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If you enjoy sprawling epics set in ancient times, Spartacus is a film that you’ll definitely want to add to your collection. Like Ben-Hur, it’s the story of one man and his struggle to find freedom, happiness, and a life for himself.

Spartacus: Criterion Collection
Set in ancient Rome at the time of the republic, the film tells the story of a real incident in Roman history: the slave uprising led by an ex-gladiator named Spartacus. Spartacus himself takes center stage throughout the film, not just as the leader of the rebellion, but also as a man experiencing freedom for the first time, and falling in love with his fellow ex-slave Varinia (Jean Simmons). A separate thread follows the situation in Rome, as various groups of senators try to turn the suppression of the slave rebellion into a political victory for themselves and their supporters. The characters we meet in the movie, including the senators Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and of course a young Julius Caesar (John Gavin) really existed, and the politics of the time are represented fairly accurately, depicting the backstabbing and infighting of the various senators and generals as they jostled for ultimate control of Rome.

Considering the superabundance of biblical epics at the time, including Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur, Spartacus is refreshingly secular. Apart from a voiceover at the beginning and one oblique reference later in the film, Spartacus’ setting and storyline have no religious elements. Director Stanley Kubrick also manages to pull off the trick of making a film about an ex-slave fighting for freedom without sliding into moralizing about the evils of slavery and the glories of self-determination; the characters certainly have strong opinions on the subject, but there’s never the feeling that they’re only mouthpieces for the writer or director. The characters are developed so that they come across as real people, shaped by real events, and interacting in believable ways. Kirk Douglas is particularly good in this respect, portraying a convincingly complicated Spartacus. Having spent much of his life as a slave in the Roman quarries, illiterate and cut off from normal society, Spartacus is in many ways a true innocent, but he’s also both cunning and ruthless.

At a bit over three hours, Spartacus doesn’t run quite as long as Ben-Hur or the gargantuan Cleopatra, but it still sags a bit toward the end under its own weight. The dramatic pacing of the movie is excellent up to about three-quarters of the way in, but then, instead of finishing at what seems, pacing-wise, to be the climax of the film, it is drawn out in a curiously anti-climactic way. It certainly may have been Kubrick’s intent to provide a different closure to the film than the viewer expects, but I don’t think that it’s entirely successful.

While watching Spartacus, I was continually reminded of how influential it has been on modern epic movies. Films such as Braveheart and Gladiator borrow liberally from elements such as the theme, the structure, and even specific scenes such as the huge battles. Fortunately, Spartacus stands up well as an enjoyable movie in its own right, not just as the inspiration for more modern films. For instance, I’d say that  on the whole, Spartacus is a better film than Gladiator; the latter film draws heavily on Spartacus for inspiration, especially in the gladiatorial-school segment, but doesn’t handle the material as well.

It’s always a bit tricky to evaluate the video quality of an older movie on DVD; after forty years of kicking around studio shelves and dustbins, any film is going to show some wear and tear compared to the pristine transfer of a movie that has barely finished its theatrical run. Spartacus apparently took some severe abuse over the years, and had to be pieced together from various sources for its 1992 restoration.

The Criterion edition of Spartacus uses the same 1992 restoration of the film as the earlier Universal Studios release, which includes footage that had been cut in post-1960 theatrical releases. Like the earlier edition, the film is presented in its original 2.2:1 aspect ratio. However, for the Criterion release, Spartacus also received a new anamorphic transfer that involved an additional restoration pass. Colors have been corrected to more accurately represent the original look of the film, and noise has been removed from the image. The overall look of the image is not as sharp and clean as recent productions, which is not surprising considering the history of the film; it’s also not quite as good as Ben-Hur or North by Northwest, to compare it to films of the same period which have received top-notch restorations. Nonetheless, it’s a good transfer and it’s pleasing to look at.

The critical difference between the Criterion and Universal editions is that the Criterion is anamorphically enhanced, while the Universal edition is not. And yes, it is a critical difference: the anamorphic image is much sharper and clearer. There also appears to be slightly less noise in the image. Between the two editions, Criterion wins hands-down in the visual department for providing the film in anamorphic widescreen.

Spartacus: Criterion Collection
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is of quite good quality overall. While I didn’t find the music score to be particularly gripping in itself, it’s integrated well into the scenes and never overpowers the dialogue. There’s not much use of specific surround effects, but the overall effect is fairly immersive. Dialogue is nice and clear throughout the film.

The previous edition of Spartacus was extremely light on the extras (with only a trailer and some text-only production notes), so this is another area where the Criterion edition had the chance to shine. Unfortunately, unlike in the video department, the Criterion disc drops the ball on the special features. It’s a two-disc set, which sets up certain expectations, and the back-cover copy certainly makes it seem like the second disc is loaded with features, but the fact is that while Spartacus: Criterion Collection does have a fair number of extras, they’re not actually worthwhile extras.

Disc 1 contains the film and the best of the special features. There’s a restoration demonstration that’s interesting but very short, and two commentary tracks. One of the tracks features Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass; the other is an audio “scene-by-scene analysis” by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Disc 2 could have been left out and I, personally, would not have missed it in the least. The four “rare deleted scenes” aren’t much to look at. One of them is an existing scene from the gladiatorial-school section, with a few seconds of footage added showing the Romans standing outside Spartacus’ cell while he meets Varinia; one is not actually a deleted scene at all, but is an alternate, heavily-cut version of the ending (with no additional footage); one is thirty seconds of audio of a few extra lines past the end of an existing scene; and one is just the text of the script for a scene that was filmed but not included in the final cut. Another section of the special features includes promotional materials from 1960; there’s some newsreel footage, which has curiosity value but not much more, and bland “promotional” interviews with Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov. There’s also a twenty-minute 1992 interview with Peter Ustinov, which doesn’t really provide much insight into the movie. The last of the vaguely-interesting special features is a set of still photos of promotional materials for the film, such as posters and a comic book.

Then we get to the special features that struck me as evidence of padding on the part of Criterion. For instance, the “behind-the-scenes gladiatorial footage” turns out to be a real disappointment: it’s just random footage from someone walking around the gladiator school set, filming various actors and stunt men practicing, standing around, eating, and so on. Music plays in the background, but there’s no voiceover providing any information about the movie.

As Spartacus was filmed during the era of Hollywood blacklisting, a number of features on the blacklisting are included on the DVD. However, the connection between the film and these events is only briefly alluded to. This section includes a documentary from 1960 about ten of the blacklisted artists; while it has a certain historical value, it’s not particularly interesting to watch. The remainder of this section includes a number of text-only documents about the blacklisting. Again, this information is potentially interesting... but on the Spartacus disc, what I’m looking for is information specifically about the movie Spartacus. And, unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s missing from the special features of this edition.

What this release of Spartacus really needed was a well-thought-out documentary about the film, providing some genuine insight into the making of the film and its place in film history. Unfortunately, what we get is a mishmash of materials that, while they might be of interest to a die-hard film buff, don’t add up to a coherent or remotely insightful look at the film. Frankly, I ended up annoyed that I had to waste my time with most of the material on the second disc.

Spartacus: Criterion Collection
Considering the movie alone, Spartacus is most definitely worth seeing, and if you’ve enjoyed other epics like Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments, it’s a must-buy. The question of what edition of Spartacus to buy, however, is not so open-and-shut.

The definitive, accessible, popular version of Spartacus has yet to be made: an affordable anamorphic version with a decent documentary. In the meantime, the Criterion edition is the best choice if you know that you like the movie, and want the best transfer of it. If you have never seen the film and are leery of paying the rather steep price for the Criterion edition sight unseen, or if you don’t care about having an anamorphic version, then I suggest that you get the cheaper Universal edition. Personally, I’m satisfied with my choice to upgrade to the Criterion, but I’m glad I did it just to get the anamorphic transfer and not for the special features.