Universal // 2004 // 177 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // November 24th, 2004
A powerful empire. An epic revolt.
While not a remake of the 1960 Kirk Douglas sword and sandal epic, the miniseries Spartacus, originally broadcast on the USA cable network in the spring of 2004, is based on Howard Fast's novel, which also served as the inspiration for the film. By now the story of Spartacus (or at least the Hollywood version) is well known, so there's no need to rehash it here; I will say, however, that knowing the details of the story negates much of the drama of this retelling. There are small differences between the miniseries and the film, but these differences don't justify sitting through another three hours of this story, as the miniseries is quite flawed.
Director Robert Donrhelm (Echo Park) is not up to the challenges of an epic, or even, as is the case here, a wannabe-epic. He can't get a grip on the numerous characters and subplots. The script, written by Robert Schenkkan (The Quiet American), is choppy and aimless; the story has no thrust. There's no real buildup to the slave revolt. Spartacus (Goran Visnjic, The Deep End) gets angry, attacks a guard, and next thing you know there's a coordinated effort by all the slaves (including the women in the kitchen) in the gladiator training camp to overthrow their oppressors; immediately thereafter Spartacus is somehow leading several hundred people up the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. (It takes the slaves all of about ninety seconds to pull off a successful revolt; hard to believe no one's ever thought to try it before.) It's unclear why anyone chooses to follow Spartacus; he's essentially drafted as leader, but exactly what qualifies him for this role is a mystery. Not much is shown of the slaves' efforts at expanding their revolution after the initial uprising, so it's hard to understand why the Roman senate would expend so much time, effort, and men in an attempt to quell such a small rebellion. (Historically it was a much larger rebellion, but here it doesn't seem like too big a deal.) There are also a few revisionist notions uncomfortably dropped into the script. I doubt Varinia (Rhona Mitra, Hollow Man), Spartacus's wife, actually sat in on war councils and helped plan battles. The miniseries opens with Varinia's village being attacked and her being captured by Roman soldiers, so we know nothing of the character's life before she was sold into slavery. If I had to make an educated guess from the evidence supplied here, though, I'd say she was a philosopher, teacher, and military strategist. She's also able to give birth without breaking a sweat or mussing her hair, so I guess you could add Lamaze guru to her résumé. (Of course, the character of Varinia has little basis in historical record, so I guess we'll let it slide.)
Spartacus is also hampered by a limited budget; the money available for a basic cable miniseries simply isn't enough to fund an epic. Many of the sets look cramped (Rome itself looks to be about the size of my neighborhood), and the battles all seem to take place in the same field. These battles are also incredibly small in scope; the final confrontation between Spartacus's army and the forces of Rome purportedly involves more than six thousand combatants, but in reality there can't be more than a few hundred people in the scene. (You can also tell the assistant directors were napping during the staging of the battle scenes; the extras, who are supposed to be fighting for their lives, actually look like a bunch of kids playing gladiator in someone's backyard.)
The cast does a pretty decent job overall, but the only real standouts are the late Alan Bates (Gosford Park), who plays Agrippa, and Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart), who plays Crassus. Both seem to relish their roles as scheming Roman noblemen, and their scenes are the only moments the series actually comes to life; their side of the plot is also a thousand times more interesting than the story of Spartacus's rebellion. (Ian McNeice has a bit of fun as Batiatus, the owner of the gladiator school at which Spartacus is trained, but at times his performance too closely resembles his portrayal of the Baron Harkonnen in the Dune miniseries.)
The disc features a very nice transfer; there is some grain visible in the backgrounds of a few dimly lit scenes, but that's the only real flaw. The 5.1 audio is rather impressive; surround activity is plentiful, as the rear channels convey music, the sounds of battle, and even some steered dialogue. The only extras included are a handful of deleted scenes.
If you're a fan of the miniseries and are looking to pick up this release, I don't think you'll be disappointed; I'd advise everyone else to stay away. Hopefully someday someone will decide to drop all the Hollywood nonsense and make a more historically accurate Spartacus film. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 177 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes