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Spartacus: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov,
Jean Simmons, and Charles Laughton

Written by Dalton Trumbo
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

I decided to update my address and phone book.... I grabbed my red pen and started.... "Kubrick, Stanley".... We had done some wonderful work together, but a squabble over using Dalton Trumbo's name on the Spartacus script ended our relationship. Too bad. My red pen kept slashing away....

— Kirk Douglas in his second memoir, Climbing
the Mountain

You don't have to be a nice person to be extremely talented. You can be a shit and be talented and, conversely, you can be the nicest guy in the world and not have any talent. Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit.

— Kirk Douglas in his somewhat-blunter first
The Ragman's Son


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Preamble: A brief Socratic dialogue on Spartacus as Proscribed Cinema, or: Why people keep telling me this movie's 'important'

Q. Spartacus is a classic. After all, it's the Feature that Broke the Blacklist: Producer Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo screen credit for the first time since Trumbo had been jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten.

A. Yes, but historical context doth not a "classic" make. No one will care in 100 years. (Frankly, given that Elia Kazan finally got his Oscar, I wonder if anyone cares now.)

Q. Oh. Well, Spartacus is important because its box-office success and production-team infighting spurred director Stanley Kubrick to abandon the Hollywood system and create Art!

A. That's also historical context — and it's a bit like saying The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is important because its director went on to make L.A. Confidential.

Q. Aha! But Spartacus MUST be important because it received a loving 1991 restoration that restored its gore and homoerotic subtext and drew attention to the plight of decaying film stock!

A. Yes, it did. But parts of your last statement apply to the Star Wars "Special Edition." I'll leave it to you to decide which parts.

Q. But I've spent my life as a film geek reading articles and essays that told me Spartacus was important! And Criterion put out that lovely laserdisc edition in the early '90s — and now they've put out this stunning two-disc DVD edition! And everyone on the DVDJ staff fought bitterly to get the chance to review it! There was yelling!

A. Oh, for Christ's sake. That's peer pressure.

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So, then: Towards a baggage-free appraisal of Spartacus

Certainly, in terms of careers formed and taboos broken and the beauty and skill of its 1991 restoration, Spartacus is an important film. Taken on its own merits, however — 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 legendarily 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. More on that later.

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What's the story?

It's a tale of revolution, war and intrigue with a deeply bittersweet ending — a "gladiator movie" whose modern analog is more Braveheart than, well, Gladiator.

The film opens on the edge of a sun-blasted valley, in stunning scenes shot by the film's first director, the great Anthony Mann. (Star/executive producer Kirk Douglas fired Mann two weeks into the shoot — most likely because Kubrick was available after being fired from One-Eyed Jacks.) Anyway. Spartacus (Douglas) is sold into a gladiator school run by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, reportedly rewriting most of his own dialogue, and rewriting it rather well). 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). Betrayals, bloodshed, recently restored homoerotic subtext and limb-chopping, a set-bound love story with Jean Simmons as a slave girl, numerous role reversals and quite a few crucifixions ensue.

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What works?

Basically, the first and last hours are everything an epic should be — big, passionate and cruel. Not surprisingly, these first and last hours also play to Kubrick's later strengths and pet themes.

One scene at the gladiator school is a bona fide "classic": In it, Douglas and the great Woody Strode (a trident-wielding, sculpted giant) sit in their holding cell, staring wordlessly as they listen to two of their cohorts fight to the death outside. When Strode, a John Ford regular, turns his gaze on Douglas, his eyes practically bore holes in the film stock. It's a staggering moment of humanity, and the ensuing death match — climaxing with restored, bloody footage of Olivier slitting Strode's neck — packs a wallop that the remainder of the film never matches.

Still, the last hour — filled with battles and reversals and crucifixions and ruminations on the possible futility of Spartacus' struggle — also bears the scent of Kubrick. There are clinically composed shots of Roman legions massing for a charge. There's a slow tracking shot over a sea of bodies, including women and children. 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 death 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 picture is in love, and that really gets at the film's generous core. 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 debauched glee). And Olivier's Crassus is palpably in love with Rome — describing her (to slave boy Tony Curtis) as a living, breathing dominatrix in one memorable scene. As a result, and to its credit, Spartacus lacks a mustache-twirling villain, choosing instead to set up more nuanced conflicts of ideology.

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But how is Spartacus a little dated?

  1. The middle section drags a bit. This is because (a) the film falls into some of the genre traps of the widescreen epic — showing endless shots of thousands 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 (who's coifed like she just wandered in off the "Star Trek" set) — plus such bits of "local color" as dwarves dancing with dogs and old slave women squirting toddlers with goat's milk. In Rome, we have Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton verbally sparring. I think I've made my point.

  2. The score by Alex North, while dense and odd and inventive and beautiful and "important," also represents the last gasp of the Max Steiner School of Telegraphed and Omnipresent Film Music — a school I personally love, but which you may not. The music's not bad, it's just relentless — and manipulative in a way that's mawkish and old-school. Ustinov rips on it in the commentary track, BTW, which I'll get into in a minute.

  3. Certain introductory scenes of cruelty that would have set up the horror of gladiator life are actually kind of tame — owing I think to the fact that the film was shot in the '50s. As one viewing companion put it: "The gladiator school comes off like a really tough boarding school. I thought for a minute there that Spartacus was going to get thwacked with towels."

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How about that commentary track?

As usual with Criterion, the two Spartacus platters are easily navigable and generally fat-free — to the degree that you (like thousands of tiresome film geeks before you) will wonder aloud whether rival DVD manufacturers are suffering from ADD or some other form of brain entropy, so far do they lag behind.

Disc I features the collection's centerpiece extra — the 1992 Criterion laserdisc commentary with Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, film restorer Robert A. Harris and designer/consultant Saul Bass — and it's a marvel.

Seldom in the brief history of commentary tracks has a more disparate, articulate, or catty group been assembled (or, in this case, recorded separately and then spliced together, thus pre-empting the inevitable fistfight). I can't say enough great things about this Bacchanalia of big egos: It features great men unafraid to dish gossip and contradict each other and lay bare the flaws and hard work found in every scene of Spartacus.

Ustinov's the funniest and best-spoken, the Noel Coward of the piece: You can almost hear his eyebrow arch as he tallies the rivalries, recounts the "harmonious tennis match" between himself and Laughton, makes fun of the Alex North's "indiscriminately and fulsomely" overused score, and tweaks Douglas, Laughton and Olivier more than once — complete with voice impersonations. Meanwhile, Harris chimes in at random intervals with über-geeky details of the complex restoration; Kirk Douglas is passionate, relatively diplomatic, and remembers details that don't necessarily gibe with what's onscreen (was that an arm or a leg you chopped off, sir?); and Saul Bass works overtime to make Saul Bass seem indispensable — which, by all accounts, he was.

And Howard Fast. Oh, my. Fired as screenwriter after an abortive attempt at adapting his own Spartacus novel, Fast is hauled out of mothballs to settle the score — making for some truly riveting, cringe-inducing commentary chatter. He lambastes scenes that aren't taken directly from his book and praises scenes that are. He (correctly) declares Jean Simmons "improbable" as a slave. He fails to remember Woody Strode's name even as he praises his performance, instead referring to him as "the black man." I submit for your consideration but two of Fast's commentary-track quotes:

  1. On Kirk Douglas in the gladiator school: "I still find it difficult to connect Kirk Douglas with my mind's-eye picture of Spartacus, because Kirk is an exhibitionist. His understanding of people and events is very simple, rather primitive. The complexities of a human being are never really present in his acting. Since the film began, he has presented an almost unbroken picture of surliness, anger, hatred. It's even difficult here [for him] to look at [Jean Simmons] with some sort of love or appreciation." Meow!

  2. On the restored "snails and oysters" scene, which ham-fistedly hints at Crassus' "evil" bisexuality: "The 'snails and oysters' scene was written by Dalton Trumbo. It has nothing to do with the book. This is what Hollywood people feel is 'decadence.' It's a kind of very limited and personal understanding of 'decadence' — decadence is a 'switch-hitter,' a relationship between two men who also have relationships with women. The real decadence — the decadence of starvation, the decadence of destroying the dignity of people and turning them into slaves and all that — that kind of decadence is a very theoretical quality in Hollywood. This is a decadence they understand — either because they have indulged in it, or because they know people who have indulged in it."

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And the rest of the extras?

Also on Disc I:

  • We find a second commentary track titled "Screenwriter Analysis and Score Variations." This extra — taken from Trumbo's "feisty and combative" monograph-sized critique of the rough cut — features actor Michael McConnohae voicing Trumbo's concerns over related scenes in the film. Additional narration is provided by Barbara Goodson, and the whole shebang is intercut with alternate Alex North compositions, placed where they would have been used in the film. (The choral music over the ending scene on the Appian Way is quite lovely, BTW.) As a sub-feature to the above, there's also an excellent, nine-page "Study of the Score," written by Leslie Zador, advisor to the Society of the Preservation of Film Music, and music archivist Greg Rose. Between this and the recent Cleopatra disc, I do believe Mr. North is finally getting the presentation he deserves.

  • Moving into the realm of the hard-core technophile, we find a three-minute "Restoration Demonstration." Hosted by Robert Harris and featuring such terms as "dye transfer" and "interpositive," this too-brief section uses split screens and dissolves to show the difference between restored and unrestored prints of the film. Given the reportedly staggering detective work that went into the 1991 restoration — the plundering of private collections and the comparison of six different sources for any given scene and the color re-compositing from black-and-white separation materials and all that — I frankly wouldn't have minded if this extra had rambled on a bit longer. But that's quibbling.

    Of course, Disc I concludes with Criterion's ever-present color bars. Moving on to Disc II, we find ourselves overwhelmed by high-yield extras porn:

  • The "Deleted Scenes" menu has a slightly deceptive title: In fact, what we have here are two alternate cuts, plus two partial excavations of elements from deleted scenes:

    1. "Spartacus Meets Varinia" is the UK cut of the scene where Varinia is first "given" to Spartacus for his pleasure, with Batiatus and his guard captain ogling them through an overhead cell window. In the British cut, the voyeurs are seen from a different angle — and a flatly shot insert of the two of them squatting down to have a look ruins any surprise the scene might have held. (Even the menu notes admit this is an inferior cut.)

    2. The "1967 Finale" is the same as the restoration ending — only with all close-ups of Kirk Douglas on the cross deleted, apparently to appease the Catholic Legion of Decency. If I may take a completist-enraging stance here, I want to note that never actually seeing Spartacus' face as Varinia speaks to him gives this censored cut a sort of weird power: The imagination runs wild projecting unseen suffering and maiming onto Douglas' face. But maybe that's just me.

    3. "Gracchus' Suicide" is an audio track only, picking up after Laughton's final scene when he strides off to kill himself. In it, he tells his handmaiden Julia to meet him in the afterlife and tell him how Crassus reacted to the sight of his dead body. It's a lovely little scene, actually, or at least sounds like it was.

    4. And finally, a "Public House/Slum Street" scene is reconstructed using script text and production stills — revealing a sharply written passage in which Laughton's Gracchus buys votes and then escorts young Julius Caesar to the Forum, philosophizing about "power" and "the mob" all the while.

  • There's also some surprisingly well-preserved "Behind the Scenes Footage," borrowed from the private collection of Mr. Ashley Ward III. Obviously shot and edited for some sort of promotional featurette but never used, this is 5:03 worth of silent footage of actors and stuntmen (in geeky 1950s navy-blue tracksuits emblazoned with the "SPARTACUS" logo) practicing at the gladiator-school set. A sportcoat-clad Ustinov is also on hand, clowning and watching. All of it is overlaid with some of the more hysterical excerpts from Mr. North's score.

  • Under a "Spartacus via Newsreel" menu, we find 4:45 worth of chapter-searchable advertorial on the film, courtesy of Universal International. There are five short "news" reports: "London Premiere," which features the improbable image of young Stanley Kubrick greeting Princess Margaret; "Curtis Wins a 'Bambi,'" a fascinatingly insincere press conference in which Douglas hands Curtis an award from Film Review magazine naming Curtis the most popular foreign star of 1958; Olivier in Hollywood," which trumpets Sir Laurence's first Hollywood film in a decade; "Douglas Immortalized," in which the star puts his footprints (and chin-print) in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater; and "Douglas in New York."

  • And in case you thought shabby canned interviews were a recent movie-promotion phenomenon, there's a "Jean Simmons TV Interview" to set you straight. This 3:35 extra is footage from a "formula" interview sent to TV news stations, shot in black-and-white at the Hearst Mansion. What's fun and surreal here is that Simmons answers queries that are never asked — instead, she takes long, silent pauses between responses, with questions to be inserted later by the local TV reporters. Needless to say, the "Make Up a Question for Jean Simmons" party-game possibilities presented by this extra are mind-boggling.

  • Ustinov gets this treatment too, under a "Peter Ustinov Reminisces" menu. In his 2:50 "formula" interview from 1960, the actor does vocal impressions of a car with a dead battery, a ship in the fog and a cello. It's just plain embarrassing — but he more than atones for these Police Academy-ish crimes of comedy with a 24:20 video interview, shot for the laserdisc in 1992 at his Switzerland home. In it, a remarkably well-preserved Ustinov is, once again, funny as hell and deeply truthful — holding forth on the secular nature of the script, the on-set turbulence, Kirk Douglas' misfortune, the nature of humor, Kubrick, Anthony Mann and even numerology.

  • The civics-lesson part of the DVD can be found under the text-heavy "Breaking the Blacklist" menu, devoted to Spartacus' flouting of the HUAC legacy. The highlight of this section is undoubtedly "The Hollywood Ten" (1950) — a creepy, black-and-white 14:35 documentary profiling the 10 jailed victims of the Hollywood Blacklist, including Trumbo. This avant-garde little piece could probably merit its own review: The 10 men are shown sitting glumly at a table — arranged not unlike the disciples in The Last Supper — angrily addressing the camera and staring defiantly/creepily at the viewer, all while hagiographic narration makes them seem like put-upon deities of patriotism. Make no mistake, these men were courageous and wronged — but John Berry's documentary (produced by blacklisted filmmaker Paul Jerrico) works so hard to deify them and vilify HUAC that the tone becomes one of reverse jingoism; the overall vibe is that of a McGraw/Hill film produced by Trotsky. Riveting stuff.

    Also under the "Blacklist" menu: the four-page "Spartacus and the Blacklist," which points out that, technically, Jules Dassin's 1955 Rififi was the first film to break the 'List; seven pages of info on "Dalton Trumbo"; and, finally, a copy of the "American Legion Letter" sent to 10,000 Legion posts in protest of Spartacus.

  • Of course, the true legacy of the Red Scare has been Hollywood's self-imposed ratings system. To that end, there's an extra titled "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. There are concerns about the carnage, Crassus as "sex pervert," and the "excessively gruesome" death of Woody Strode's character. Huzzah!

  • And finally: There are colorful Saul Bass storyboards; a gallery of promotional materials (including production stills, lobby cards, posters and print ads, the original theatrical trailer and — good Lord — 35 black-and-white panels from a Dell comic book promoting the movie); plus a section on "Stanley Kubrick," featuring an 11-page overview of his involvement in Spartacus and 15 or so pages of storyboard sketches the Kube made on-set.

    So will that be enough?

    — Alexandra DuPont

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