Spartacus

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast)
Stars: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Marcus Licinius Crassus), Tony Curtis (Antoninus),Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Lentulus Batiatus), JohnGavin (Julius Caesar), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1960
Country: USA
Spartacus Poster

Despite everything that is good about Spartacus, in many people's minds it will foreverremain the one film Stanley Kubrick made as a "gun for hire." Brought in by actor/executive producerKirk Douglas after he fired the original director, Anthony Mann (El Cid), Kubrick came inwhen production was already well underway. He was responsible for helming the majority of thefilm, but it never feels like a Kubrick film. Although he managed to leave a few of his imprints on thefinished product, for the most part it looks as though it could have been made by any polisheddirector.

The film tells the story Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a slave who led a daring revolt in Italy against theRoman Empire about 73 B.C. When the film opens, Spartacus is purchased by Lentulus Batiatus(Peter Ustinov in an Oscar-winning role), a wealthy slave trader who runs a school for gladiators. Atthis school, the slaves-turned-gladiators are taught to fight each other to the death for the enjoyment ofRomans rich and debauched enough to enjoy such a spectacle. At the training school, Spartacus alsolearns love, when he meets the beautiful British slave girl, Varinia (Jean Simmons).

Finally fed up with being treated like an animal, Spartacus leads a revolt against the guards at theschool. They are quickly overrun, and the newly freed gladiators take off through the Italiancountryside, gathering numbers as they attack estates, freeing the slaves and pillaging the riches. Theirplan is to make it to Southern Italy where they will pay a large group of pirates to sail them far awayfrom the Roman Empire that had enslaved them.

Meanwhile, the film spends a great deal of time showing us the backstage antics of those in power inthe Roman Empire, namely the political warfare being waged between a senator with dictatorialambitions, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), and an older, more restrained senator,Gracchus (Charles Laughton). For 1960, the film was decidedly frank about Roman decadence,which gives it an edge that is lacking in too many sword-and-sandal epics of the era. The film containsa great deal of talk about Gracchus' fondness for many women, and he and Batiatus have an amusingconversation about why corpulent men are better people.

However, one key scene with heavy homosexual overtones was cut from the film and later restored tothe finished print in 1991. The scene shows Crassus being bathed by his slave, Antoninus (playedfairly badly by Tony Curtis). It includes a classic line where Crassus, after asking Antoninus if helikes to eat oysters or snails, says quietly, "My taste includes both oysters and snails,"which is a none-too-subtle code for his bisexuality. It is of little surprise that the Production CodeOffice demanded the removal of this scene, not so much because of the line itself, but because thescene in which it is uttered, shot through sheer curtains with lush music, is so heavily homoeroticized.

Kubrick took two years and a staggering $12 million to make Spartacus, and much of themoney was well-spent, especially in the extensive battle scene near the end of the film in whichSpartacus' army of slaves faces down the Roman legions. This magnificent staging of two armiesfacing each other across a plain and the ensuing battle is truly an epic of thousands (Mel Gibsonobviously took careful notes before filming Braveheart). Kubrick takes his time establishingthe parameters of the battle, giving us long, wide shots of the Roman army marching in perfectlyformed columns as they move forward, their numbers seeming to grow each moment as legionsseparate out and form new columns. The battle that follows is fast and furious, punctuated with quickmoments of graphic violence that were removed during most theatrical prints in 1960 (there is onebrief, shocking moment when Spartacus hacks off a Roman soldier's arm).

However, like many films from the 1960s, Spartacus is a classic that betrays its age. Someof the hairstyles are decidedly un-Roman (especially the women's, although Kirk Douglas' perfectlystyled flattop seems out of place, as well), and several lines of dialogue are wooden and awkward.Still, the film was groundbreaking in many ways, most notably Douglas' decision to hire screenwriterDalton Trumbo (A Guy Named Joe), one of the blacklisted members of the infamousHollywood Ten, to pen the screenplay when novelist Howard Fast did not satisfy in his attempts toadapt his own novel. Of course, Trumbo had worked steadily throughout the decade following hisyear of imprisonment in 1950 for refusing to answer questions and name names at the McCarthyhearings, but he had been denied screen credit because no one wanted to risk being associated with ablacklisted writer. Douglas was one of the first to break the blacklist by giving Trumbo screen credit,which was the beginning of the end of the hysterical McCarthy era.

Spartacus also pushed boundaries with its tragic ending that does not give its audiences avictorious hero, but rather a crucified one whose only salvation is the hope that all his fighting was notin vain. Without its ending, this grand, old-fashioned Roman epic (it runs well over three hours)would be more along the lines of something Cecil B. DeMille might have made. Spartacusstill stands out because it has a certain intelligence and underlying political agenda moving beneath itsgrand Technicolor surface (Trumbo managed to insert several digs at McCarthy, including a referenceto Crassus "making lists of the disloyal"). Looking back on the film more than 40 years later, some ofKubrick's resonant themes about dehumanization manage to shine through, especially in the earlyscenes at the gladiatorial school, which almost serve as a warm-up for the more intense dehumanizingthat takes place in the Marine boot camp in Full Metal Jacket (1987).

However, even for those detractors who might feel Kubrick sold out to the Hollywood establishmentwhen he made this film (even once), Spartacus is an undeniably rousing picture. Kubrick'svoice may have been muted, but it is there. You just have to listen for it.

Copyright ©1997, 2001 James Kendrick

Spartacus: CriterionCollection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.20:1
AnamorphicYes
AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround
LanguagesEnglish
SubtitlesEnglish
SupplementsAudio commentary by producer/star Kirk Douglas, actor Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast,producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's scene-by-scene analysis
Addition Alex North score compositions
Deleted scenes
Vintage newsreel footage
1960 promotional interviews with Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov
1992 interview with Peter Ustinov
Behind-the-scenes "Gladiatorial School" footage
The Hollywood Ten 1960 documentary
Archival documents about the blacklist
Original storyboards by Saul Bass
Production stills, lobby cards, posters, print ads, and a comic book
Theatrical trailer
Sketches by Stanley Kubrick
Restoration demonstration
DistributorThe CriterionCollection / Home Vision
SRP$49.95

VIDEO
The brand new anamorphic widescreen transfer in the film's originalSuper Technirama aspect ratio of 2.20:1 is simply superb. It is a definite improvement over thepreviously available Spartacus DVD from Universal, which was lacking anamorphicenhancement. The new transfer was taken from a 65-mm intermediate positive under the supervisionof Robert A. Harris, the restoration expert who brought Spartacus back to its full, uncutglory for a theatrical run in 1991. The image is brilliantly clear, and colors are dead-on. During thetransfer, painstaking color correction was done in accordance with acetate film segments from anoriginal dye transfer print approved by Stanley Kubrick in 1960 (because the dye transfer prints weremade from metal dyes, they don't fade over time, thus giving a true account of what the film shouldlook like). Thus, this DVD has brought the image quality of Spartacus in terms of true colorand density closer to Kubrick's original intentions than any other version available on home video(this is covered in the "Restoration Demonstration" supplement on the first disc). The Technicolorpalette looks marvelous, with vibrant reds, cool blues, and solid black levels. Detail is outstandingthroughout, especially in the detailed battle sequences. There are almost no nicks or other artifactsmarring the picture.

AUDIO
Transferred from a six-track discreet proscenium recording, thesoundtrack has been newly mixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and it sounds better than ever.While not nearly as aggressive as modern six-channel mixes, the soundtrack for Spartacussounds as good as any I've heard from that era. Alex North's eloquent orchestral score is brought toits full magisterial heights, and the battle sequences are appropriately loud and enveloping. While thefront soundstage is dominant throughout, the surround speakers are used quite often, mostly for themusical score, although sound effects are given depth and resonance through a limited use of imagingfrom front to rear. The low-frequency channel is not particularly deep, but it gives the battle scenes anotably thunderous quality.

SUPPLEMENTS
The extensive supplements on this two-disc set are essentially arepackaging of the three-disc laser-disc set Criterion released in 1992. The supplements are vast andvaried, and they give a detailed portrait of both the production of the film itself and the historicalbackground of the McCarthy era and the Hollywood blacklist that Spartacus challenged.

The first disc includes an excellent screen-specific commentary recorded in 1992 by producer/star KirkDouglas, actor Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expertRobert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass. The participants appear to have been recorded separatelyand then edited together, but the transitions are smooth throughout and the commentary is designed toallow each participant to speak in his area of expertise. Thus, Saul Bass's comments tend to be morescreen-specific in their discussion of particular scenes and the way he designed them, while KirkDouglas and Edward Lewis tend to speak in more general terms about the production history. HowardFast's comments are quite frank, as he feels no urge to hold back from complaining about scenes hedoesn't like (he is especially displeased about an early scene depicting Spartacus attacking a Romansoldier and biting him on the ankle, which makes him look like "a hairy brute"). Of course, theabsence of director Stanley Kubrick from the commentary track is certainly notable, although it's notsurprising. Even though he was alive and well when the track was recorded, Kubrick was alwaysreticent about discussing his own work, and he has gone on record in the past essentially disowningSpartacus since he was a hired gun. One of the nicest things about the commentary is that it,like the movie, it is divided into chapters according to what the participants are discussing.

A second commentary track includes the scene-by-scene analysis submitted by screenwriter DaltonTrumbo after viewing Kubrick's initial rough cut of the film. Of course, since Trumbo died in 1976,he was not around to record the commentary, so an actor assumes his voice. Nevertheless, it is allowsfor a fascinating glimpse of an intelligent and opinionated screenwriter deconstructing the film madefrom his script. This is the kind of supplement that makes Criterion special editions truly stand out.This track is also interspersed with alternate music tracks by Alex North that were ultimately neverused.

The first disc is rounded out with a brief restoration demonstration that shows the crucialcolor-correction process that is this transfer's most outstanding feature. Not only were various scenesgiven a less saturated palette that was more to Kubrick's intention (he especially disliked the reddishflesh tones that often result from the use of Technicolor), but Saul Bass's opening credits sequencehas been restored to its proper look for the first time on home video, and the difference is quiteastounding.

The second disc is all supplementary material. The liner notes included with the DVD note that therehave been five different versions of Spartacus over the years, the longest of which was a202-minute cut shown to preview audiences. Although most of the material that was cut from thatversion has been lost (the restored version presented here is 196 minutes), fragments remain, severalof which are presented in a deleted scenes section. These range from a slightly expanded version of ascene that currently exists in the film, to an audio fragment of an extended scene, to a treatment byTrumbo that is accompanied by a few surviving production stills.

Vintage newsreel footage from Universal Pictures includes the film's premiere in England and KirkDouglas being immortalized in front of Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. These are fluffpublic-relations pieces of course, but they're fascinating for their historical value (it is also interestingto note how the film's budget keeps changing from reel to reel; at one point it's a $5-million movie,then it's a $7-million movie, until finally, at the premiere, it is a $12-million movie). The disc alsoincludes a segment of behind-the-scenes footage at the gladiator school that was probably intended formarketing purposes, but was never used. Other vintage footage includes fluff 1960 interviews withJean Simmons and Peter Ustinov that demonstrate just how void of real content these cannedpublic-relations pieces can be. The Simmons interview is especially telling because it was filmed withmoments of silence in which Simmons pretends to be listening to a question so that local TV stationscould record their own anchor's voice onto the piece, thus creating the false illusion that he or sheactually interviewed Simmons. Much more engaging is a lengthy interview with Ustinov filmed in1992, in which he tells numerous anecdotes about the production. Ustinov is obviously a man wholoves to tell a good story, and he does a fabulous Charles Laughton impression that had me rollingwith laughter.

The most compelling supplements on the disc, however, deal with the McCarthy hearings and theblacklist that darkened the sky over Hollywood productions for nearly a decade. The 1960documentary The Hollywood Ten is justifiably self-righteous, since the 10 writers andproducers featured had been found in contempt of Congress for refusing to name names and wereabout to be sent to prison for a year. It's a compelling piece of history in which 10 men who werewilling to be imprisoned for standing up for what they believed are given a chance to explainthemselves. Of course, history has proved them right, but one has to keep in mind that, when thedocumentary was made, these men were vilified. Included with the documentary are a number ofdocuments pertaining the blacklist and various problems Spartacus ran into, including anextensive letter from Production Code chief Geoffery Shurlock about all the scenes that would have tobe cut from Spartacus in order to get a Production Code Seal (you will notice that virtuallyall of these scenes exist in the restored version).

Other supplements include color storyboards by Saul Bass, a theatrical trailer celebrating the film'swinning of four Oscars, sketches by director Stanley Kubrick, and hundreds of production stills,lobby cards, posters, and print ads. Also included in this section are a few dozen frames from ablack-and-white comic book adaptation of the movie.



Overall Rating: (3)




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