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Feature


Our story concerns an unnamed Thracian (Andy Whitfield) who is drafted into the Roman auxiliary to fight against the Getae. After a series of events that lead to the deaths of a number of high-ranking Romans, legatus Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker) punishes the Thracian by selling both him and his beloved wife, Sura, into slavery. While Sura is whisked away to some far-flung corner of the empire, our Thracian hero finds himself the property of lanista (a manager of gladiators) Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah). Expected to die in the arena against impossible odds the Thracian, spurred on by a vision of Sura, defeats four opponents and earns the name ‘Spartacus’ from his new master. From then on Spartacus trains as a gladiator under the watchful eye of Doctore (Peter Mensah) and vies for dominance with the current champion of Capua, Crixus (Manu Bennett), whom he intends to replace in his bid to become champion, win his freedom and be reunited with his wife.

 Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) and Sura (Erin Cummings)
I really wanted to hate Spartacus. I remember seeing clips from the show on Charlie Brooker’s You Have Been Watching and laughing along with the audience as he laid into it for being aimed at fifteen-year-old boys. However, like Brooker, after the first half-dozen episodes or so I stopped enjoying the program ironically and actually started, well, just enjoying it. It takes a while to get used to the casual swearing, as four letter words fall from characters’ mouths with greater frequency than Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown’s. Gladiators are encouraged to ‘look death in the eye, embrace it and f**k it’, while every other character is referred to as a c**t and Jupiter’s cock gets more than its fair share of mentions. Then there’s the frequent nudity and sex. I’ve no idea how anyone got anything done in ancient Rome if Spartacus’ portrayal of their sexual exploits is anywhere near the mark. If they weren’t disease ridden they must, at the very least, have been permanently knackered. Rich couples nonchalantly screw slaves while carrying on mundane conversations about who’s turn it is to do the dishes (or something equally routine), spectators cavort in the stands, and even the gladiators get in on the action with all-out orgies in which servant girls are in plentiful supply. Then there’s the violence. Oh, the violence. There’s more claret here than at a wine tasting in Bordeaux, as limbs are hacked off with gleeful abandon, heads are decapitated accompanied by fountains of blood and guts are gratuitously strewn across the sand.

The cast is full of impossibly buff and/or attractive people, both male and female. Stars Andy Whitfield, Manu Bennett, Jai Courtney and the rest of the supporting gladiator cast are mountains of rippling muscle, and spend most of the series half naked and covered in oil. The ladies are similarly easy on the eye, from the impossibly sexy Viva Bianca (great name), Lesley-Ann Brandt and Erin Cummings, to the scores of extras who wander around topless (at least). I also swear that Lucy Lawless is getting more attractive the older she gets. Simply put, there’s eye candy for everyone in this show. The acting isn’t half bad either, especially from like likes of John Hannah as he chews up the scenery. Batiatus’ frequent colourful rants are among the most entertaining moments the series has to offer, but he also plays the cold, ruthless side of the character very well. Whitfield does a good job of casting Spartacus in a sympathetic light and Peter Mensah’s Doctore makes for an interesting character. The rest of the male cast aren’t quite as assured, seemingly cast for their physiques rather than their acting chops, but it actually suits the fairly cheesy dialogue they are required to speak. Lawless reigns supreme at the top of the female cast, although as the series progresses several of the minor characters are developed effectively, including Lesley-Ann Brandt’s slave girl Naevia and Viva Bianca’s Roman minx Ilithya, the insatiable wife of Spartacus’ tormentor Claudius Glaber.

 Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) tastes steel!
While it won’t win any awards for complexity, there’s enough political intrigue and manoeuvring to break up the frequent bouts of sex and ultra-violence. As previously mentioned Bitiatus’ constant plotting is one of the highlights of the show, as are the schemes of his venomous wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless). As the series progressed I found that I was able to tune out the more extreme elements and concentrate on the characterisation, which improves no end throughout the first season. Of course you’re meant to sympathise with Spartacus because he has been seriously wronged by the Romans, but as we learn more about gladiators like Varro, Barca and even Crixus we discover that there’s more to them than simply hacking up all-comers in the arena. I think it must have helped the writers to know exactly where the series was heading from the outset, because it allowed them to build to a crescendo at the finale rather than ambling along aimlessly and ending on a whimper, as is the case with so many other shows. Even if a second series hadn’t been produced I would have been happy enough with the way things were wrapped up, because there are relatively few lose ends and most of the villains get their comeuppance. Of course there is going to be a second series (albeit without Andy Whitfield), which will allow our Thracian hero to pursue the vile Romans lucky enough to escape his wrath during the slave revolt.

In a Blu-ray exclusive move sure to anger those still buying DVD, four of the episodes in this set have been extended from their TV versions, including series opener ‘The Red Serpent’, ‘Sacramentum Gladiatorum’, ‘Delicate Things’ and ‘Mark of the Brotherhood’. There are also ‘enhanced’ versions of ‘Shadow Games’ and ‘Kill Them All’, although as my memory of the TV showings has faded I’m not exactly sure what has been enhanced.

 Crixus (Manu Bennett) and Ilithyia (Viva Bianca)

Video


I only saw the series in standard-definition when it was aired over here, so it was great to finally see it in all of its high-definition glory. Episodes are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen (1080/24p AVC) and look fantastic, although  if I was Zack Snyder I’d probably want a word with Spartacus: Blood and Sand’s creative team about them nicking the visual style of his 2006 film 300. (Wow, was 300 really released that long ago?) The similarities are unmistakable, right down to the super slow motion shots during the action series, the artificial grain and the highly stylised colour palette. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, as visual style was probably one of 300’s strongest points. The level of detail on offer here is fantastic, blowing the SD broadcast versions away with their clarity and perfectly showcasing even the smallest visual elements. Close-ups in particular revel in the added definition, almost allowing you to feel the blood, sweat and dirt caked into the combatants’ faces. As a result of being shot digitally the transfer to Blu-ray is virtually flawless, without a hint of dirt or noise. I didn’t spot any edge enhancement or other digital anomalies, save for perhaps the slightest hint of posterisation in some scenes. Even so, this is still a fantastic looking presentation of the television series.
 

Audio


What’s this, a disc featuring Dolby TrueHD audio? It seems like an eternity ago I last reviewed something using Dolby’s codec, as almost everyone seems to have abandoned TrueHD in favour of DTS-HD, but the 5.1 tracks that accompany this series prove that there’s nothing at all wrong with Dolby’s format. Each episode presents an expansive sound-field, with plenty of surround action during the many battles as swords clash against shields and crowds cheer as screams echo around the arenas. The atmospheric effects are handled well and discrete channel utilisation is effective, while the LFE channel pumps out prodigious bass. Dialogue is always clear and generally anchored firmly in the centre of the soundstage, although it does occasionally find its way into the other channels. The series rocky music is almost ever-present and fills out the soundstage nicely. All things considered Spartacus: Blood and Sand sounds fantastic, rivalling many big budget movie soundtracks.

 Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah) and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless)

Extras


Audio Commentaries: A number of episodes feature commentary, but they’re not well advertised in the menus. To find them you actually have to select the episodes in question and press play before you’re given the option to choose whether you want to view them with commentary. Episodes with commentary include ‘The Red Serpent (with director Rick Jacobson, writer/creator Steven DeKnight and executive producers Rob Tapert and Joshua Donen), ‘Sacramentum Gladitorum (with director Rick Jacobson, writer/creator Steven DeKnight and executive producer Rob Tapert), ‘The Thing in the Pit’ (with director Jesse Warn and actor Andy Whitfield), ‘Shadow Games’ (with director Michael Hurst, and actors Andy Whitfield and Lucy Lawless), ‘Delicate Things (with director rick Jacobson, creator Steven DeKnight and actor Erin Commings), ‘Whore’ (with actors Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless and Viva Bianca), ‘Party Favors’ (with actors Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless and Viva Bianca), ‘Revelations’ (with writer Brent Fletcher, creator Steven S. DeKnight and actor Nick E. Tarabay), and ‘Kill Them All’ (with writer/creator Steven S DeKnight, and actors Peter Mensah and Katrina Law).

Spartacus Historicus: Each episode is accompanied by optional pop-up facts, which are an occasional source of useful and interesting information if you can be bothered to read them all.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand – Behind the Scenes (14:50 HD): A reasonably lengthy making of featurette that includes numerous clips from the series and interviews with cast and crew. It sets out the general premise of the show, talks about the various themes, discusses the genesis of the project and how it evolved, shooting the series, its style, writing, the cast and much, much more.

Spartacus: battle Royale (07:26 HD): One of the longest featurettes on the disc is a bit of an odd one. Rather than follow the usual path of having a bunch of people sitting around talking about the various battle sequences, it instead shows a montage of many of the large scale battles seen throughout the series set to music and snippets of dialogue.

Gladiator Boot Camp (04:21 HD): This featurette looks at how the cast trained to learnt he moves necessary to put on a convincing show in the gladiatorial arena. They trained for about a month with various weapons, did a lot of weight training, and concentrated on losing fat and ‘getting ripped’.

 Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) and Varro (Jai Courtney)
Grime & Punishment: The Hole (04:54 HD): A look at punishment, Roman style. Disobedient gladiators were sent to a foul pit in which all manner of crap (literally) is dumped onto them as they serve out their time. The shoot looked like it was a good laugh, for the spectators at least, as the two actors had to endure cold water full of lots of gunk, being smeared with fake faeces, and having cockroaches dumped on them. They take it with good humour, but rather them than me.

Andy Gets Plastered (02:44 HD): This shows how the effects people created a body cast of actor Andy Whitfield so that they could make his armour and map out wounds.

Legend Reimagined (04:00 HD):  A look at how the show’s creators set out to make a loose adaptation of the historical legend of Spartacus. It discusses how they talk all of the disparate, fractured information and used them as the basis of the story seen in the series.

Oh, Those Randy Romans (06:14 HD): A short featurette about the series’ fairly graphic sexual content follows. Most of the principal cast are on hand to discuss things, and there are various clips from the show used to illustrate the point (although ironically they’re censored).

Shooting Green: The Shadow of Death (04:48 HD): This featurette takes a look at the series’ reliance on shooting with green screens to realise its graphic novel style, with particular attention to the fight between Spartacus, Crixus and Theocles.

Exposing Your Ludus (05:21 HD): This is a strangely titled gag reel, full of lots of footage of the cast and crew messing around on the set.

Spartacus ‘Vengeance’ Trailer (01:31 HD):  A short trailer for the series’ Blu-ray release.

 Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) beheads Solonius (Craig Walsh-Wrightson)

Overall


What started off as a guilty pleasure soon became mere pleasure, with my desire to indulge my base character traits triumphing over my intellectual need to condemn such puerile nonsense. I know I should hate this show and everything it stands for, but I can’t help myself. I watched it religiously on TV, I watched the prequel Gods of the Arena, and I’ll be watching the second season when it rolls around in 2012 (even if the loss of Andy Whitfield and Lesley-Ann Brandt is lamentable). This Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay is a great package, with fabulous audio-visual properties and a generous amount of bonus material. Fans of the TV show should pick this it up without a moment’s hesitation and it should do its part to convert non-believers as well.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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