorial slave revolt, and then goes to war to free all the slaves of Rome. Meanwhile, Pseudolus is only looking out for his own freedom. This difference in the two's priorities possibly stem from their respective statuses within their enslavement; Pseudolus can be claimed to have it much easier than Spartacus does under the ownership of a Roman. Spartacus must spend his days living, fighting and dying, having his fate decided on a whim by weak, ineffectual Roman aristocrats. Pseudolus, however, is the slave who simply works for a middle-class Roman couple, Senex (Michael Hordern) and Domina (Patricia Jessel), and thus theoretically lives a very comfortable life. Apart from the basic lack of agency as a slave, one could argue he would live about as comfortably with his freedom has he does without it.
The heroism of the two characters is interesting to explore, as the trappings of the genres each film inhabits determine very different fates for each character. Spartacus, as a heroic protagonist in a serious, progressive drama, dies on the cross for his part in the slave revolt; while he loses his life, he is martyred for a cause. Pseudolus has a much better fate - for his help in getting a nice couple together, Pseudolus is rewarded with his freedom, a concubine, and a large dowry, far from the gruesome fate of Spartacus. Because the stakes are lower, and the film is effectively a Roman bedroom farce about individual freedom (instead of a bloody effort to fight against the system itself), Pseudolus is rewarded for his unconventional behavior. The most important thing to take away from Forum is that Pseudolus, unlike Spartacus, simply wishes to work within the system to connive his way to freedom. There is no intrinsic hatred or animosity towards the concept of slavery itself (Pseudolus seems fine with the status quo of Rome itself), but he simply wants freedom as an individual - ostensibly so he can enjoy the fruits and pleasures of Roman elegance.
In conclusion, while both Spartacus and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum explore issues of occupation and enslavement, their treatment of heroism is quite different. Spartacus is most definitely more of a hero than Pseudolus, as he fights for others to gain their freedom and dies along the way. Douglas is effective as a performer, and the idealized version of Spartacus provided in the film is suitable for the film's intended themes of oppression, poverty, freedom and enslavement - Spartacus needed to be a saint, in order to make his victory (and eventual sacrifice) all the more intriguing. Pseudolus, on the other hand, is treated as a hero with women and money ostensibly for his matchmaking abilities. The Roman system goes on unabated and without consequence, while Spartacus' Rome has seen a bloody slave revolt that challenges the entire system of enslavement that is present.
Kubrick, S. (dir.) (1960). Spartacus. Perf. Kirk Douglas. Universal Pictures.
Lester, R. (dir.) (1966). A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Perf. Zero Mostel. United Artists.