Spartacus 55th Anniversary Restoration Review
It’s not often you'd think of Stanley Kubrick as being a jobbing director for hire, given his long-held status as auteur-in-chief at Warner Bros right up until his death in 1999, but such a situation occurred after he made the WWI masterpiece Paths of Glory in 1957 with Kirk Douglas. Even though it was fairly well received critically (certain parts of Europe aside) it was a box office dud and Kubrick spent the next two years in fruitless pursuit of more work. At the same time, Douglas was setting up Spartacus, his pet project about the Roman slave revolt led by the titular Thracian, and production on this vast studio epic had begun in earnest with director Anthony Mann at the helm.
However, friction quickly grew between producer/star Douglas and Mann, and the latter was summarily fired only a week into shooting. In urgent need of a new director Douglas had only one name in mind: his friend and prior collaborator Stanley Kubrick (who, Douglas maintains, he'd wanted all along but initially the studio wouldn't allow it). Kubrick assented to take on this more commercial endeavour, having grown slightly concerned that he’d spent long enough on the sidelines, and he hoped to be able to impart some measure of his own artistic influence onto a production that was already in full swing.
Adapted from Howard Fast’s novel by the blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo (after Fast had himself attempted a screenplay draft) the story concerns Spartacus, a man born into slavery in pre-Christian times, whom we first meet toiling under the yoke of his Roman overlords. Staked out to die for yet another act of unbridled insolence, his tenacity is appreciated by Batiatus, a touring Roman who specialises in gladiatorial entertainments. Spartacus is traded into Batiatus’ gladiator school where he’s trained in the art of combat, catching the eye of his antagonistic handler Marcellus who delights in tormenting his star pupil - not least when the comfort women are doled out and Spartacus falls in love with Varinia, a girl from Britannia, whom he steadfastly refuses to take advantage of (much to the amusement of his masters).
But even though they’ve yet to have a match beyond the walls of the compound the gladiators are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of Crassus, a visiting Roman senator, and he's so smitten with Varinia that he buys her on the spot. The deadly games push Spartacus close to the edge but the loss of Varinia is what sends him over it, turning on his tormentors and lighting the touchpaper on an uprising which may eventually threaten Rome herself. Crassus seizes this opportunity to extend his political power in the Senate, sparring with the pragmatic Gracchus (and his young protégé Julius Caesar) who fears that his adversary intends to lead Rome down the path of dictatorship. As Spartacus’ burgeoning slave army gains ever more ground in its march towards the southern seas and freedom, Crassus manoeuvres his pieces into place for an assault not only on the serf horde but democracy itself, seeking to turn Republic into Empire.
Spartacus is a still a polished piece of cinematic splendour some 55 years later, with the lavish production design, the beautiful widescreen imagery and a literal cast of thousands combining to create the sort of classic Hollywood glamour that today’s blockbusters could only dream of achieving. It’s a film of two distinct strands, that of the cynical politics of the Romans (laced with barbs about the latter-day witch-hunt that was the HUAC) and the slaves’ earnest quest for freedom, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find Batiatus, Gracchus et al to be more entertaining than Spartacus and his band. This is due in part to the writing as Spartacus is a singularly noble figure with scarcely any foibles or vices; oh, he’s every bit the heroic leader but he’s also a wee bit boring, and not even Kirk Douglas’ chisel-jawed performance can add any real shading. His acolytes don't fare any better, as Tony Curtis’ Antoninus (having fled from Crassus' amorous advances in the infamous 'snails and oysters' scene which was reinstated for the 1991 version) has little do but stand around and look pretty, and although Jean Simmons has a spark of contempt about her as Varinia she’s also not much more than set dressing at times.
Aside from the writing, Douglas is outshone by a trio of English acting legends, their Roman characters hogging the limelight as they plot and scheme. Laurence Olivier is in imperious form as the coolly-spoken Crassus, the formal dialogue flowing from his lips like some honeyed concoction, mixed with an occasional beat of swift, breathtaking brutality that reminds us he’s not to be trifled with. Then there’s Charles Laughton as Gracchus, making little attempt to conceal his Yorkshire accent which gives the character something of the feel of the working man versus the ingrained nobility of Olivier’s character, who is initially outmanoeuvred by Gracchus’ machinations before turning the tables on his rival. But it’s Peter Ustinov as Batiatus who steals the show - and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar with it - as he cosies up to Rome’s ruling elite in a vain effort to boost his lowly status as a provider of grist for the gladiatorial mill. Ustinov’s timing is impeccable, wringing laughs out of every obsequious line that he utters, and although his character only bookends the film he makes the biggest impression by far.
Spartacus won a total of four Academy Awards, as many as were ever garnered by a Kubrick movie (the exquisite Barry Lyndon also waltzed off with four), but seeing as it’s one of his least idiosyncratic works I’m not sure whether that’s a glowing recommendation or not! Certain of his tropes were already in place so it may not seem quite so ill-fitting in the director’s oeuvre at first glance; the movie was adapted from a source novel (which Kubrick preferred to something he’d written himself because he reasoned he’d have no objectivity with an original story he’d created) and features that core Kubrickian tenet of the misfit, the outsider, the troublemaker who always pushes back against authority. But beyond mere coincidence he had a negligable amount of input into the script, finding the overall experience to be somewhat thankless owing to the sizeable ego of Kirk Douglas, and the movie bears little of his signature in terms of its look or sound. Kubrick regularly butted heads with Director of Photography Russell Metty who also picked up an Oscar (though there are some eye-catching crane shots that are redolent of Kubrick's work), and he had to use a traditional music score by Alex North as opposed to his penchant for existing compositions.
In some respects Spartacus seems more like a ‘lost’ Kubrick film (or rather one that never was) than even some of his earlier works, the director having to bend his will to accommodate studio politics, the censors, and the demands of his leading man, but he emerged all the better for it. The critical and commercial success of the film ensured that Kubrick was now firmly established as one of Hollywood’s brightest directorial talents (having only just entered his thirties) and he wielded the clout to make anything that he pleased, starting his long relationship with Warners on his next film, Lolita. While Spartacus may not spring to many cineaste’s lips as their choice of Kubrick’s best it's still an absorbing spectacle and one that filmmakers have paid homage to several times over the years, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in particular. Unfortunately it hasn’t received the treatment on high-def media that it has truly deserved, until now…
For this review I'll be looking at the new 55th Anniversary 'Restored Edition' Blu-ray, released in the US by Universal on a region-free Blu-ray disc with a UV copy enrobed in a smart slipcase (the equivalent UK version is available to buy from here: Shopping@TheDigitalFix). The cover proudly touts the fact that Spartacus has been “fully restored from large format 35mm original film elements” and before you say anything, the "35mm" part is not an error; it's true that the movie was exhibited on 70mm but it was shot on a horizontally-deployed variant of 35mm called Technirama. This method used double the total negative area of normal 35mm and employed a 1.5x anamorphic squeeze to create a high quality widescreen image that was ideal for printing up to 70mm without the expense of shooting on the latter format, and such 70mm presentations were credited as Super Technirama 70, as was the case here.
The film has had a chequered past in terms of preservation, having been cut into various versions over the years before being rescued by restoration experts Robert Harris and Jim Katz (with some transatlantic input from Kubrick) in 1991, adding as much material cut from the original premiere version as could be found. Unfortunately the 8-perf 35mm negative had faded so much that the restorers, working entirely in the photochemical realm, had to revert to the original separation masters (yellow, cyan and magenta elements that were output to black and white film) to recombine the colour and then optically output the image onto 70mm to create new preservation masters. While the end result was certainly the best it could’ve been with the methods at their disposal, things have moved on at pace in the realm of film restoration in the near-quarter century since. Having been scanned at 6K and finished at 4K for optimal quality, they've used the latest techniques to marry the faded original with the separate colour records, breathing new life into the waning negative. The end result, presented here in 1080p in the original 2.20 widescreen aspect, is nothing short of a revelation.
Detail levels are rendered with ultra-fine clarity, the minutiae of the long shots visible far into the distance while every line and wrinkle on Mr Douglas' face is startlingly clear. The colour loses that horrid rust-red tint from the previous Universal Blu-ray and has been replaced by a more varied palette, with primaries looking gorgeously saturated and skin tones displaying a pleasing level of nuance, the slaves sporting golden bronze tans while Jean Simmons’ skin is rather more pink and delicate. Contrast is strong with rich, deep black levels, and although the shadows skew slightly towards blue on occasion that’s a trade-off of having to imbibe the colour from another source, as the balance may not be perfect but it’s as good as it could possibly be without pushing more important elements of the colour out of kilter. As befits a large format production there’s a light dusting of very fine grain, imbuing a sense of true film-like texture, and the overly smooth "grease paint" sheen of the old Blu-ray has been eradicated. At the start of the battle at around 2hrs 30mins the grain becomes coarser and it takes on a mildly ‘digital’ appearance which lasts for about 15 minutes or so, even in the shots which weren't part of the optical 'doubling' of the Roman army, but this section may have needed more help than others (perhaps it had to recombined entirely from the separations rather than the camera negative?) so that’s not a complaint but an observation.
Dirt, debris and damage are conspicuous only by their utter absence, and the new scan has no stability issues. There's a tiny amount of density flutter and there are a handful of opticals and dupes cut in, but those are par for the course for something shot on film and in no way detract from the final presentation. There are no outward signs of any misplaced efforts to sharpen or de-noise and the AVC encode has no problems with blocking, banding etc. You may notice that the shots of Ms Simmons are continually soft and diffused but this is entirely by design, as per the cinematographic conventions of the time. To sum up, this is not only one of the great restorations (overseen by Mr Harris and carried out by Universal) but is one of the best-looking pieces of HD software I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.
The audio has also been given an overhaul into lossless 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. The film was original exhibited in 6-track magnetic audio for its 70mm theatrical engagements (five screen channels and one surround, as I understand it) so this modern 7.1 track isn’t some bastardised upmix but a natural expansion of the original. The directional dialogue from the original Left Centre/Right Centre channels has been folded down into the mix, so even though we just have discrete Left, Centre and Right the dialogue still pans seamlessly across them and even appears to come from in-between them as ‘phantom’ speakers, it’s a lovely approximation of what the original 70mm layout must’ve sounded like. The dialogue itself is reproduced cleanly without undue harshness (though the ADR’d dialogue has a vaguely disembodied timbre, as it always does), and the sound effects in general are wonderfully crisp, like the clinking of chains and the clanking of swords.
Alex North’s grand music score, dominated by brass and strings, is reproduced with sublime precision and richness, and it’s great to just close your eyes as the Overture and Entr’acte are playing and hear the instruments precisely laid out in front of you (again using that ‘phantom’ five channel spread). The bass rarely calls attention to itself but it underpins the on-screen action in all the right places, and the same can be said of the rear four speakers of this mix which provide adequate atmospheric support, with the music bleeding to the back and the occasional bit of reverberated dialogue. The extra rear channels of the 7.1 were hardly necessary then over a standard 5.1 mix, but on the flip-side they’re not a distraction either, unlike some modern remixes that spring to mind. It all comes across without any noticeable hiss, pops or distortion and is a sterling example of how to update a mix with modern technology whilst fully respecting its origins.
The extra features carry over that which was available on the previous Blu-ray edition and add two new featurettes. First is I Am Spartacus, a 9-minute interview with the now 98-year-old Kirk Douglas, followed by another 9-minute piece that looks at the new restoration. (It’s not as in-depth as I’d like but then I am an absolute nerd for technical nitty gritty like that!) The extant special features encompass some alternate/deleted scenes, vintage newsreels, behind the scenes footage and stills galleries. Unfortunately the audio commentary, audio analysis, unused music cues, 1992 interview with Peter Ustinov and the short documentary The Hollywood Ten seen on the Criterion and European Special Edition DVDs are not present, so even with the new features this is hardly the definitive treasure trove of extra material for Spartacus. If you have one of those SE DVDs it’s worth hanging on to them.
If Universal have turned a new leaf with regards to properly respecting their film assets then this restored 55th Anniversary Edition of Spartacus is the surest indicator yet, following on from excellent remastered editions of Apollo 13 and The Breakfast Club. Peerless picture and sound are accompanied by a reasonable assemblage of extra features, and although certain existing special features are MIA the overall impression is still that of perfection, and it comes with my highest possible recommendation. Wonderful stuff.
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