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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Spartacus
Spartacus
Criterion
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Review by DVD Savant | posted May 12, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A story synopsis and essay on Spartacus, with many reader responses, can be found in Savant's
earlier review of the Universal Spartacus release.

Criterion invented the idea of the movie supplement back in the middle '80s with its King Kong and Citizen Kane laserdiscs.  By the time Savant got into lasers, around 1990, they had already put full-length commentaries on movies and were well-known for coming up with 'extras' nobody ever dreamed would see the light of day, such as a workprint for Forbidden Planet that contained many extra scenes.

The first box set laserdisc for Spartacus followed the 1991 theatrical reissue of the movie.  Priced, I think at $125, even the rental at Dave's The Laser Place was too steep ... for it wasn't practical to view all the extras in one evening.  The special content of that fabled disc has finally made it to DVD, along with a stunning new 16:9 transfer of the movie.  The perfectly fine Universal release isn't enhanced.  Right about now, the only advantage it might still have over this version is its alternate French language soundtrack.

Spartacus is of course a spectacular, intelligent, witty and emotionally affecting movie, an epic that made a bold move and took for its subject secular totalitarian politics instead of watered-down bible sermons.  Spartacus was a complicated production about a complicated subject that had a complicated reception in Hollywood, and there is a lot of interest to be said about it.  Since Savant worked the movie over in the first review, it gives him the opportunity here to concentrate on Criterion's special added material, which is substantial.

The main commentary track edits the voices of Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, writer Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, designer Saul Bass and restorer Robert Harris.  Whoever edited the audio commentary did a fine job and made choices many of our present DVD producers could learn a lot from.  The first thing they do right is to identify the speakers, especially the less familiar ones, each time their voices come on.   Some, but not all of the speeches are specific to the scenes as they play.  The whole story of the film unfolds piecemeal in this way - it's a lot more interesting to watch the movie like this than you might think.

Another audio track is split between a reading of writer Dalton Trumbo's famous screening notes, where he rather drastically analyzes the rough cut of the movie, and a selection of unused Alex North music tracks.  Many of Trumbo's comments about details appear to have been followed by the producers, but it's not long before it sounds as if Trumbo thinks the character of Spartacus has been taken an entirely wrong turn.  Trumbo openly states that for him the movie was about the Blacklist and his own prison experience.

There's a short restoration demonstration, that simply shows some comparative scenes with the improved picture of the new transfer.

The second disc has the balance of the extra material.  The deleted scenes are represented by a couple of workprint sections, but there is only a soundtrack for an extended moment of Charles Laughton's demise.  A very good pair of scenes with John Gavin seeing how demagogue senator Laughton runs his Plebian ward is represented with some very amusing script pages.

Promotional interviews are included with Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov, both from 1960 on-set shoots that are rather strained, and a later, very amusing 1990s video session where Ustinov talks about pranks on the set and demonstrates his catalog of funny noises to entertain children.  It's funnier than it sounds.

There's some really good-looking behind-the-scenes footage in the Gladiatorial school, where Douglas, Woody Strode, and a number of other actors are seen practicing and clowning with the swords and other equipment.  Everyone wears dark t-shirts with 'Spartacus' written across both sides - they look like a bunch of Barker's Beagle Boys.

The story of the blacklist is told in a 1960 documentary The Hollywood Ten, which has interest in its own right, although it probably won't appeal to all who buy or rent the disc.

In other galleries are reams of stills, posters, ad material, storyboards, and a reprint of panels from a Dell Comic book, in black and white.  Savant read the comic when it came out, and remembers it quite differently from what's shown here - it was in color, to begin with.

Just listening to the two commentaries in full would take six hours, so the wealth of extras on this disc is nothing to be sneezed at.  Savant was most amused by the Dalton Trumbo commentary.   Sometimes Trumbo's notes seem overly picky, and he certainly can hoist himself to a righteous position above the opinions of others, but his arguments are reasoned and artistically honest.  I'm rather glad that his version of Spartacus is not the one that was finished, only because I enjoy the film first as a straight adventure, before relating it to the blacklist.  Trumbo's been gone a long time.  One of his daughters, a very nice person, attended UCLA film school with us in the early '70s and I talked with her several times in the first, tiny UCLA Archive office.  She was always concerned about getting back to see her father, as his health was already deteriorating.

The best thing about the new version of Spartacus is obviously the transfer, which is sharper and more carefully colored than the previous one.  Kubrick fans and Criterion faithfuls are going to rush to get this long-awaited disc.  If you already have the Universal copy and are happy with it, I would call this release a non-essential but attractive buy.



On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Spartacus, The Criterion Collection rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: April 30, 2001


Other Savant articles on Stanley Kubrick - related subjects:
Review: Eyes Wide Shut
The Hidden Stanley Kubrick Feature: Fear and Desire
Spartacus (Universal)


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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson

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