I am Spartacus!
Widely recognized as a classic film, and one with an undeniable place in Hollywood history, Spartacus showcases a number of luminous acting stars fixed in a slowly developing story of the indomitable human spirit colliding with inevitable tragedy. Criterion, as we have come to expect, handles Spartacus with the highest of standards, restoring the film to a nearly pristine level and filling out this two-disc set with a variety of extra content.
Facts of the Case
In the last century before the birth of Christ, a proud, rebellious slave named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), working in the mines of Libya, is saved from punishment of certain death by the appearance of Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov). Batiatus, operator of a gladiator school in Capua, Italy, sees great promise in the angry slave and purchases him. Learning his new trade reluctantly, one day Spartacus meets Varinia (Jean Simmons), and finds love at first sight, though he can do little but exchange knowing glances with her.
Soon a party of Roman gentry, including Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall), comes to visit Batiatus' school, and their demands for a combat spectacle spread dangerous ill-will through the gladiators, but no single demand is more fateful than Crassus' purchase of Varinia for his household in Rome. With Spartacus leading the way, the slaves attack the guards in a fury and earn their freedom in blood.
Meanwhile, in Rome, "leader of the mob" Senator Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and his own ally, Caius Julius Caesar (John Gavin), aim to weaken the power of their patrician adversaries, Crassus and his underling Glabrus, by luring Glabrus into hunting down the incipient slave rebellion in the region around Capua. Spartacus is busy as well, molding gladiators and slaves into an organized, effective army, with the aim of traveling to Brundusium and escaping Italy by sea aboard the ships of Silesian pirates. Reuniting with his love Varinia, who escaped the caravan to Rome, Spartacus wields his army with the skill of a master, defeating Glabrus and sending him and his patron Crassus into political exile.
Reaching a satisfactory bargain with the Silesian's agent, Tigranes Levantus (Herbert Lom) for the Silesian ships, all seems well for Spartacus and his rebellion. His armies move steadily towards Brundusium, raiding Roman commerce to the great fear of its citizens. Seizing upon the unrest, Crassus engineers his elevation to dictator of Rome and head of the entire Roman army, which he quickly puts to good use. Just at the moment Spartacus expects to embark his army and followers aboard the Silesian ships, news of betrayal and of Roman armies converging on his position causes Spartacus to radically revise his plans. With no other choice, Spartacus marches his army upon Rome, to be met by Crassus and his armies, in a desperate, winner take all battle.
Spartacus is the sort of film that a casual film reviewer (such as yours truly) can find rather intimidating. With an honored place among the IMDb's top ranked films, an actor nonpareil (Sir Laurence Olivier) among other acting luminaries, a story with strong historical roots, and all directed by an idiosyncratic auteur with a fiercely devoted following, it all adds up to an imposing review challenge. However, for landmark films as for the latest teen exploitation flick, the bottom line is does this film entertain me?
Yes, it does, though this is a qualified recommendation. For fans of epic drama, the broad scope and immense scale of the production evokes a strong sense of the size of the Roman Empire and its capital city, yet the script is rife with juicy opportunities for small scale character interaction, thus giving the talented cast room to show off their skills. The tangled web of Roman politics puts a nice gloss on the drama, though at the cost of a certain ponderousness of plot. For sword and sandal action fans, there are tense scenes of individual combat as well as episodes of massed battle. Throw in some romance, and there should be something for just about everyone.
However, I think that Spartacus is a rare example of a film, taken as a whole, is actually less than the sum of its parts. I hope that's not too radical a complaint, so please, Spartacus fanatics, put your guns down. What drags Spartacus down is its just over three and a quarter hour running time and a slow, deliberate script. Now, that is not to say that a long running time invariably damages a film. The Green Mile, for example, is only a few minutes shorter than Spartacus, yet in viewing that film, I never had a sense of time that I did watching Spartacus. I was interested, sure, but this is a film that does nothing quickly and lacks the power to distract the viewer from noticing just how long the journey is taking. Call me an uncultured rube if you like, but if I want to pull a sword and sandal flick off the shelf, I'm going to reach for Gladiator and not Spartacus.
The restored anamorphic video transfer is frankly amazing. Some modern films would do well to look as crisp and beautiful as does Spartacus, which is no mean feat for a film over forty years old. The quality and dedication of the restoration team has paid off handsomely, producing a transfer with only the slightest scattering of blips and flecks, and which is otherwise near pristine. Colors are bright and pleasing, blacks are solid, and digital artifacts of all kinds are absent. Of particular note are Saul Bass' opening credits, which are finally shown in their proper colors, as Mr. Bass had intended, again thanks to the restoration team.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, no doubt derived from the 70mm six-track mix, is a competent audio track. As you might expect, a film of this age does not fully use the capabilities or indeed the range of all six channels. Rear surrounds are sparingly used, primarily to project Alex North's (The Devil's Brigade, Prizzi's Honor, Good Morning Vietnam) score, and likewise your subwoofer has only a slight supporting role in anchoring the music. The limited dynamic range of the soundtrack is an indication of the relative age of Spartacus, but only finicky audiophiles should mind too much. Otherwise, the soundtrack fills the front soundstage quite well, with clear dialogue in the center channel and armies (among other things) marching smoothly across the main channels.
Though there are notable exceptions, the core of the acting talent in Spartacus is exceptional, worthy of high praise. Charles Laughton very nearly steals the show with his devilish, charming, and wholly entertaining turn as a populist yet sentimental idealist, but the precise, masterful presence of Sir Laurence Olivier balances the film with an equally powerful but distinctly different performance. Close behind in evident talent comes Peter Ustinov. Managing the harsh and gentle, comic and tragic components of Lentulus Batiatus with the skill and aplomb of an expert juggler, scene-stealer Ustinov was quite worthy of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for this effort.
The extra content begins on Disc I with a three-minute demonstration of the restoration process that produced the new high-definition anamorphic transfer. This is some truly amazing wizardry, making Spartacus look as good as it did on its opening day in 1960 (maybe even better!). The best parts of the extra content are the two commentary tracks on Disc I. The first includes producer/actor Kirk Douglas, actor Peter Ustinov, Spartacus novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass. This track, and the second, a scene-by-scene analysis by Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (which is primarily distilled from his rough notes and the comments of his collaborators), are a lot livelier than your usual commentaries.
The making of Spartacus was by all accounts a difficult affair, what with the politics of the blacklist, changing directors after shooting began, sharp differences over adapting the novel for the screen, a collection of inflated egos and strongly opinionated actors, writers and producers, and a generally less than pleasant production. This reality is often demonstrated in the commentaries, with pointed opinions of other participant's roles in the process and of the film itself. Insight, reflection and the usual inside details of production are found in both tracks, if the dueling egos are not of interest. Interspersed in Trumbo's track are additional compositions by Alex North, which were unused in the film but placed in the commentary according to where they might have been used. Each track is indexed, a simple but extremely helpful move by Criterion. I wish that more disc producers would follow this example for commentary tracks!
Disc II is a collection of all sorts of materials related to the production of Spartacus. The deleted scene section is not quite what you would expect from that found on other discs. Since most of the formerly deleted scenes were incorporated in the restored 1991 version, what remains here are fragments of film that indicate other variants for three scenes and one scene which was filmed ("Public House/Slum Street") but for which nothing but the script pages and two production stills remains. Each section includes a screen of well-written, concise context.
The "Behind the Scenes Footage" is a rough, featurette-length item likely meant for promotional use. Some "gladiator music" is the only sound, as the scenes of construction and practice at Batiatus' gladiator school are otherwise silent. "Spartacus Via Newsreel" includes five short segments of actual newsreels related to Spartacus. Generally interesting as time capsules of the era, in Hollywood and America at large, one stood out for me. The segment where Tony Curtis is forced to thank a German film magazine for an award (called a "Bambi") is particularly stilted and painful for its insincerity.
Two "formula" interviews, with Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov, where canned responses from the interviewee could be edited together with a reporter's voice for the illusion of an exclusive story, are not nearly as interesting as the twenty-four minute interview of Peter Ustinov in 1992. Enticingly hinting at the complicated production of Spartacus, owing to personality conflicts and politics, Ustinov reminisces in entertaining fashion and displays his humorous talent for mimicry.
"Breaking the Blacklist" touches upon the political furor caused by the use of and screen credit for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (The Brave One, Papillon) who, along with nine colleagues, in 1947 defied the House Un-American Activities Committee, went to prison for contempt of Congress in 1950 and was then barred from working in Hollywood for many years. The Hollywood Ten is a short film covering these men, their backgrounds, and their views on their situation. Heavy-handed and pointedly political, it is nevertheless an interesting bit of propaganda. Other segments include four pages of notes on how Spartacus helped to break Trumbo's blacklist, a section of notes and photos of Trumbo himself, and a letter sent by the American Legion to its local posts in June 1960 regarding "Soviet-indoctrinated artists," indicating the state of politics facing the production of Spartacus.
"The MPAA Responds" is the text of a letter sent to the creators of Spartacus, indicating how various scenes in the movie should be adapted to meet the requirements of the strict Hays Code regulating productions at the time. It certainly is a fascinating look into how the moral and ethical standards for films have changed! "Saul Bass Storyboards" explains the background of Saul Bass, noted as "a one-man constellation in the design cosmos," and surveys storyboards he made for this film. The "Promotional Materials" section includes production stills, lobby cards, posters and print ads, pages from a Spartacus comic book(!), and the original theatrical trailer. Finally, "Stanley Kubrick" briefly covers in a few brief pages of notes the prickly auteur and his disdain for his bastard-stepchild Spartacus and includes exceedingly rough storyboard-style sketches for Spartacus done by Kubrick himself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all of the positives that can be said about Spartacus, brevity is not one of them. The credited cast is not that large, nor is the story so inherently complex that substantial time must be taken to lay out its nooks and crannies. Perhaps the difficulty in the original film was a creative team too in love with a project to make hard judgments in the editing room, paring down the slowly evolving scenes to their essentials. This aspect of the often ponderous film was worsened by the restoration of scenes for the 1991 release, which while they did restore vital story elements, further aggravated the over three hour running time. However, I must admit that the restored scenes are seamlessly integrated into the whole of Spartacus. Even during the once risqué bathing scene with Tony Curtis and Sir Laurence Olivier, I could hardly tell that Sir Anthony Hopkins, once Olivier's understudy, spoke his mentor's lines.
Were it not for some of the foreign acting talent in Spartacus, I suspect Kirk Douglas and his wooden emotions would have ended up a severe liability. For those who want an action film, a hero whose emotions are nearly wholly scripted is hardly a drawback. This would certainly explain the modest success of Steven Segal, now wouldn't it? Frankly, Douglas is not the only actor found wanting here. Take away Douglas' energy and throw on Roman costume, and voilá, you have an undistinguished John Gavin. This bland, stony Caesar would never have become ruler of Rome! While not nearly as censurable, I could not help but think that Tony Curtis phoned in Antoninus. He has the look and the voice of Antoninus, but aside from a marvelously tense response to Crassus' sexual overtures, Tony Curtis comes off as forced and out-of-place. Jean Simmons is adequate, particularly set against the stolid emotions of Kirk Douglas, but warms up in the latter stages of Spartacus where the increasing tragedy gives her a chance to project her emotional power.
Character actor fans, take note of Herbert Lom (Tigranes Levantus), notoriously famous as Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films! He has a small, satisfying performance here.
I cannot let this opportunity go past without commenting upon Spartacus's status as the most famous film in Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre that he practically disowned. A difficult auteur to work for, he demanded complete control over his later works, but this was a right he did not have when Kirk Douglas brought him aboard for Spartacus. If you are a Kubrick fanatic, then Spartacus may not be to your liking either, as his idiosyncratic tendencies were not allowed the freedom to warp Spartacus into the usually bizarre Kubrick style of film. For the rest of us, including myself, keeping Kubrick's tendencies in check need not be a bad thing, and in the end makes Spartacus a more entertaining (if perhaps less intriguing) film.
As a classic film of the sword and sandal genre, Spartacus is worthy of a rental, particularly with this excellent technical presentation and collection of extras from the folks at Criterion. Consider a purchase ($49.95 list) if you are already a fan, or enjoy it enough to justify the substantial expense.
For its restoration work alone, Criterion would merit an acquittal, but their usual quality presentation and extensive collection of extras ensures that same result beyond question. Spartacus, though not without fault, is a fine film and also shall be allowed its freedom.
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