Plot: What’s it about?
Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) was born a slave and raised a slave, but he holds a sense of freedom within himself. Soon he is sold to Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a man who trains slaves to do battle within the arenas, as gladiators. He is soon being drilled in the art of fighting and when he is prepared enough, he will sent to the arena to battle and more than likely, to die in front of the audiences there. But Spartacus has no plans to do that, so he stages a rebellion and as luck would have it, it works to sheer perfection. As he revolts against his owners, he is joined by many other slaves also, which gives them the power they need to make a break for freedom. As the band of rebels travels across the lands, they end up being joined by more and more escaped slaves, which means their numbers and power grow. But back in Rome, this rebellion has rooted a dividing mark between two leaders, the Republican Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and the military minded Crassus (Laurence Olivier). As the slaves close in on their homelands and freedom, the politicians plot to use the rebellion to their favor, but which side will win out in the end?
This is the second disc released for Spartacus and this time around, it seems like all the bases were covered and then some. The original release from Universal left a lot to be desired, but the mistakes have been resolved here and a lot of new material has been added also. In other words, if you’re a fan of this picture and you have the original release, consider it time to upgrade and trust me, you’ll be pleased you did. But more about the disc itself later on, as it is now time to discuss the film for a spell. Of all the epic motion pictures out there, Spartacus ranks as my personal favorite and that’s impressive, as a wealth of excellent epics like Ben-Hur and The Robe were stacked against this film. It moves a slower pace, but never becomes dull in the least and in the end, the performances & musical score alone warrant seeing this one time and again. All the elements just seem to meld together here as the music is fantastic, the performances divine, the production design is superb, and of course, Stanley Kubrick’s direction is always effective. I give this film my highest recommendation with such a lush two disc release, there’s no reason to pass this edition by, whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer to the flick.
Although he is perhaps best known for his later works, I feel some of Stanley Kubrick’s finest works were delivered toward the start of his career. This was his eighth film and could have been a hurdle, but Kubrick tackles the massive scope well and nails the direction to perfection. He is given excellent writing and actors to work with of course, which I am sure made his task a little easier in the end. But he was a perfectionist and as such, I would wager he pushed himself and the crew hard to get things just right. That hard work pays off however, as Spartacus is excellent in all respects and stands as one of Kubrick’s greatest accomplishments. Other films directed by Kubrick include Full Metal Jacket, Killer’s Kiss, Eyes Wide Shut, Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange, Fear and Desire, and Barry Lyndon. The cast here includes Kirk Douglas (The Final Countdown, Seven Days In May), Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man, Hamlet), Charles Laughton (The Paradine Case, Island of Lost Souls), Jean Simmons (The Robe, Rough Night In Jericho), and Peter Ustinov (Death On The Nile, Stiff Upper Lips).
Video: How does it look?
Spartacus is presented in a 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. In true Criterion form, the print used has been fully restored, this time under the supervision of Robert A. Harris, which means the image is breathtaking, to say the least. Some flaws still remain, but I was blown away by this presentation, very impressive work indeed. The source print is very clean and shows minimal grain, which allows the colors and contrast to reach their potential, which they do and then some. The colors are vivid and natural, while flesh tones look normal also, no real errors to report on this end. Just as impressive is the contrast, which sports razor sharp black levels and incredible detail, I had to pinch myself at times, since the image was so crisp and well detailed. This is an awesome presentation in all respects and as such, I am giving it our highest score and if I could go higher, I would.
Audio: How does it sound?
The included Dolby Digital 5.1 is also excellent and even though the film was made in 1960, it sounds terrific in this mix. The surrounds see action often, from Alex North’s outstanding musical score to various impact driven audio, so don’t think this is a conservative effort. You’ll know those rear channels are working with this one, even if not in the same sense as a more action driven piece. There’s a lot of subtle use plugged into the mix, which builds an effective atmosphere and adds a lot to the film’s presentation. The dialogue never misses a beat however, always clean and crisp, with no volume or clarity issues to contend with. This is one of the best audio mixes I’ve heard from this era, superb work all around. This disc also includes a 2.0 surround track, as well as English subtitles.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This is a mammoth two disc edition and as such, it comes loaded with all sorts of supplements, good ones at that. On disc one, you’ll find an audio commentary track to listen to, with actors Kirk Douglas and Peter Ustinov, as well as novelist Howard Fost, producer Edward Lewis, designer Saul Bass, and restoration expert Robert A. Harris. This track is a good one, but has some slow spots at times, although the wealth of information is tremendous, I assure you. Some of the topics covered include the genesis of the production, the on set experiences, various anecdotes, the blacklist and how this production approached it, as well as countless other issues. Needless to say, if you’re even a casual fan of Spartacus, this is a track you will not want to miss. But even more goodies await on this first, such as additional musical compositions from Alex North, a very eye opening restoration demonstration, and a scene-by-scene analysis from screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
The bulk of the extras are found on the second disc however, which holds a wealth of excellent bonus materials. If you’re interested in interviews, then you’ll be pleased with the ones included here. You can view interviews with performers Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov, which were promotional tools back in 1960, which I think gives them an interesting perspective on the production. If you need more Ustinov interview goods, then you’ll want to take a gander at his 1992 video interview, in which he gives a more retrospective angle on Spartacus. I was very interested in the included sketches by Stanley Kubrick, as well as the storyboards from Saul Bass and in truth, I wasn’t let down in the least. Of course, more is better, but I am still satisfied with what was included here. You can also browse hundreds of still photos, promotional materials of all kinds, and even a comic book, of all materials. I always like these galleries, as you can see how the film was marketed and that has always held an interest for me.
This release also holds some materials that focus on the blacklisting that took place, with the featurette The Hollywood Ten being the most valuable. This fifteen minute piece gives a look inside the process and the negative ripples it sent through the system. I do wish this was a longer feature, but given the time constraints, it fits a lot of information and knowledge in there. A few text based supplements also cover this topic, from how Spartacus stood up to the process to the involvement of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. In what I am sure will delight fans, Criterion has included four deleted scenes and while they’re just a fragment of what remains of excised material, I am very pleased to find them included here. This disc also houses five minutes of “gladiator school” footage, five clips of newsreel footage, and the film’s theatrical trailer.