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SPARTACUS (CRITERION)

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis
Director:  Stanley Kubrick
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.20:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  196 Minutes
Release Date:  April 24, 2001

“He was a man who began all alone…yet on the day he died, thousands and thousands would gladly have died in his place.”

Film ****

Spartacus was arguably the greatest of all the great Hollywood epics of the late 1950’s and early 60’s…and like many, it was not without its share of problems.  For producer/star Kirk Douglas, the ambitious project proved a constant struggle with a visionary director, egotistical stars, blacklisted writers, and more.

In his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, Douglas recalls the constant strain of reeling in actors Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton, both of whom quibbled over every little detail, from the slightest line of dialogue to the issues of money and celebrity perks on set.  Douglas mentions that at a particularly bleak point, Laughton walked into his office and sat down.  “I’m very unhappy,” he said.  “About what?” Douglas asked.  Laughton looked right into his eyes and said, “I’m suing you.”  Douglas, by his own admission, was so stressed out at that point all he could do was laugh, and laugh hard.  Laughton left his office, and the two continued the picture.  Douglas claims he never found out why Laughton wanted to sue him.

Of course, many film fans know that director Stanley Kubrick rapidly disowned the film after its release.  His work with Kirk Douglas on Paths of Glory was less troublesome, but for Spartacus, he came in as a director for hire at Douglas’ insistence (according to Kubrick’s contract with Douglas’ production company, Bryna, the young director owed the veteran star and producer four more films).  The marriage of project to director was not a good match.   Douglas had no patience for Kubrick’s tedious perfection.  In his book, he also recalls when Kubrick halted production because he wanted the ceiling of the Senate set raised a foot higher.  Douglas exploded at his director, who, by accounts, merely stood quietly and listened and didn’t argue back.  After Spartacus was completed, Kubrick appeared at Douglas’ door with lawyer in hand, asking to be released from his contract.  Douglas obliged.

Yet, for all its problems, and for Kubrick’s famed animosity toward his least favorite film, Spartacus is a stunning, sweeping achievement that never sacrifices humanity for the sake of spectacle.   Indeed, the film’s two major action set pieces are breathtaking in scope, size and technical perfection, but both accent the simple, heartfelt story of a slave who dared to ask why any man must be a slave.

Spartacus (Douglas) was barely a historical footnote, but the story, which mixes fiction with a few actual historical accounts of slavery uprisings in the Roman Empire, serves the spirit of honor and freedom well, in the same way modern films like Braveheart and Gladiator would imitate, but not with the same success. 

Spartacus goes from defiant slave to gladiator school under the wry tutelage of Batiatus (Ustinov).  There, men learn to fight, handle weaponry, and stay alive as long as possible.  Friendship doesn’t exist:  none of these recreational warriors knows when they’ll have to face one another in a battle to the death.

With an unbreakable spirit, Spartacus spontaneously leads the gladiators in revolt against the school and all of Rome.   The initial victory is distinctly one-sided…who can fight better than an army of gladiators?  Spartacus and his fellow slaves plan a triumphant march to the sea and away from Rome, freeing everyone they can along the way and desiring nothing but their own freedoms as well.

Dealing with Spartacus soon becomes a political game for two very powerful and dangerous but decidedly at odds Romans:   Gracchus (Laughton), who heads the Senate and longs to preserve its power, and the republic of Rome, and Crassus (Olivier), who dreams of dictatorship and sees squelching the slave army as his means of getting it.

All of this culminates in an epic, bloody battle that sadly proves Rome wasn’t conqueror of the world without good reason.  The suspense Kubrick creates in the slow, methodical and awesome massing of the Roman legions against Spartacus and his slaves is almost excruciating.  The fight itself, famed for many gruesome images that were trimmed and later restored, is a masterpiece of horrific action.  But no image is as sobering as the quiet dénouement, a possible throwback to D. W. Griffith’s famed “War’s Peace” title screen in The Birth of a Nation.

Yet for all its spectacle, Spartacus comes across as a human and personal film, and a story about simple virtues like love, honor and courage inspiring the lowly stationed to accomplish great things.  It is also a somewhat challenging film in the fact that it trumpets these most prized of human virtues, yet doesn’t end with them triumphant.   A viewer has to consider the value of said virtues in the face of an extremely somber ending.  There is a glimmer of optimism in Spartacus, but it doesn’t shine brightly for all.  It must be sought out.

The film boasts great performances, particularly by the trio of Brits, Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov, who were not only respected actors, but accomplished writers and directors in their own rights.  Ustinov recalled in his autobiography his admiration for his co-stars, and his desire to call less attention to himself than did his two egotistical countrymen.  I mention this only for the irony that it was Ustinov, and not Olivier or Laughton, who walked away with an Oscar for his work in this film.

But credit must go to the two larger than life talents most responsible:  Stanley Kubrick, at age 31, walked onto the set of a film already in progress, with some of cinema’s most revered actors and without the confidence of the studio behind him, and quietly took the reins and directed the film to its conclusion.  Not all were happy with him…in fact, Olivier complained that he had no culture…but even though Spartacus is many things a typical Kubrick film is not, the young director’s genius and vision still shone through.

And the other, of course, is Kirk Douglas, who delivered a strong performance in the lead but really put his courage and integrity on the line as executive producer.  He staked his reputation on Kubrick when no one else believed he had the ability to control such an epic film.  He broke the Hollywood blacklist by openly hiring Dalton Trumbo to script, a fact that did cause immediate and long lasting backlash against the film in some circles.  He managed to handle some strong, delicate egos in his cast and still deliver a monumental picture that stands as one of the greatest of all Hollywood epics.

Video ****

Spartacus is another unqualified triumph for Criterion.  This anamorphic transfer, correctly framed for a 65 millimeter print for the first time, is glorious, and towers above the troubled, grainy non-anamorphic Universal version.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this film many times, including on the big screen for its 1991 restoration run, and this DVD is the only presentation I’ve seen since that duplicates that experience.  For starters, the new framing is perfect.  Though only a marginal difference exists between this 2.2:1 version and the tightly cropped 2.35:1 version mastered for modern CinemaScope presentation on 35 millimeter film, the results are striking, allowing for more of Kubrick’s vertical visual composition as well as horizontal.  The colors are beautiful and true throughout, with no hints of bleeding or distortion even in scenes of low or extreme lighting schemes.  Images are sharp and detailed when required, softer and more ethereal at other times, as when lit faces seem to emerge from darkness.  The vastness of the crowd and battle scenes are most remarkable:  they are large, but with all the crisp detail of seeing them through a microscope.  Gone are the grain, the shimmer, and the signs of compression of Universal’s lackluster DVD.  If Criterion’s disc offered nothing else except this new anamorphic and correctly framed transfer, it would be worth the price.

Audio ***

I’m pleased to see a new 5.1 offering for this disc, particularly in how it adds range and dynamism to Alex North’s remarkable score, but some of the unusual aspects of the original mix remain intact.  Most notably, the stereo action of the front stage is very active with the dialogue; as actors on opposite sides of the screen speak, the left/right balance reflects that.  When the camera angle is reversed, the audio flip-flops as well.   This has always been a feature of the audio of Spartacus, and until a complete re-mix is done of the audio, will continue to be so.  For other parts, the soundtrack is good, but a bit thin in quieter moments, showing the age of the film.   Apart from that, it’s a clean audio presentation, and one that makes the most of a potent score.  The original stereo track is included as well, for purists.

Features ****

I have to start with the commentary track, which is a remarkable, informative and often entertaining listen.  Recorded in 1992 for the laser disc issue, Criterion brings back their assembly of Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, designer Saul Bass, and restorer Robert A. Harris.  Ustinov is a real pleasure, speaking with a charming wit about his experiences.  Douglas is straightforward, Bass and Lewis are informative, and Harris gets into the nuts and bolts about the involving process of restoration.  Fast is amusing in his own right, never missing an opportunity to complain about how the film took liberties apart from his original text.  There is some good discussion of Kubrick from all fronts, including the welcome information from Harris that Kubrick offered a few pointers for the restoration of the film, and supposedly even admitted that he no longer disliked the film as much as he once did.  In addition, there is a scene-by-scene analysis by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and additional music from Alex North, plus a brief restoration demonstration.

Quite a package…oh, and that’s just the first disc.  Disc Two contains the remainder of the features:  some deleted scenes with explanations as to their existence, a behind-the-scenes look at “gladiator school”, 1960 promotional interviews with Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov, plus a later 1992 Ustinov interview (a delight, particularly with his mastery of accents and impersonations of his co-stars), newsreel footage, a documentary on “The Hollywood Ten” plus other info about the infamous blacklist including the American Legion letter against Spartacus, Saul Bass storyboards, hundreds of production stills, lobby cards, posters, print ads, and even a look at a black and white comic book based on the movie.   Particularly enlightening is the MPAA’s response letter to what they found objectionable in the original script.  There is also the original trailer and some info on Kubrick, including his sketches for the film’s final scene.  Whew!

Summary:

Spartacus   is easily the best overall DVD so far in 2001, surpassing even Criterion’s excellent offering of The Rock.  It’s a beautiful, big, enthralling epic that looks better than ever before, and a collection of excellent, informative and entertaining features that accompany the film experience masterfully.  This is what the DVD medium is all about.  Unabashedly recommended.