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SPARTACUS
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis
Director:  Stanley Kubrick
Audio:  DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.20:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  196 Minutes
Release Date:  May 25, 2010

“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 1950s and early 60s…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 **1/2

The regrets begin early, as my one wish was that Criterion would get to handle the Blu-ray release over Universal.  This Universal Blu-ray is about as good as what Criterion delivered on DVD...nice, but I expected more.  There are amazingly detailed shots that really bring out the beauty of high definition, but there are many more that seem inexcusably soft, almost to the point that you'd assume the focus wasn't exactly right.  Colors range from bright and natural looking to a bit subdued and muted.  All in all, perfectly serviceable, but you can certainly see better when it comes to classic epics on Blu-ray.

Audio **

Alex North's memorable score and the giant battle sequences bring this DTS HD soundtrack to life, but I keep hoping for a true remix of the sound.  This was one of those movies that experimented a little too much with new multi-channel technology when it was released, and dialogue is rarely centered...the voices come from whichever side of the screen the character is on.  It's a bit distracting, and even though that's true to the original mix, I'm sure fans wouldn't mind a revamping for this classic.

Features **

Again, regrets that we don't have Criterion's excellent features package to play with here.  Universal is less generous.  There are some deleted scenes, archival interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons, some behind-the-scenes footage, 5 newsreels, and some image galleries.  You can also access BD Live with an internet-capable player.

Summary:

Spartacus  will always be a favorite of mine, and I'm glad to have it on Blu-ray...now, I just have to keep my fingers crossed that we'll eventually get Criterion's red carpet treatment to replace this somewhat lackluster effort from Universal.

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