Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, and when to worry about back pain

This post is about three intersecting interests of mine: good drama, back pain, and ancient Rome.

The bark of low back pain is almost always much worse than its bite, and this reassuring fact is one of the most important ideas that I constantly emphasize on that other site of mine, PainScience.com. See The Bark and the Bite of Low Back Pain: When you should worry about low back pain, and when you shouldn’t.

But scary medical causes of low back pain do happen. The story of actor Andy Whitfield is a disturbing and educational example.

Andy Whitfield as Spartacus. At his physical peak, not long before getting sick. The first sign of his cancer was steadily worsening back pain. He may have already been in pain at this time.

Whitfield was the star of the hit TV show Spartacus. The first sign of the cancer that killed him in 2011 was steadily worsening back pain. It’s always hard to diagnose a cancer that starts this way, but Whitfield was in the middle of intense physical training to look the part of history’s most famous gladiator. Back pain didn’t seem unusual at first, and some other symptoms may have been obscured. (For instance, some weight loss could have even seemed like a training victory at first.) It was many long months before he was diagnosed — not until the back pain was much too severe and constant. A scan revealed a large tumour pressing against his spine.

A film about Andy Whitfield, Be Here Now, is nearing completion as of mid-2013. It will probably be inspiring and heart-wrenching.

And now for Spartacus

Spartactus is worthwhile. Warning: rated very, very R. But worthwhile.

The sex and violence is over-the-top. The violence is quite stylized and deliberately unrealistic. The sex is just graphic and plentiful; there’s no sugarcoating that. Definitely not a family drama. Eye candy for everyone, any orientation, all the time. Titillating costumes are the baseline, but there’s also regular full-frontal nudity of women and men too, surprising. There’s orgies in every other episode, and a few scenes play like porn embedded in an otherwise good drama.

And it is a good drama. In fact, the dramatic quality is high. After a couple of campy, awkward episodes at the start — and the sets just take some getting used to — the first season quickly gets quite good. Distinctive film craft, interesting writing, and solid acting from nearly the whole cast.

Lucy Lawless, of Xena fame, is a wonderful surprise. I had no idea she could perform like that.

Andy Whitfield’s Spartacus is idealistic, earnest, and easy to like. I found it downright upsetting when I learned that he had passed away — as did many, many other fans I’m sure.