Judge Clark Douglas is Spartacus.
They trained him to kill for their pleasure…but they trained him a little too well.
"And maybe there's no peace in this world, for us or for anyone else, I don't know. But I do know that, as long as we live, we must remain true to ourselves."
Facts of the Case
Spartacus (Kirk Douglas, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) has been a slave ever since his childhood. After he bites a Roman soldier, Spartacus is sentenced to death by starvation, but his life is saved by Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, Lorenzo's Oil), a man looking for healthy slaves to participate in gladiatorial games. Spartacus spends many long, hard months training to enter the arena and battle to the death, though he dreads the prospect of actually having to kill one of his fellow slaves. During this time, he meets and befriends a female slave named Varinia (Jean Simmons, Great Expectations), though their interactions are understandably limited.
After being forced to participate in a brutal conflict for the entertainment of the powerful Crassus (Laurence Olivier, The Boys From Brazil), Spartacus determines to take action, leading the slaves in a violent uprising. The gladiators successfully escape from their captors, taking over various territories and gathering recruits as they continue their rebellion. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Senator Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) cunningly creates a plot that he hopes will simultaneously crush the rebellion and allow his friend Julius Caesar (John Gavin, Psycho) to come to power. Do Spartacus and his fellow former slaves stand a chance against the overwhelming might of the Roman army?
Spartacus wasn't the film that most involved wanted it to be. Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo intended it to be a statement on the treatment of supposed Communist sympathizers in Hollywood. Director Stanley Kubrick thought the screenplay featured too much "stupid moralizing," but had no control over the script. Star Kirk Douglas had hoped the movie would parallel the historical struggles of the Jewish people. There were endless stories of conflict on the set, as rumors came out that some of the key actors (particularly Tony Curtis) were very unhappy while working on the film. Turmoil, conflict, and creative conflicts are often warning signs of a bad film, but somehow Spartacus survived the ordeal and emerged as a satisfying epic. I suspect that it might have been a stronger film if Kubrick had more creative control, but personally I find Spartacus every bit as satisfying as heralded epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (and even more mature in terms of the subject matter it deals with).
In fact, Douglas admitted that part of his motivation in making Spartacus was wanting to match the spectacle of Ben-Hur, as he had been turned down for the title role in that film. While Spartacus does indeed offer some pretty impressive scenes of epic grandeur, it's often correctly referred to as, "the thinking man's epic." For all the scenes of battle and violence, Spartacus is essentially a film of ideas. Though it's kind of interesting to consider the modern-day symbolism of the dialogue in the film (with its thinly-veiled references to then-controversial subjects like Communism and homosexuality), the film is most engaging on a surface level as a story about oppressed people seeking freedom and equality. The famous "I am Spartacus!" scene remains an iconic and genuinely moving moment, though this is a result of the hard work put into the hours of build-up to that scene.
Most period epics made during the '50s and '60s are badly dated to at least some extent, and this is the case once again in Spartacus (more on this in a moment). However, the strength of the performances goes a long way toward overcoming these problems. Kirk Douglas is a sturdy, steady lead throughout, blending his natural movie star charisma with an understated strength. Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton seem right at home with this sort of material, turning in reliably convincing performances. However, the movie is nearly stolen by Peter Ustinov, whose deviously playful and inventive supporting turn is a constant source of entertainment (Ustinov deservedly won an Oscar for the part).
Now, most of you reading this review are probably curious to know about the transfer and the supplemental material. The film was restored by Robert Harris in 1991, which added in lost scenes and cleaned up the image a great deal. This restored version was given a magnificent release by the Criterion Collection a few years ago, which boasted a very strong standard-def transfer and an excellent batch of supplements that detailed the film's making and put certain elements into context quite nicely. This was followed by a widely panned HD-DVD release, which was largely criticized for its terrible transfer (I have not seen the HD-DVD release, though I have seen the Criterion version). From what I've read and heard from numerous sources, this Blu-ray release is an improvement on the HD-DVD, though that's not to say the disc is problem-free.
The coloring seems ever-so-slightly different on this disc (a bit more reddish at times), which is only troubling because Harris considers the Criterion release to be an accurate representation of what he intended. To my eyes, the film still looks quite natural and good. The biggest issue is the moderate use of DNR, which occasionally gives the characters a slightly plastic look and prevents detail from being as strong as it ought to be. While it's not the worst instance of DNR I've ever seen, I definitely would have preferred a more natural look. Things are stronger on the audio side of things, as Alex North's aggressive, strikingly modern score (employing far more atonal elements than, say, a Miklos Rozsa score would) comes through with strength and clarity. Most of the dialogue sounds pretty clean and clear, if sort of inconsistent when veering between dubbed and non-dubbed dialogue. The 5.1 mix tends to be pretty front-heavy, but I find it a generally satisfying mix.
The most disappointing factor is the thin supplemental package, a far cry from the awesome Criterion release. You get brief archival interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons, a handful of re-edited scenes, a vintage "Behind the Scenes at Gladiator School" (5 minutes) featurette, and a few very short vintage newsreel clips. Finally, you get some image galleries and the disc is equipped with BD-Live. A very underwhelming package, I must say.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In this post-Gladiator era, those super-short tunics sure do look awfully silly, don't they? The film falls prey to some of the pitfalls of the genre, at times insisting on making sure the actors look more like movie stars than like authentic citizens of ancient Rome. This is particularly problematic when it comes to Jean Simmons, whose radiant hair and make-up contrasts laughably with the tattered rags she wears. The film expects us to believe that she's a beaten-down woman who spends her night providing sexual pleasure to other slaves, but her appearance suggests class and elegance.
Spartacus is a thoughtful, engaging epic that still holds up pretty will despite its dated elements. The Blu-ray release is kind of mediocre. I suppose it's an acceptable way to check out the film if you haven't seen it, but I can't recommend an upgrade if you own the Criterion release (in fact, there's a part of me that thinks the standard-def Criterion set is still the superior option). Here's hoping this title eventually gets the proper deluxe edition treatment it deserves.
The film is not guilty, but the disc is lacking the qualities this
prestigious film demands.
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