The tale of a Thracian who became the divining and heroic rebel against Rome's social injustices has since entered the realm of global mythology, thanks mostly to Spartacus (1960); a somewhat problematic thinking man’s epic that follows one man’s exploits from mining slave to gladiator-in-training, and finally, defiant freedom fighter, destined for the annals of history – or, at the very least, movie-land folklore. In this latter legacy, the real Spartacus might very well have taken pride; deified on celluloid as the triumphant instigator of one of the most emphatic uprisings against the Roman Republic. To the movie’s everlasting credit and/or blessing, too little is known about the real Spartacus to debate the point. What remains as fragmented history is both contradictory and unreliable. Apart from the general consensus shared by most historians, that Spartacus was a formidable, self-taught and accomplished military strategist, we can sincerely doff our caps to director, Stanley Kubrick, producer/star, Kirk Douglas and screen scenarist, Dalton Trumbo for concocting this rough-hewn but all too mortal god among men from a very sketchy past.
It would behoove the viewer to reconsider two ‘mere points of interest’ from a historical standpoint; first, nothing about the uprisings led by Spartacus suggests the end result of the rebellion was ever the abolition of slavery from the Republic; second, the rabble banded together under Spartacus were hardly altruistic in their principles, committing avenging atrocities against their enemy every bit as vial as the perceived evil they sought to destroy. Ah well, it’s only a movie and one that Kubrick, in later years, would disavow as belonging to his canon of noted masterworks. The point is well-taken, as Spartacus really doesn’t play like a Kubrick opus magnum, but a curiosity, and not altogether successful amalgam of the ensconced ‘Bible-fiction’ colossus from the 1950’s meets the, then contemporary historical epic from the sixties, with a tinge of Douglas’ machismo for creating physically strong/emotionally masculine heroes, this time with a sting of McCarthyism attached. In some ways, Spartacus is a mutt, Kubrick taking hold of the already tattered and very strained reigns first held by director, Anthony Mann after a severe falling out with Douglas over the decision to promote the movie as written by Dalton Trumbo.
For those unfamiliar, following his branding by HUAC as a communist sympathizer – one of the infamous ‘Hollywood Ten’ – Trumbo was an anathema in Hollywood, despite steadily working behind the scenes under various pseudonyms – Tinsel Town’s hypocrisy knowing no limits. Yet, even before Spartacus had its world premiere, word leaked out Trumbo would appear under his own name in the credits; right-wing gossip maven, Hedda Hopper and staunch conservative, John Wayne coming after the production with hammer and tong, declaring it as blatant ‘Marxist propaganda.’ Indeed, even Kubrick bristled at what he called Trumbo’s ‘stupid moralizing’; Trumbo drawing parallels between the oppressions under Roman law and those incurred by the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’. In retrospect, Douglas would have a rather bad time of Spartacus; most of it of his own choosing. Three years earlier, he had entrusted Kubrick to do him proud in Paths of Glory (1957). Now, he fought almost daily with every creative decision Kubrick attempted to impose upon the production; afterward, publicly declaring he would never again appear in another picture for the director; a relief to Kubrick too, I’m sure.
Kirk Douglas today holds a hallowed place in cinema history, both for his contributions in front of and behind the camera; also, for his longevity in the industry, despite a debilitating stroke that threatened both his career and life in 1996. But in 1960, Douglas was somewhat high on his list of accomplishments and steadfastly determined to transform Spartacus into an epic to put all previous efforts to shame; a tall order Douglas believed both Kubrick and his cinematographer, Russell Metty were failing to achieve for him. Indeed, Douglas, by his own account, attacked Kubrick with a folding chair after one particularly heated argument in which Kubrick suggested all close-ups of Spartacus on the crucifix be excised. As for Metty, he was bitterly unhappy from the start, eventually walking off the set after a kerfuffle with Kubrick. Undaunted, Kubrick turned to his own training as a photographer and became the de facto cinematographer for the rest of the shoot. Metty was so incensed by Kubrick’s chutzpah he asked Douglas that his own name be stricken from the credits. For one reason or another, Douglas ignored this request, despite being well aware Metty had all but bowed out of the production after only a few days. When Spartacus won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, the statuette ironically went to Metty, whose sole screen credit had remained intact.
Throughout its arduous shoot, Kirk Douglas was to discover being one’s own Cecil B. DeMille could be very expensive. Spartacus was produced by Douglas’ independent company, Bryna Productions. Even so, he had committed himself to a hefty $12,000,000 budget; $40,000 alone spent on recreating the gladiator training school, populated by 187 extras. It’s no secret Douglas was chronically displeased with Dalton Trumbo’s reshaping the screenplay as a political commentary on the Cold War. A passionate Zionist, Douglas would have preferred a parallel drawn between Spartacus and the plight of the Jewish people. Douglas also encountered chronic protest from co-star, Charles Laughton who, on more than one occasion, threatened to sue, as he felt his own part lacked moral integrity. As none of Laughton’s bristling ever came to much beyond a threat, Douglas wisely deduced the old ham was attempting to have his way. Slyly, Douglas put Sir Peter Ustinov in charge of some minor rewrites, to add potency and ever so slight embellishments to Laughton’s part. As shooting dragged on, cast began to suspect the production was spiraling out of control. They were not far off. Working diligently, though at an excruciatingly slow pace Kubrick’s habitual retakes began to wear thin on Douglas’ patience and finances. Ustinov, who played Batiatus – the slave trader – would later joke the film took so long to make that by the time he had completed his commitments to it his infant daughter, born shortly before principle photography began, had graduated kindergarten. When asked what her father did for a living, the girl replied, “Spartacus!”
Spartacus begins on a desolate backdrop of cliffs in the 1st century B.C. The Roman Republic has been irreversibly corrupted; its menial labor performed by captured men and women made to endure Roman bondage. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a noble savage, possessing rare intellect, refuses to bow to the wills of this unjust system. He hamstrings one of the Roman guards after being whipped – an act certain to lead to his brutal death. A cruel twist of fate intervenes, however, as the obsequious slave trader, Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) arrives in search of new trainees for his gladiator school. Spartacus has good muscle tone and with a little training will fetch a handsome price in the arena. Spartacus is brought back in chains to Batiatus’ training camp, Batiatus instructing his trainer, Marcellus (Charles McGraw) – a freed former gladiator – to relentlessly ride Spartacus in an attempt to break his spirit, while simultaneously building up his stamina for the predestined fights he will be forced to perform inside the Roman coliseum. Spartacus takes a subtle interest in Varinia (Jean Simmons); a serving slave whom he refuses to exploit for his own pleasure after she is presented to him as ‘nightly entertainment’ to be quietly observed by Batiatus and Marcellus. Instead, Spartacus vehemently declares “I am not an animal” to which Varinia coolly admits, “Neither am I.” She is promptly removed from Spartacus’ cell and made the object of pleasure for another gladiator in training; leaving Spartacus to brood alone.
The next afternoon, Batiatus receives an unexpected visit from Roman Senator, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) who is already plotting to become dictator of Rome. On nothing more than a whim, Crassus buys Varinia as his own house servant. He also purchases several pairs of slaves, including Spartacus, to amuse his guests, Marcus Glabrus (John Dall) and Claudia Marius (Joanna Barnes) with a staged fight to the death. Batiatus attempts to broker favor with Crassus while encouraging him to make another choice. Spartacus is prized. It is therefore such a waste to sacrifice him on a whim. But with Claudia’s goading, Crassus orders the death match to ensue. Spartacus is paired with Draba (Woody Strode), an African colossus who, upon disarming his opponent, nevertheless spares Spartacus’ life. Crassus is not amused – less so, when Draba struggles to attack them on their balcony with his spear. Crassus ruthlessly slits the African’s throat before departing Batiatus’ home in a huff with Lavinia and another slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis) in tow. Crassus is drawn to Antoninus for his youthful muscularity. The next afternoon, Spartacus organizes his first victory; revenge for Draba’s murder by leading his fellow gladiators in a harrowing revolt against Marcellus and the rest of Batiatus’ guards, eventually drowning Marcellus in a boiling pot of soup before instructing his men to tear down their iron-gated prison. The rabble lays siege to the estate, pillaging and then torching the house and grounds. Alas, Batiatus has already left for Rome and is spared their wrath.
Buoyed by their conquest, the escapees elect Spartacus their leader. With no definite plan, except to live as free men, Spartacus and his troops conquer and destroy many Roman estates, liberating their slaves and collecting enough money to buy safe passage from the Cilician pirates. Spartacus’ army grows exponentially; news of his victories incurring ire within the Roman Senate. Spartacus is pleasantly surprised to learn Varinia is among the latest arrivals. Antoninus also joins this self-sufficient community as a singer of songs, having eluded Crassus’ sexual advances. Although Spartacus suffers from feelings of inadequacy, due to his lack of formal education, he nevertheless proves himself an inspiration to his people. Varinia is moved by his passion and protestations for the day when all men shall live as they please. Although the couple is never formally married, Varinia becomes Spartacus’ wife, eventually bearing him a child. In the meantime, Antoninus comes to regard Spartacus as the father he has never known.
As Rome learns of Spartacus’ uninterrupted triumphs, the Senate begins to deliberate. Crassus’ populist opponent, Gracchus (Charles Laughton) grows more powerful via his alliance with a very young, Julius Caesar (John Gavin); putting forth Caesar as a viable alternative to Crassus. Alas, Gracchus has misjudged Caesar’s loyalty; moreover, Caesar’s growing popularity with the masses, destined to eclipse both Crassus’ authority and prove unmanageable via his own wily manipulations. In the meantime, Gracchus bribes the Cilician pirates to usher Spartacus and his legions out of Italy. Caesar, who is more aligned with Crassus’ thirst for power, regards Gracchus’ maneuvering as beneath him, and ultimately switches his loyalties to Crassus; a shrewd, if very temporary, political move that places Gracchus’ autonomy in question and, indeed, threatens his safety. However, Crassus is no fool. This time, he exploits another bribe to force the pirates to abandon Spartacus and force the rebel armies up the coastline towards Rome.
Amid a public panic that Spartacus aspires to sack Rome, the Senate gives Crassus absolute power. Spartacus will be the sacrificial lamb in this high stakes game of politics. Ever noble and determined to stand for something while others cower under Roman law, Spartacus convinces his loyal men to die fighting. Just by standing their ground they will have struck a blow for freedom. Alas, it is the shallowest of victories as, during the ensuing battle, most of Spartacus’ slave army is butchered by Crassus’ organized legions. Ordered to seek out the real Spartacus for a very special punishment, the surviving men, led in chains before Crassus, shield their leader from this fate, shouting one by one, "I am Spartacus!" Unable to deduce the liars from the real Spartacus, Crassus orders every last rebel be put to death by crucifixion along the Via Appia. Meanwhile, having taken Varinia and Spartacus’ newborn prisoner, Crassus brokers compensation by making Varinia his devoted wife. When she spurns him, Crassus jealously seeks out Spartacus, forcing him into a fight to the finish with Antoninus. The survivor will be crucified.
To spare Antoninus this hellish demise, Spartacus performs a mercy killing instead. Now worried more about Caesar’s rise to power, Crassus commences with the mass crucifixions. It will assert his authority and bring about an ominous end to the legend of Spartacus. To escape a similar fate, Gracchus commits suicide. Shortly before his demise, however, he bribes Batiatus to spirit Varinia and Spartacus’ young son to freedom. Disguised on their way out of Rome, even as the bloodied bodies of these sacrificed men bake in the stifling noonday sun, Batiatus’ carriage is ordered to stop for inspection by a Roman guard. Realizing they are in grave peril of being discovered, Batiatus lies to the guards about Varinia being his wife. Meanwhile, Varinia finds Spartacus’ stretched across one of the crucifixes. Momentarily, she comforts him, revealing his infant son who is destined to grow up a free man. Ordered to drive on by the guards, Batiatus nervously collects Varinia, their carriage speeding off into the distant horizon; the road lined on both sides with the dying remnants of Spartacus’ army.
For its time, Spartacus was a unique hybrid of the time-honored sword and sandal Roman epic – virtually void of any direct references to Christianity or Jesus. Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay remains true to the spirit of the period and his own experience as part of the infamous ‘Hollywood Ten’; HUAC’s hearings paralleled in the climactic scene where the slaves are ordered by Crassus to give up their leader, but instead defiantly declare, “I am Spartacus” to mask his true identity. The analogies ran deeper still as Howard Fast, on whose novel the movie is based, had written Spartacus while in jail for refusing to testify during the hearings. Spartacus also took subtler jabs in the fight to abolish segregation in the South; the character of Draba portrayed in cohabitation and ‘friendship’ with the other gladiators; Trumbo making his most direct appeal by referring to Rome as “fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery”, while describing Spartacus as a “proud, rebellious son dreaming of the death of slavery, 2000 years before it finally would die.”
For his part, Stanley Kubrick was rather dissatisfied with the final outcome; put off considerably by the fact his hero had no perceivable character flaws. Then, barely thirty years old, Kubrick had already well-established his penchant for creating multilayered character studies and felt Spartacus a decidedly one-dimensional creation by design. And although Spartacus marked Kubrick’s grandest film-making effort to date, shot in Super 70 Technirama to achieve ultra-clarity and depth of focus, even the picture’s box office success and critical accolades could not convince Kubrick to embrace it as a part of his film-maker’s canon. Initially, Kubrick had wanted to shoot the entire picture in Rome where the costs of making an epic were considerably cheaper. Universal Pictures then president, Edward Muhl effectively vetoed this prospect, determined to prove a successful epic could be shot in Hollywood at a time when most were being made abroad.
During this early period in Kubrick’s career, he found working on location to be a distraction. Hence, all of the ‘intimate scenes’ in the picture were photographed on soundstages in Hollywood. To some degree, the effect is both jarring and unsatisfactory; illustrating an obvious disconnect between the artificial ‘outdoor’ sets and the real thing, photographed on vast plains just outside of Madrid, Spain, where Kubrick staged some of Spartacus’ epic battle sequences, utilizing more than 8000 of the country’s infantry to double for the Roman legions. After an early preview, Kubrick was advised to tone down the ‘gore’ in these battle sequences; an executive decision that all but ruined his ambitions to create realism in support of his own ‘anti-war’ stance. In the final analysis, Kubrick sacrificed his integrity to please the money men, a decision ultimately to cause him to disown the picture, despite its critical and financial success. Never again would Kubrick secede creative control on any of his movies; his increasingly intractable persona as cinema purist eventually pegging Kubrick as a unique visionary and genius.
This is Universal Home Video’s second bite at a hi-def Blu-ray release for Spartacus. Their first, in 2010, was an unmitigated disaster; fraught by virtually every misfire known to plague a badly mismanaged 1080p release; poorly achieved color timing, causing flesh tones to adopt a lobster red patina, and a clumsy reframing of the Technirama image that in no way presented even an approximation of the experience as originally seen in theaters. To suggest fans were appalled by the ‘effort’ is putting things mildly – and rightfully so. By then Spartacus had suffered many indignities, including a 1967 reissue with nearly 25 minutes of footage excised. This was later reinstated, along with fourteen additional minutes, by film restoration expert, Robert A. Harris, for the movie’s 1991 limited theatrical reissue and subsequent home video releases. In performing this minor miracle, it was discovered the original camera negatives were virtually unusable, having been cut twice and badly faded. Hence, the 1991 restoration was derived from B&W separation prints at a then staggering cost of $1 million; a goodly sum going to the creation of new lens to re-photograph the full Technirama image without any loss in fidelity. The ’91 restoration would also recall Tony Curtis – then 66 years young – to re-record some missing dialogue, with veteran actor, Anthony Hopkins subbing in for Laurence Olivier, who had died two years before.
Spartacus on Blu-ray this second time around is nothing short of a revelation. Color-balancing has restored the ‘lost’ green record; almost completely absent from the original Blu-ray release. The results are, frankly, startling; truer than anticipated flesh tones that pop in their own right, but have been toggled back in their register and now illustrate the glaringly obvious shortcomings of the previous release. Even more of an eye-opener is the reinstated information on all four sides of the film frame; the full width and length of the Technirama image providing a startling contrast to the severely cropped original 1080p release. Personally, I had no idea so much of the image had been cropped on the old Blu-ray. Better still, fine details have tightened up considerably, creating a sense of depth as yet unseen on any home video release. Contrast is beautifully realized and film grain has been exquisitely preserved, making the digital scrubbing of the old Blu-ray all the more undesirable and – again – noticeable by direct comparison. While film purists are generally critical and quick to point out that no home video release can ever ‘recreate’ the opening night splendor of the original theatrical experience, I suspect Universal’s new Blu-ray of Spartacus will accurately be assessed as coming the closest to what audiences first witnessed in 1960.
The new 7.1 DTS audio is another welcomed surprise; crystal clear, clean and palpably more aggressive during the effects-laden action sequences; also perfectly capturing all the subtler resonance during dialogue-driven scenes, with Alex North’s experimental underscore really coming into its own. The one heartbreaking omission that continues to plague this new Blu-ray release of Spartacus is in the extra features department. Virtually none of the old Criterion Home Video add-ons have been ported over, for obvious rights issues. That said, we lose the comprehensive audio commentary recorded expressly for the Criterion release by producer-actor, Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist, Howard Fast, producer, Edward Lewis, restoration expert, Robert A. Harris, and titles designer, Saul Bass; a considerable – even tragic – loss of back story on the making of the movie. Gone too are Dalton Trumbo's scene-by-scene analyses, the unearthed additional Alex North compositions and the 1960 documentary, The Hollywood Ten.
Universal has retained all of the extras from their flubbed 2010 Blu-ray (including four deleted scenes, and archival Interviews with Ustinov and Simmons, vintage newsreels and image galleries etc.), but the original interview recorded for Criterion in 1991 by Ustinov is also absent herein. In place, Universal has given us a ten minute tribute to the film’s star, featuring a newly recorded interview with Kirk Douglas – at 98 years young, still a force to be reckoned. If nothing else, I Am Spartacus: A Conversation, illustrates time has not stood still for this movie-land icon. Douglas is one of our last direct links to that evaporated golden age of Hollywood. He will sadden a lot of hearts when he passes. Finally, there is an all too brief nine minute featurette on the new ‘restoration’ efforts put forth to make this Blu-ray a reality. It’s informative, but far too brief to be considered comprehensive. Several years ago, in an interview I conducted with noted film historian and Twilight Time founder, Nick Redman, it was explained to me how the studios consider ‘extra features’ a ‘necessary evil’ rather than a responsibility to augment their formidable cinema heritage. At the time, I thought this a very sad commentary on the general attitude of studios towards their own history. Nothing on this disc has changed my mind. Regardless, this new Blu-ray is an extraordinary and, I would argue, flawless upgrade. I am generally not in favor of ‘double-dipping’ but in Spartacus’ case, a repurchase is definitely in order. With this offering, fans of the movie will be getting the best possible bang for their buck. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)