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DVD SAVANT

SPARTACUS

Spartacus
Universal
1960 / Color / 2.35 letterboxed flat / Street Date March 31, 1998
Starring
Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, John Gavin, Nina Foch, Herbert Lom, Charles McGraw, John Ireland, Nick Dennis.
Music by
Alex North
Edited by Robert Lawrence
Produced by Kirk Douglas and Edward Lewis
Based on the novel by Howard Fast
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Note: Savant's reviews of the Spartacus Criterion DVD (2001)
and the Spartacus Universal Blu-ray (2010) are viewable.

The 1960 super-epic Spartacus has been out on DVD for almost 18 months but Savant's contact with some really interesting research on the web has prompted this re-review of Universal's DVD. This review is also a big steer to another site: ... what I'll be discussing really is a reaction to reading Duncan L. Cooper's fascinating and well-researched articles on Spartacus at the Stanley Kubrick Site. I've linked to the main page because there are so many interesting essays to be found there. Just go down to the link entitled, Three Essays on Spartacus by Duncan L. Cooper, and you're in.

Synopsis:

Trained as a gladiator, Roman slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) leads a slave revolt circa 79 B.C. First looting, then organized by Spartacus into an ever-growing army, the freed slaves eventually seek to flee Italy altogether. In response, two political rivals use fear of the slave uprising to manipulate the Roman senate for their own ends. Demagogue Gracchus (Charles Laughton) is eager to get his crony Julius Caesar (John Gavin) elected leader of the Praetorian guard, to counter the ambitions of elitist Crassus (Laurence Olivier). As his price for ridding Italy of Spartacus, Crassus demands an appointment to the dictatorial post of First Consul. Just as Spartacus is coming into his own as an understanding, progressively humanist leader, his escape route is blocked and his army surrounded by three Roman legions.

Spartacus is unique in Kubrick's canon because it is his only film as a director-for-hire, not a project he himself initiated. He came on late in the game when Anthony Mann parted company with producer Kirk Douglas after filming only one sequence, the opening where Spartacus is found on a work gang by gladiator school impresario Batiatus (Peter Ustinov).

Mr. Cooper's three articles tell a convoluted story of a struggle during the production of Spartacus, a battle fought along political lines for control of the film's 'message'. Despite the fact that the movie was a major boost to his career Kubrick practically disowned the result, saying, "it had everything but a good story." Douglas bemoaned the studio interference and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo thought the film had been ruined by others usurping his role as author and perverting his message. Add to this the fact that right wing politicos in Hollywood tried to shut the film down because of its 'communist' leanings and its Hollywood-Ten author, and that the film cost more than its producing studio was worth (MCA bought Universal during production for less than the film's budget) and you have a real stew a-boiling. Reading the words of the varied creative combatants on the film, one would think Spartacus would be a mess instead of the fascinating, entertaining, good movie most of us have seen.

Dalton Trumbo believed in his concept of a 'Large Spartacus': a leader of men who defeated legion after Roman legion and became an inspiring legend, a revolutionary whose ideas (universal freedom, government for the good of ordinary people) transcended his defeat. The basic idea from Howard Fast's source novel is that, if Spartacus lacked anything, it was the ruthlessness necessary to overthrow the Republic. At one time, a deleted subplot was considered in which Spartacus executed his top lieutenant Crixus (John Ireland) for insisting that the slave army attack Rome.

Others favored the 'Small Spartacus' concept, which basically held that, formidable as the slave army was, it never had a chance to defeat the might of Rome. In this view, Spartacus and his followers were basically fugitives on a jailbreak. The most they could hope to accomplish was to 'get out of this damn country' as soon as possible.

Blacklisted and officially not working on the project, Trumbo had no control over what was done to his work. But his written objections are priceless. Kubrick didn't buy Trumbo's Large Spartacus concept. Kubrick's films range from pessimistic to grimly defeatist in their attitude toward the salvage-ability of mankind, so it's no surprise that Kubrick subordinates Spartacus' idealism to the chess-like power struggle between Crassus and Gracchus. Surely no sword 'n sandal film ever attempted such a complicated web of political intrigue. For that matter, the average adult movie about politics didn't either (Advise & Consent; The Best Man). A number of political wrinkles didn't make it to the final cut. Another unfinished scene reportedly shows Julius Caesar defecting to Crassus' camp after Gracchus openly considers offering citizenship to Spartacus and his army.

Spartacus originally began before the final battle, with Crassus checking on his troops and telling his generals the story of their enemy. The entire narrative was to be told in flashback; only the defeat of Spartacus and the wrap-up would be in 'real time.'

Spartacus is called the 'thinking man's epic.' Its first cut was said to be even more cerebral. The opening narration did not originally refer to the 'coming tide of Christianity' as the great force that would change the world, thereby pegging Spartacus as a man before his time. In reality there were many stronger forces at work that brought down what eventually became the Roman Empire. The final narration's bow in the direction of the church would seem prompted by censors. Spartacus is one of the few American films of this kind that doesn't have an overt Christian message.

The build-up to the enormous final battle was filmed in Spain as an expensive afterthought (note the lack of continuity between the vast pre-battle shots and the back-lot fighting that follows). Kubrick thought the story soft-pedaled the savagery of the combat and invented a number of 'gory' effects for the fighting. All were initially rejected; the one major 1991 restoration is the quick blip of Spartacus hacking off an outstretched Roman arm.

Brief montages of battle scenes were assembled to represent earlier Spartacus victories, especially the battle of Metapontum, but all were cut out. In the finished film, we see only the aftermath of the defeat of Glabrus (John Dall), and the final battle. Cooper uses these deletions as evidence that Universal wanted their film to be about the Small Spartacus and believes Trumbo's intentions were deliberately thwarted. During the final battle, Crassus as written is quite concerned when the rebels' fiery barricades successfully disrupt his first wave of legionnaires, and calms only when the flanking army appears. In the finished film Crassus is a calm presence seen only in brief long shots, making it seem as if the Romans were always in control and the outcome of the battle never in doubt.

Cooper says the scenes with the Silesian pirate Tigranes (Herbert Lom) were also rewritten to underscore the futility of the revolt. The pirate never seriously thinks Spartacus has a chance. Auteurists will note that Tigranes offers an escape route for Spartacus and selected high officers and their families. The gesture was later echoed in Dr. Strangelove when a plan is proposed to hide America's military command and their families away from nuclear fallout in mineshaft bunkers.

There is no denying Trumbo's protestations that his story was redirected by other hands, and his message softened -- a little. Despite all the changes the final Spartacus still seems pretty 'Large'. All the talk about dropped battle montages weakening the threat posed by the slave revolt seems wrong, as the Roman characters are constantly fretting about legions destroyed and properties burned. We see the slaves sacking cities (democratically of course, such a civilized mob they are) and growing into a mass of humanity that fills entire landscapes.

Some (reportedly) rewritten dialogue passages make Spartacus look, if anything, Larger. When Antoninus (Tony Curtis) asks the defeated hero if they could have won, the original answer was barely more than a plain "I guess not". The revised answer becomes a traditional position paper for lost liberal causes: "Perhaps just by opposing the Romans we won a victory."

Cooper's best argument concerns the motivations of Crassus. In the completed film Crassus has no doubt about winning and deftly uses Roman know-how to lead Spartacus into a strategic trap. After his victory, the source of Crassus' erratic behavior is his inability to completely savor his triumph. Not content to crucify Spartacus, Crassus humiliates him and takes his wife with the aim of obtaining an admission of Roman superiority, a vindication of his class. In the original cut, Cooper says Crassus was shaken by the real threat to Rome that Spartacus' army represented, and knows he won as much by luck as anything else. Over the battlefield dead, Crassus originally remarked that he could not believe that women would be fighting too, as if his assumptions about noble Roman invincibility were crumbling. Cooper's argues that this endorsement of revolution as the humanitarian answer to oppressive governments, had to be suppressed as too 'pinko' for late 1950's America.  1

Trumbo seems to protest too much, as Spartacus ended up being a popular forum for his liberal ideas. In much of his earlier writing Trumbo oversimplified moral concepts while trumpeting the inherent nobility of the average man, if uncorrupted by political power structures. His eloquent WW2 scripts overflow with idealistic sentiments about the grand Utopia of justice and harmony that will exist when the Axis is defeated. Sometimes his anti-fascism gets a bit crude, as in the manipulative A Guy Named Joe, which stipulates a bizarre heaven run by a Christian Army Air Corps. Brr.

Spartacus drips with Trumbo liberal optimism. Slave Spartacus begins as little more than a hostile brutalized animal, yet matures as psychologically unscarred adult with a fully realized natural wisdom and gentleness. Add the love of a good woman and Spartacus transforms into Abraham Lincoln, complete with eloquent stump speeches about the hopes and dreams of the common man.   2   Stanley Kubrick probably thought this aspect of the script was completely wrong; Kubrick definitely occupies an intellectual position just this side of the absolute cynicism preached by Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear) and Luis Buñuel (Los Olvidados). Buñuel was particularly successful in selling the disillusioning, Boys Town -- deflating message that poverty, ignorance and brutality do not foster nobility, justice or even human decency. The feisty Spaniard must certainly have rejected Trumbo's notion of a Utopian slave society.

In Spartacus, being a Roman slave seems almost to guarantee an elevated moral potential. Inhuman treatment at the gladiator school produces not savage beasts but noble warriors for justice. Kubrick's own take on this can be seen in Full Metal Jacket, where the Marine Corps' similar gladiator school yields a mix of rational soldiers, conscienceless killers, and an outright psycho. Kubrick's subversive talent lies in the fact that he's able to say that USMC boot camp training is in essence a Clockwork Orange - style Ludovico treatment in reverse ... and get away with it.

Dalton Trumbo and Kubrick produce excellent results in the emotional backbone of the story. Whether or not Kubrick was proud of his accomplishment, his hard edge brings Trumbo's love for the common man to life and makes powerful moments from what must have been mawkish on the page: "I love you like the father I never knew, Spartacus"  3   Perhaps Spartacus didn't inspire a popular uprising against the blacklist ("Lists of the disloyal have been compiled!") or make its viewers see America as an evil Roman Republic, but it did thrust a liberal's view of history at a generation raised on conservative 50s films. Spartacus is still Trumbo's supreme character, the idealistic, noble Man he believes will struggle forever against tyranny. When the defeated gladiators all claim to be Spartacus, Trumbo's vision is borne out: 'Just by opposing tyranny,' Spartacus has inspired his followers with his example.

Under the restraint of this studio-controlled project, where he was but one power center among several, Stanley Kubrick proved himself the equal of any Hollywood veteran. His genre-mandated duels and battles are indeed superior -- the fight with a trident-wielding Draba (Woody Strode) is still the best scene of its kind. And the formal, cold power of the massing of a landscape-covering Roman legion, even if arranged by second-unit directors (as implied by Cooper) fits in well with Kubrick's often unique way of expressing himself. After five minutes of choreographed marching, with massive squares of soldiers rearranging themselves like football linebackers directed by Busby Berkeley, the message is clear: Spartacus Is Going to Lose.  4   One might imagine an unfettered Kubrick skipping the battle proper and jump-cutting from this staggering vision, right to the battle aftermath, just as he skipped over all of human history with a jump cut in 2001.

The bleakness of Kubrick's final vision comes through, even with Kirk Douglas's overemphatic close-ups at the conclusion. A road curves up a hill almost to infinity, picketed every few feet with another martyr to tyranny. The hopeful part of the scene, the baby escaping to freedom, is for Trumbo a dream of the future. For Kubrick the baby is simply escaped. The Roman Empire will continue stronger than ever and there will be no vindicating 'Son of Spartacus' to make us all feel better about slavery.  5


Universal's DVD of Spartacus is quite good. With its greater ability to manipulate color, the video picture looks better than the 1991 restored 70mm release prints that in some scenes struggled mightily with grain and fluctuating picture quality. The audio is excellent; note that the 1960 style of multi-channel sound cutting made voices bounce around the theater speakers instead of staying rooted screen center.

Universal's DVD is not 16:9 enhanced, which on a larger monitor robs vitality from the wider scenes (50% of this film). There is also more dirt and even some frame damage here and there that could have been eliminated, but considering the age of the materials and the exotic original format (Super Technirama 70 ... squeezed VistaVision, blown up to 70mm!) this restored version is nothing to sneeze at. Savant saw prints of Spartacus in the 1970's - beautiful Technicolor, but scratched and splicey - and about a half-hour shorter (161 minutes). The improvement of the restoration is remarkable. The new footage adds a lot, from the emotionally crushing burial of the slave child in the snow, to the much-discussed bath scene with Olivier and Curtis.

Criterion has promised to release a DVD version of its earlier massive laser disc boxed set, the one that originally sold for $125.00. Whereas the DVD buyer shouldn't be dissuaded from enjoying the Universal DVD now, the extras and commentaries of the promised Criterion do sound attractive. And it is always possible that Criterion will retransfer Spartacus in 16:9.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Spartacus rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep Case
Reviewed: January 24, 2000.

Footnotes:

1. Today as well. Starting with Die Hard (1988) movies about 'terrorists' almost always elect to reveal their terrorist villains as either simple (politically inert) criminals, or worse, paint entire governments and popular anti-status quo causes as cynically criminal in intent (Air Force One). To avoid Spartacus-like political complexity, the real world is reinvented as a simple arena of conflict between smug Crassus-like Western powers and isolated, renegade, insane or fanatic arch-villains. James Bond's foes are the prime example. An independent filmmaker told me he always makes his villains non-political terrorist criminals so as to facilitate sales in as many foreign territories as possible. So it comes back to money, of course.  
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2. Spartacus' final speech on the beach at Brindisium is also said to have been a rewritten, added scene. It is interesting to contrast it with Charlie Chaplin's concluding speech in The Great Dictator, another liberal appeal to the heart.  
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3. Aided in no small part by Alex North's superior score, which interprets Trumbo sentiment and Kubrick logic with consummate skill. Or is that Trumbo logic and Kubrick acid? ... An odd tangent ... there was an hilarious Gahan Wilson cartoon from an ancient Playboy magazine, a full page showing dozens of concentric rows of Roman soldiers, all pointing their spears into the tiny gap at their center. There stand two ragged rebels and a clear Kirk Douglas figure, all three of them just a few moments away from extinction. A camera crane floats above the scene, with the director yelling happily into his megaphone: "OKAY KIRK BABY, LET'S TAKE IT FROM YOUR LINE: "COME ON COMRADES, THEY CAN'T STOP MEN WHO WANT TO BE FREE!"" Just thought that needed to be thrown in here. I'd post the cartoon but would rather not go to court this month.  
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4. Note the use of a disturbing electronic tone under the massing Roman legion ... if Savant is correct, it is the same synthesized sound heard as the flying saucer prepares to launch in Universal's This Island Earth.  
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5. Well, actually there was a Son of Spartacus, a.k.a. The Slave, from MGM in 1963. So sue me.  
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Thanks to Brian Lintz for straightening me out on some ancient history facts I had wrong ... here's Brian's own review of Spartacus.


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