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Spartacus: The Criterion Collection

In terms of careers formed and taboos broken, Spartacus is an important film. Its box-office success and production-team infighting spurred director Stanley Kubrick to abandon the Hollywood system and make his later, deeply personal classics. And of course the movie's famous as the Feature that Broke the Blacklist — producer/star Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo a screen credit for the first time since Trumbo had been jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten. Plus the movie received a loving 1991 restoration that put back the gore and a homoerotic subtext and drew attention to the plight of decaying film stock. But taken on its own merits — freed of the shackles of being Important Cinema, if that's possible — a more nuanced picture emerges. Spartacus, it turns out, is a big, gorgeous, flawed epic — one that falls prey to some of the inherent weaknesses of its genre, but transcends others. And though Stanley Kubrick disowned the film, Spartacus is at its best, quite frankly, where Kubrick would later prove to be at his best: when dealing with intrigue, cruelty and sick little ironies. The story's one of revolution, war and intrigue with a deeply bittersweet ending. Spartacus (Douglas) is sold into a gladiator school run by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov). Fascistic nobleman Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) pays a visit and orders an intramural gladiator death match — a match that sows the seeds of unrest, leading to a slave revolt that consumes the countryside. The remaining two-thirds of the film alternate between Spartacus' march to the sea with his growing "slave army" and the machinations in the Roman Senate — where Crassus is locked in a power struggle with the corrupt libertine Gracchus (Charles Laughton). The first and last hours are everything an epic should be: big, passionate and cruel. One scene where Douglas and the great Woody Strode stare wordlessly, listening to two of their cohorts fight to the death outside, packs a wallop that the remainder of the film never tops. Still, the last hour bears the scent of Kubrick: There are clinically composed shots of Roman legions, slow tracking shots over seas of bodies. There's the final death match of love, in which each gladiator fights viciously to kill the other as a twisted act of mercy — because the "winner" is doomed to a slower, more painful demise on the cross. And unlike, say, Gladiator, the scenes of Roman politics in Spartacus crackle with humor and nuance. Douglas notes on the disc's commentary track that every character in the film is in love, and he's right: Spartacus is in love with freedom and family and his fellow men. Gracchus and Batiatus are in love with money and pleasure (and I should note that Ustinov's and Laughton's chatty scenes together are among the film's best, dripping with wit). And Olivier's Crassus is palpably in love with Rome — describing her (to slave boy Tony Curtis) as a living, breathing dominatrix. As a result, and to its credit, Spartacus lacks a mustache-twirling villain, choosing instead to set up more nuanced conflicts of ideology. That said, there's the undeniable fact that the middle section drags a bit. This is because (a) the film falls into the old genre trap of the widescreen epic, showing endless shots of people marching or riding horses and gumming up the narrative, and (b) I'm sorry, but Spartacus' noble slave march is nowhere near as interesting as the scenes of Roman politics. Putting it another way: The slave camp features the elemental Douglas, sure, but it also features the Audrey Hepburn Lite stylings of Jean Simmons and corny bits of "local color." In Rome, we have Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton verbally sparring. Case closed. As usual with Criterion, the two Spartacus platters are easily navigable and generally fat-free — to the degree that one wonders aloud whether rival DVD manufacturers are suffering from ADD or some other form of brain entropy, so far do they lag behind. Along with an anamorphic transfer (2.20:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround, features include a commentary with Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, film restorer Robert A. Harris, and designer/consultant Saul Bass (taken from the 1992 Criterion Laserdisc edition); a second commentary track with "Screenwriter Analysis and Score Variations"; a restoration demonstration; a "Deleted Scenes" menu with two alternate cuts, plus two partial excavations of elements from deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes footage; newsreel footage; a Jean Simmons television interview; "Peter Ustinov Reminisces" (1960 and 1992 interviews); a "Breaking the Blacklist" section, featuring "The Hollywood Ten" (a 1950 documentary); "The MPAA Responds" — featuring the text of a letter sent to Universal and the filmmakers dictating the cuts that would conform Spartacus to the Hays Code; Saul Bass storyboards; promotional materials (including production stills, lobby cards, posters and print ads, the original theatrical trailer, and 35 black-and-white panels from a Dell comic book promoting the movie); and a "Stanley Kubrick," menu, featuring an overview of his involvement in Spartacus, plus storyboard sketches. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Alexandra DuPont

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