Strode, Woody (Woodrow)


Strode, Woody (Woodrow)
(1914–1994)
   As Draba, the gladiator chosen to fight to the death with KIRK DOUGLAS in SPARTACUS (1960), Woody Strode creates one of the film’s most memorable characters (and what Variety calls “one of Strode’s most notable and physical roles”), even though he has only two lines of dialogue:
   SPARTACUS
   What’s your name?
   DRABA
   You don’t want to know my name; I don’t want to know your name.
   SPARTACUS
   Just a friendly question.
   DRABA
   Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I’ll have to kill you. Not surprisingly, Spartacus and Draba eventually are matched in the arena together, for the amusement of Crassus (LAURENCE OLIVIER) and his guests, in a fight to the death. With his well-developed musculature, his 6 foot, 4 inch, frame, and his imposing demeanor, Strode makes a formidable adversary indeed. But even as in his career Strode alternated between villains and heroes, here his character straddles that line perfectly. Although Draba is seen as a very real and immediate threat to the hero, Spartacus, one can scarcely call him a villain; he and Spartacus Richard Strauss (John C. Tibbetts) at this point are both only pawns in the Romans’ game. In one of the first displays of nobility by any character in the film—the other being a moment of tenderness between Spartacus and Varinia (JEAN SIMMONS) as she is feeding the gladiators—Draba refuses to kill Spartacus for the Romans’ amusement. Instead, he flings his trident up into the viewing box, imperiling the spectators themselves (and also implicating the filmgoers as spectators). Then, in a rage, he climbs up to the box and grabs hold of Crassus’s leg. Before Draba can do any real damage, a Roman guard impales him from behind, and Crassus slits the back of Draba’s neck, as bulls are ceremonially killed in a bullfight.
   Draba’s motivation for sparing Spartacus is not entirely clear. No doubt he had been forced to kill in the arena before, and his prior onscreen interaction with Spartacus is limited to the brief exchange noted above. One might speculate that Draba admired the humanity in Spartacus and saw in him some hope for change. After all, one might wonder, how long had it been since another gladiator asked Draba his name? The result of Draba’s self-sacrifice, of course, is that Spartacus lives on, to lead the massive slave revolt against the Roman oppressors. And even though it, too, is ultimately unsuccessful, it leads to further hope for the future, as Varinia escapes Rome with Spartacus’s son. This theme of sacrificing oneself for the greater good is, of course, the essence of Christian mythology—a fact not lost on the filmmakers, as we see thousands of slaves crucified, Spartacus among them. Of course it is also the essence of marxist thought—not surprising given the political leanings of novelist HOWARD FAST and screenwriter DALTON TRUMBO. Rarely, if ever, in another big-studio production does one find so close and so appropriate a parallel between Christianity and marxism. The fact that Draba is portrayed by a black man in 1960 cannot be overlooked, precisely because in the arena, race becomes irrelevant. Draba and Spartacus, like the first pair of (white) gladiators who fought, are (to paraphrase another STANLEY KUBRICK film) “equally worthless” in the eyes of the Romans. The basis of their abuse is an economic one and has nothing to do with race. The class inequity is driven home as the four gladiators sit in the holding cell awaiting their “fate,” while the Romans lounge, literally above them, engaging in small talk and jovialities. (Here “fate” is in quotations because, as Strode’s character shows, the gladiators need not accept the script that the Romans have thrust upon them; by choosing his battles carefully, Draba is able to play his part in effecting change. )
   This scene illustrates the marxist position that racial disharmony is almost always a red herring used to deflect attention away from the issue of class struggle. Coming in 1960, when many black Americans were demanding their civil rights, the sequence in retrospect reads like a desperate and ultimately unheeded wake-up call, pleading for the oppressed classes (poor whites and poor blacks) to come together and fight the real enemy, rather than fighting among themselves.
   The son of a Los Angeles brick mason,Woody Strode entered the University of California at Los Angeles in 1936 on a football scholarship. He majored in history and education, and he played football alongside teammate Kenny Washington. Later he played defensive end with the Los Angeles Rams, as one of the first black players in the reintegrated National Football League. He also played professionally in the Canadian League in 1948, where he was named all-pro end, and for several years in the late 1940s and early ’50s he was a professional wrestler. Strode’s film career began inauspiciously in 1941, with a walk-on part in a Walter Wanger production, Sundown. It would be another decade before he graced the screen again, this time for Walter Mirisch, in The Lion Hunters (1951). While continuing his wrestling career, Strode took other small film roles in the 1950s, as in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), in which he plays a slave.
   By the late 1950s Strode was acting full time. One of the first important roles came in Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959), in which Strode described his part as:
   a reluctant black soldier who didn’t want to fight. At one point in it, I pretended to be crazy. “Don’t you move, I’m aiming straight at your body,” I said to my superior officer, Gregory Peck. He tells me, “But all the boys are fighting,” and I said,“But you ought to see where I live back home. You sonofabitch, I wouldn’t die for that, and I’ll be goddam if I’m going to fight for Korea. ”
   Strode played the title role in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1960), about a black cavalry officer accused of raping a white woman—a charge that is clearly trumped up. Strode later recalled, “I’ve never gotten over Sergeant Rutledge. That was a classic. It had dignity. John Ford put classic words in my mouth. ” He made three more films with Ford: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Two Rode Together (1961), and Ford’s last western, Seven Women (1966, with SUE LYON).
   In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Strode made appearances in at least five “spaghetti westerns,” (Italian-made Westerns) including his unforgettable, wordless portrayal of Stony, the gunman who is killed in the opening of Sergio Leone’s masterful Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Strode’s other notable films include Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), The Cotton Club (1984), Lust in the Dust (1985), and his last screen appearance, in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995).
   In a 1992 audio commentary for Spartacus, Peter Ustinov recalls, “Woody Strode I remember with great affection. He was a very, very nice man. He was enormous—and frightfully athletic. And we all looked at him with amazement. ” At the time of Strode’s death, Harry Carey Jr. , who appeared with him in Two Rode Together, remembered Strode as,“One of the finest guys I ever knew . . . A true professional . . . Woody was not only a superb physical specimen but a superb human being. ”
   References
   ■ Hunter, Charlayne,“Woody Strode? ‘He Wasn’t the Star But He Stole the Movie,’” New York Times, September 19, 1971, p. D-5;
   ■ Shipman, David, “Woody Strode” (obituary), The Independent, January 5, 1995, p. 31;
   ■ “Woody Strode, 80, Character Actor,” (obituary), New York Times, January 4, 1995, p. D-18;
   ■ “Woody Strode,” (obituary), Variety, January 16, 1995, p. 99;
   ■ “Woody Strode,” (obituary),Western Clippings, no. 4 (March–April 1995).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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