I've reviewed videodiscs of Spartacus twice now. In 2000 I covered the flat-letterboxed Universal Disc with a review essay on the behind-the-scenes struggle of the making of the movie between the studio, producer-star Kirk Douglas and the outspoken but blacklist-closeted writer Dalton Trumbo. I recommend that essay -- it's one of the better Savant pieces from the early years of this site. I also reviewed the 2001 Criterion Disc, mostly covering that release's exhaustive extras. So I now feel liberated to expound freely for this review of Universal's new Spartacus Blu-ray. I'll indulge some brief rambling about the film's reputation twenty years after its impressive 1991 65mm restoration, followed by a quick look at its image quality and impact in Blu-ray.
Yep, fifty years have passed since this one came out. I never saw it new and first learned about in a Dell comic book, which I read in a neighbor kid's tree house. I think my first miserable experience seeing the film was on TV, shown over two afternoons and chopped into innumerable nine-minute pieces. By the time I caught up with a revival theater print in the late 1970s, I was surprised to see how battered a movie could look: scratches, lots of splices and big gaps in the story. The audience reacted like viewers at a prizefight, going "Oh!" each time another chunk of movie went missing. It was a Technicolor print, or at least what remained of one. No doubt Robert A. Harris had an uphill battle restoring this one.
The 1991 65mm restoration qualified as a major family outing. I built the experience up for my kids, then aged twelve down to six. Spartacus looked fantastic. It's obvious that waiting only a few years would have made such a restoration much more difficult, if not impossible. 1
Considered by some a political football when it was new, the movie shows 'liberal' Hollywood at its peak. Producer-star Kirk Douglas had won critical success with Paths of Glory, an anti-war movie that Came Right Out with the news that WW1 was an inhumane activity led by degenerates. Of course, Douglas chose the rather safe target of the French Army -- nobody ever faced a charge of anti-Americanism by slamming anything French. Paths of Glory was great moviemaking by the creative, resourceful intellectual Stanley Kubrick, but it of course reserves a huge show-off role for its producer-star. War may be futile but it's a hell of an opportunity for grandstanding oratory. Could the Red-baiting patriot Adolph Menjou have known he was being set up as a villain beyond the context of the movie?
Douglas starred in Richard Fleischer's lavish The Vikings, an intelligent costume epic that was seemingly restrained from aspiring to greater things. That film's producer Jerry Bresler would later try to "simplify" a film by a less cooperative director, Sam Peckinpah, with disastrous results. Actor Douglas realized that to stay at the top of his industry he needed to make and control an enormous epic. He courted quality and controversy, hiring a legendary cast of English stars and setting up blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to secretly adapt Howard Fast's ardently leftist novel. Kirk Douglas hired the esteemed director Anthony Mann, only to run into creative differences early in the shooting -- both men clearly intended Spartacus to be a personal film. After Mann's departure Douglas turned the directing reins over to Stanley Kubrick, who used the massive epic as his steppingstone from low-budget United Artists work to the pinnacle of the profession. Kubrick kept his producer-star patron happy and concentrated on being the best ever director for hire. Naturally, the script invents plenty of dynamite scenes for Kirk: Spartacus revels in his new-found freedom, rallies his unwashed masses to defy the might of Rome, and finishes up with speeches basically saying, "Hey, I guess we tried, and if we should, heh heh, all get massacred by the Romans, well, someday somebody will make a great movie about us".
Aside from a moment or two of screeching ("All we wanna do is get OUT of this damn country!") this is Kirk Douglas's most iconic role. Now in his nineties, the actor has his physical infirmities but still impresses as a focused survivor, and is definitely not hiding away from the public. He must be intensely proud to see his youthful beauty (yep) preserved in Spartacus. He's in his prime here, past his rather pulpy years as a stage softie and before a decline spent sending up his own image. Spartacus is a lean 'n' mean physical specimen, an endorsement for the starvation and abuse of the slave lifestyle. The Thracian slave is Abraham Lincoln and Audie Murphy rolled into one, but also an intensely likeable guy adored by his men and loved by the incredibly attractive Jean Simmons.
Douglas was also no slouch in the producing department. Competing with fellow independent Otto Preminger in pushing the outside of the censorship envelope, Douglas slips in as much adult content and near-nudity as he dares. Roman femmes Nina Foch and Joanna Barnes snicker as they choose gladiators on the basis of which ones sexually excite them. Scenes of undisguised homosexual content (restored) and battle gore (one arm amputation restored for fun) originally got no further than a preview screening or two. But there's still the spectacle of Varinia (Jean Simmons) bobbing in a pond, the kind of "did you see that?" brinksmanship not attempted since the Pre-code days of Claudette Colbert in Sign of the Cross.
Stanley Kubrick's detractors are quick to mention that, when it came time for the production to figure out whom to officially list for the film's script, Kubrick volunteered to accept that credit! As it turned out Kirk Douglas somehow convinced Universal to let Dalton Trumbo, who had not had his name on a Hollywood picture in years, take the writing credit. 2 In fairness, Spartacus crackles with Stanley Kubrick's unsentimental touches. The power politics in Rome are presented with an objectivity that brings all the venality, stupidity and arrogance to the surface. Gracchus is an amused hedonist and Crassus a power-mad control freak. Most of the relationships have a component of sexual tyranny, emphasized in Kubrick's direction. The film's most lovable character is Peter Ustinov's Lentulus Batiatus, a self-avowed opportunist and coward. Kubrick creates little family units out of various groups of freed slaves in Spartacus' army, and then coldly shows them wiped out when the Roman Empire strikes back.
Who knows if these particular touches are Kubrick's? They display his flair for appalling clarity. The final conflict is a fairly standard violent melee, but the long preamble that leads up to it is a unique spectacle. The Romans are an organized machine designed to systematically mow down opposing foot soldiers. The camera lingers on Crassus' vast legions arranging themselves on the field of battle. The maneuvers make the battlefield look like a chessboard, and Kubrick was a chess enthusiast. Spartacus's horde of well-intentioned fighters hasn't a chance fighting this juggernaut on its own terms. The director's unflinching views of the coordinated Roman troops show us that the rebels' battle is well lost even before it is begun.
The film's unforgettably conclusion also seems to benefit from Stanley Kubrick's unsentimental graphic clarity. Spartacus is crucified on the Appian Way with hundreds of his comrades taken prisoner in the last battle. Given a last look at her dying husband, Varinia delivers a typically defiant Trumbo-eque speech: instead of mourning her doomed man, she proudly holds her baby aloft and swears to keep Spartacus's ideals alive. The scene has everything -- the appalling barbarity of the Romans and the love of a righteous woman for her fallen mate. Kubrick's twin rows of crucified men reaching to the vanishing point resembles one of his later symmetrical compositions. It's an undeniably powerful finish to a movie that defies many of the censor pitfalls and political compromises of its time. 3
Universal's Blu-ray of Spartacus has been dealt an early thumbs-down vote by restorer Robert A. Harris, who has written that he finds the HD transfer deficient. Harris claims that it's soft, that over-used digital tools have blown away significant detail. He mentions 'halo'-ing around objects.
I looked at Spartacus, and this is how I felt about what I saw. The only scenes that looked noticeably off to me were the underground shots in the gladiator school, which seemed too bright. Everything else looked sharp and detailed, maybe not at as sharp as the eye-popping UK disc of Zulu but far sharper than a normal DVD. On my 67" Samsung rear-projection DLP LED (I think I got that description right) I noticed no halo-ing as described by Mr. Harris. Perhaps I'll be told that I'm not looking at the BD on an approved monitor?
My intention is not to contradict anyone but just to report my personal experience. I'm not defending Universal in any way, as they are actually on my gripe list this month for their extras-challenged DVD insult to the movie Matinee. But the general buzz on the web at this particular moment is that the Universal Spartacus Blu-ray is no good. I don't agree, and I recommend this release. 4
For exhaustive, informative, educational extras on this title, the 2001 Criterion Disc is the way to go. This new Blu-ray carries over some of the extras from that edition that were presumably sourced from Universal elements: publicity interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons, some behind-the-scenes footage (in excellent condition) of Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode (and director #1 Anthony Mann) prepping in the gladiator school, several newsreels and galleries of design art and production stills etc. A deleted scenes extra offers the 1967 truncated alternate ending mentioned in footnote # 3, along with a censored UK version of Varinia's conjugal visit to Spartacus's slave cell, and an audio tag for the end of Charles Laughton's final scene.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Spartacus Blu-ray rates:
1. This is a wholly personal footnote. I remember seeing Spartacus in 1991 as if it happened yesterday. I prepped my kids with a lot of talk about the Blacklist and the Romans and how a great civilization can also be unjust. It also enabled me to talk about the evil of slavery. I remember being a bit depressed on the way home because none of the kids were leaping up to discuss the movie -- I thought maybe they didn't like it. It just so happened that that particular Sunday Los Angeles held an Iraq War 1 "victory rally" on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with low-level fly-bys of vintage aircraft and new jets to celebrate. The TV had plenty of footage of soldiers riding tanks and acting like drunken seniors who just won the big football game -- "We're badass mothers!", that kind of thing. So that was a downer, too.
As it turned out, my kids were deeply impressed by the movie. My 12 year-old daughter took a phone call in the kitchen that evening and I got to listen to her side of a conversation with a girl friend. She stated that the movie was awesome, especially the endless line of crucified rebels at the conclusion. So the movie had made a dent after all. I know this footnote may be an inappropriate autobiographical tangent to a Spartacus review, but I think how we make use of movies is important.
2. It's also possible that Universal, in the process of being bought by MCA, just didn't have the power to tell the producer what to do, and Douglas used that opening to finish the movie his way and officially break the blacklist by crediting Trumbo.
3. An alternate ending prepared for a 1967 reissue (included in this disc's extras) looks like a TV cut-down version. The scene has been trimmed uncomfortably short. Varinia hugs Spartacus' sandal and holds his son up but only says one or two lines. Shots of the rows of crucified men are shortened, although a new angle appears when the cart rolls away. Even more impressive is the deletion of all close-ups of Kirk Douglas on the cross. The dropping of those shots may have been to satisfy Network standards of good taste -- Spartacus looks like a pre-Christ, Christ figure. The chopped-up scene makes us shudder, as it represents what Universal and the censors could have done to the original theatrical cut of Spartacus, had the studio's power in 1960 not been so weakened. This last thought is unsubstantiated conjecture.
But the scene without the cuts of Douglas is fascinating ... it looks as if the original might have played better without them. Varinia talks upwards to Spartacus out of frame and we don't know if he's alive or dead -- as her words are an oath, she could very well be delivering them to a corpse. We all know that producer-star Kirk Douglas would never rob himself of a prominent presence in the final scene ... doing so would be Oscar-nomination suicide. Kubrick stated that he was never personally enamored of the project for its own sake, but we have to think that if he had the final say, Spartacus might very well end without showing its hero's face on the cross.
I'm pretty sure that the beat-up print I saw in a theater in 1977 was this version -- I recall not seeing any shots of Douglas.
4. When an authority like Mr. Harris speaks, I listen: he knows his business. And the last thing I need is another web 'controversy' about a video transfer crime. I reported on Disney's color redesign on a DVD of Peter Pan. The hysterical emails I got from self-appointed Disney fan police convinced me to stay clear of catfights that surround DVD and Blu-ray quality arguments. You know it's not worth arguing with someone ranting that Touch of Evil is supposed to be 1.37:1 full frame, when every reference guide and a cursory look at the film itself proves that its correct ratio is 1.85:1. All I can do is call 'em as I see them.
For the record, I really enjoy DVD Beaver's analyses of various releases. It's not what I do. Reviewing transfer quality only makes sense to me in broad strokes -- will I feel cheated by a particular Blu-ray transfer? is it an unqualified disaster? Is it worse than a DVD we already have?
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
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T'was Ever Thus.