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Click above to purchase "Spartacus: The Criterion Collection" at amazon.com

 

Spartacus
The Criterion Collection

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Studio: Criterion

Running Time: 196 minutes

Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis

Written by Dalton Trumbo

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Retail Price: $49.95

Features: Audio Commentaries featuring cast members, producer, designer, novelist, restoration expert, screenwriter. Additional Music Cues, Deleted Scenes, Newsreel Footage, Promotional Interviews, Behind the Scenes footage, "The Hollywood Ten" Documentary, Storyboards and Sketches, Production Stills, Lobby Cards, Print Ads, Comic Book and Original Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.2:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, Chapter Search

Gird your loins. Grab a bowl or two of oysters and/or snails (or popcorn should your allergies be against shellfish). Toss that disc of GLADIATOR into the trash bin, and see for yourself exactly how Hollywood should make a sword and sandal epic film. The Criterion Collection's two disc set of 1962's historical epic SPARTACUS is all you'll need for hours upon hours of entertainment, extras and enlightenment. Without hesitation I would say that this moderately priced two disc set is far and away the best DVD release of a library title this year.

Produced by star Kirk Douglas, whose chiseled chin and clenched teeth line deliveries are perfectly in pitch for this role, SPARTACUS explores the issues of slavery in the pre-Julius Caesar Rome. A riot at a gladitorial school, stirred by the patrician elite's unquenchable desire for blood, sets the stage for a long-running slave rebellion, led by Douglas' Spartacus. The all-star cast includes Jean Simmons as Spartacus' common-law-wife, John Gavin as Julius Caesar, Peter Ustinov as the owner of the gladiator school for slaves, Charles Laughton as a corpulent Roman senator, John Dall as a centurion with dreams of power, Sir Laurence Olivier as Dall's patron; a bisexual representation of the debauchery that was Rome and in a believable performance: Tony Curtis as Antoninus, a "singah of sahngs." Though listed as director, Stanley Kubrick actually came aboard after original director Anthony Mann bowed out. (Kubrick later disowned SPARTACUS, and it stands as one of the few films of warmth in the Kubrick filmography). Unlike any other Kubrick film, this one allows us time to get to know the characters, and actually develop a fondness for them; we do care about the romance between Lavinia and Spartacus, we are drawn to the delightful Batiatus (as were Academy Award voters, giving Ustinov the Oscar® for his performance) and Laughton cuts an imposing figure as a senator with a hidden agenda. Tony Curtis may seem an unlikely casting choice as the magician/poet Antoninus, but his charm not necessarily his talent carries him through - - the same charm that works even better in Blake Edwards' THE GREAT RACE several years later. Laurence Olivier subtly slinks as he seethes with sensuality, and the long-suppressed "bathing scene," where Crassus unsuccessfully tries to seduce Antoninus, is a classic display of subtextual acting (even if most of Olivier's dialogue was looped in the restoration by none other than Sir Anthony Hopkins). Even more overt is a later scene with John Gavin's Julius Caesar in the Roman baths which somehow skimmed right over the censors' heads.

The picture is a revelation in clarity and color. Very few signs of the film's age are evident; and when there are artifacts, ample explanation is given by restorer Robert Harris, whose portion of the Audio Commentary takes everything into account. Framed at a gargantuan 2.2:1 aspect ratio (one of Kubrick's few wide, widescreen films), not to mention being anamorphically enhanced, this transfer more than adequately fills the frame with a delightful array of hues which remain true to the director's intentions. Scenes which take place in half-shadow - - Spartacus' first encounter with Varinia - - bear little graininess in the darkest areas, with contrast at close enough to reference quality. Edge enhancement presents no problems. This being a huge, cast-of-thousands epic, though, I heartily recommend viewing on a very large screen. Detail, right down to the infamous Kirk Douglas chin cleft, is top-notch as legion upon legion of Roman soldiers fill the screen for the film's climactic battle scene. From the impressive Saul Bass-designed opening credits straight on through to the miles of crucified gladiators, "Spartacus" Super-Technirama-70 presentation is a stunning saga.

The quality of "Spartacus" is likely to please even the most jaded of viewers, possibly raising a rousing cheer of "I'm Spartacus" at the appropriate moment; or even a whispered "I love you, Spartacus" at two other key plot points. Listening to the newly mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround presentation, Alex North's score rattles and booms with distinction of instruments rarely heard. Dialogue, thanks to the restorative efforts, is clean and precise, never getting lost in the mix. Sir Anthony Hopkins' re-dubbing of the late Laurence Olivier's lines pose no problems, but unfortunately Anthony's contribution is pretty much limited to the infamous "Snails and Oysters" scene, the dialogue in which sounds reminiscent of pick-up lines that Hannibal Lector might use. As with many films of this age, the frontal sound stage is well-used, often with directional dialogue. From the clashing of the swords, to the delights of Dalton Trumbo's dialogue, this presentation, with its far too infrequent use of the .1 channel, is a powerful use of sound. A Dolby Digital Surround track is also included.

The second disc offers a true treasure trove of information related to the film. A great deal of material is dedicated to the Hollywood blacklist, and the repercussions that roiled Hollywood when Dalton Trumbo (one of the so-called Hollywood Ten) was finally given the benefit of non-anonymity as a screenwriter by producer Douglas. There's very little of the fluff material often associated with "Special Editions" as the 1960 documentary "The Hollywood Ten" proves. Told from the viewpoints of the jailed Hollywood Ten, the documentary reminds us of the contributions each and every one of the accused brought to film making. There are additional text documents which give a strong sense of the climate and history of the McCarthy era.

Stars Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov are on ample display in newsreel footage, and interview reels. Douglas gives us a tour of the California-based "school for gladiators," while Simmons and Ustinov are presented in "open-ended" television interview segments. These black and white interviews were done so that local television stations could fool their audiences into believing they had exclusive interviews with the stars, and we only hear the stars responses, not the questions. The original re-release trailer is included as well, in very rough condition. The deleted scenes represented are actually alternate cuts, for the most part, including an ending which eliminates all shots of the crucified Spartacus along the Appian Way.

With the abundance of epic films reaching the dvd market, SPARTACUS stands head and shoulders above the throng.

Other features include conversations, as an alternate audio track, with a pre-stroke Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Howard Fast (author of the source novel) whose our grapes attitude is wearing, former blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (yet another alternate audio track) which is an analytical account of the screenplay, credits' designer Saul Bass, further exploration of Alex North's knockabout score in several pages of text and four score variations which can be accessed through the screen writer's analysis index, and last, but certainly not least, a short but informative demonstration of Robert Harris' worthwhile restoration work. All of this, PLUS a comic book version of "Spartacus!" Criterion deserves credit for not only chapter encoding the film, but making the commentaries easily accessable through their own specific indexes. Of these special features, the interviews are holdovers from the deluxe laserdisc, also from Criterion, set released at a hefty price tag nearly three times as much as this set's asking price.

It seems that suddenly there is a glut on the market of the grand epics of the early 1960's: "Ben-Hur," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Cleopatra" and "Lawrence of Arabia" all appeared on DVD within the span of a year! Each and everyone of these titles demands a major time investment, and often that time investment pays off big-time, as is the case with "Spartacus." Comparisons are inevitable, but unnecessary: "Spartacus" is the most "popcorn" movie of the bunch - - no enigmatic hero, Spartacus is as up-front as the dimple on Kirk's chin; no studio-enforced love angle, the affairs of Spartacus and Varinia are organic; no "All About Eve"-like witticisms, Dalton Trumbo's screenplay presents a believable time and space inhabited by real characters who are portrayed by a remarkable ensemble of actors, with no cardboard acting at all. In terms of time and money, "Spartacus," with its invaluable collection of features, and its carefully preserved restoration, reins in head and shoulders above the rest.

(4.5/5 - NOT included in final score)

(5/5)

(5/5)

(5/5)

(5/5, NOT an average)

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