Spartacus (Criterion) Review

Mark Davis has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Spartacus (Criterion)

The Film
Spartacus is a film from the age when Hollywood made real epics. Where the crowd wasn’t digitally created. Where buildings were buildings and not CGI fakes. The script was written by Dalton Trumbo who was imprisoned in 1950 for a year as a member of the Hollywood Ten. This film is also notable as being the only Kubrick film where the man himself did not have complete control of the final result. He was merely a hired hand on this production. Executive Producer Kirk Douglas famously sacked the director Anthony Mann a few weeks into production and installed Kubrick as a replacement. As a result we are left with a Kubrick film that doesn’t feel particularly Kubrickian. In his all too rare interviews Kubrick says himself that he is unhappy with the result. I can understand his position but the film is a success despite his reservations.

I have to concede that my knowledge of this film up until now has been limited. I did see it on television a few years ago and I was impressed. As a great fan of Kubrick’s films it seems I have neglected this well regarded classic. Now I have a chance to see what Criterion have managed to achieve with this two-disc edition. As you’d expect this package is comprehensive to say the least.

The version on display here is the restored version of the film done in 1991 by Robert Harris from dye transfers approved by Kubrick. We see the film’s colours and tones exactly as Kubrick intended. Here we see some of the scenes excised from earlier versions, including the infamous “Snails and oysters” scene. We are also presented with the original Overture and Interval/Entr’acte sections as they would have been presented in the theatre. I am unable to compare this film to the original theatrical version in any great detail, as I do not have enough knowledge of the original cut. To give a quick rundown there have been five versions of this film, a 202-minute version shown to preview audiences, a 189-minute pre-censorship version, a 182-minute censored version, a 161-minute version from 1967 and this 196-minute version. Suffice to say this is the fully restored version and is as close to definitive as you are going to get.

I am not going to say a huge amount about the film itself, as it’s a well-known and well-loved classic. The cast, including Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov should give an indication of the acting quality on screen. The 3hrs 16 minutes fly by and I was utterly engrossed by the story from beginning to end. Everything from shot composition to the acting captures the epic feel. You are never left in any doubt as to what the big picture is here. Despite the breadth of the story on display it never skimps on character development. If you have never seen it then all I can say is that it is a love story, a political drama, a war film and an historical recreation all in one. It also has a dated charm about it, the “outdoor” scenes on a soundstage look quaint to say the least.

Unfortunately there are flaws, the scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo does tend to be a little heavy handed playing the socialist card in places. The scene where Crassus states “The enemies of the state are known. Arrests are in progress. The prisons begin to fill” is an obvious swipe at the House Un-American Activities Commission. Also historical inaccuracies are as usual ever present (some things never change). The main inaccuracy is the films almost deification of Spartacus. History tells us he slaughtered prisoners and repeatedly led his men back from the brink of freedom to carry on looting. Hardly the Saint depicted here. Also the scene between Crassus and Varinia towards the end of the film seems out of character. Crassus would never lower himself surely? It’s an odd scene and it seems a bit of a clunky way to attain the ending. Despite these faults I still feel Spartacus is a triumph of Hollywood and I don’t think we will see its like again.

The Disc
As I have already mentioned this is a comprehensive Criterion package. I have limited experience with Criterion editions but I have to say that so far I have been impressed. They certainly seem to be amongst the most well thought out discs I have seen. We have two discs full of material to cover here so settle down with a cup of tea and enjoy.

The original presentation was on 70mm at a ratio of 2.2:1… While the DVD cannot hope to hold a candle to a 70mm print it retains the original aspect ratio and is anamorphic. The print looks fantastic for its age, there are a few speckles and scratches but these are to be expected and only one or two of them were distracting. There was no real discernable artifacting although in one early desert scene I thought I saw a little as the sand blew past. The colour, definition and detail are outstanding. The colours are rich pretty much throughout. In the scene where Spartacus is daubed with dye they are vibrant and solid. The white level in the Senate was excellent without bleaching out detail and the night scenes had good shadow detail and definition throughout. Some of the indoor scenes looked a little muted and grainy compared to the outdoor but having seen the restoration demo it is obvious that they are as intended. I would doubt the film has ever looked better on a home format.

The sound has caused some queries amongst the DVD aficionados. Criterion usually only present the soundtrack in the original theatrical format yet here we have a DD 5.1 track. There is no mistake, the original presentation had a multi-track soundtrack and Criterion have tried to match this using a DD 5.1 track. The sound is crisp and the dialogue is very clear. There is some excellent channel separation between left and right for dialogue, a pleasant change from always hearing dialogue in the centre no matter where the person is on the screen. The sweeping score is strident and envelops the sound stage admirably. Some may note that the rears are used in a very limited manner but this is again understandable given the films age. There is an alternative track that contains a Dolby Surround mix, this is very good indeed but I prefer the 5.1 as it seems to give a fuller sound. Personal preference I would guess.

The menus are stylish, subtle and understated. Every subsection has a short paragraph explaining what you are about to see which is invaluable. This is probably the best menu design I have seen (and I am never usually impressed by menus).

The disc comes with a small foldout pamphlet with an overview of the production. It also contains the chapter list detailing the 46 chapter stops. A reasonably generous amount but then again the film is over three hours long.

The Extras here are many and varied. Overall I was disappointed with the lack of material about Kubrick himself but then I suppose this is only to be expected. Disc one contains very little apart from commentaries as most of the extras are on disc two.

Restoration Demo – This may be old hat to some Criterion collectors but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It runs just under 10 minutes but gives a very good explanation of the restoration process. It also shows how Robert Harris helped Criterion with their transfer.

Audio Commentary – Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Howard Fast(novelist), Robert Harris(Restoration) and Edward Lewis (Producer). I have heard many commentaries but this is my first Criterion commentary. It was originally recorded for the Laserdisc release in 1992. Each person has been recorded separately and the results have been edited together. Because of this we have a great commentary that is always interesting and never rambles pointlessly. Ustinov relates some very funny anecdotes. Douglas (pre-stroke) is a bit of an ego but still informative. Howard Fast is acerbic in the extreme and quite evidently hates parts of the film. Robert Harris is an excellent tutor, giving information about the restoration process in easily understandable bite size chunks. Finally Edward Lewis is the only one who is still sounding diplomatic about the others, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. Oh and for those who have difficulty distinguishing voices a lady narrator occasionally reminds us of which person is speaking (not every time, just enough so you can keep track).

Scene-by-Scene Analysis. These are notes Dalton Trumbo made upon seeing the original rough cut of the movie read by Michael McConnahie. It’s very interesting, but there are numerous silences and it is a little dry. Also presented here are some additional/alternative soundtrack sequences produced by Alex North that weren’t used in the final film. I am no audiophile but I am sure there are some Alex North fans that would appreciate this for completeness sake.

Disc 2 contains the rest of the extras and I have listed them here as they appear on the disc.

Deleted Scenes. 4 deleted scenes provided although only the first 2 have picture and sound. The 3rd is a sound only segment (no video footage exists) and the 4th is a script segment with a handful of production photos.

Behind The Scenes Gladiatorial School Footage. A 5-minute section showing some set construction and the rehearsal of the fight scenes. Presented in 4:3 with the original musical score as a backing track. Interesting piece as it shows footage of Anthony Mann (the original director). Originally shot as a promo piece.

Newsreel Footage. Five newsreels are presented here with a total runtime of 5 minutes. The standout points here are an appearance by Sabina Bethmann who was originally to take the part of Varinia before Kubrick sacked her. Also the amusing way in which the budget increases in each newsreel you see ($5 million up to final figure of $12 million). Presented in 4:3 and the quality is obviously well below par as you’d expect for a newsreel.

1960 interview with Jean Simmons. This runs for 3 minutes. It’s a one sided interview constructed so that local television could insert their own questions to make it look as if they had an exclusive interview.

1992 interview with Peter Ustinov. A fascinating 25-minute piece shot with no interviewer and presented as Ustinov simply talking to the camera for the entire running time. As a result a lot of information is imparted in a very short space of time. Some wonderful anecdotes about the rest of the cast and he does a great impression of Charles Laughton. A very entertaining half hour that certainly bears re-watching.

1960 interview with Peter Ustinov. This is similar to the piece done with Jean Simmons. Runs for 3 minutes and is actually a fair bit more interesting than the Jean Simmons interview.

Documentary – The Hollywood Ten plus blacklist documents. This includes a 15-minute documentary from around the time of the Hollywood Ten’s imprisonment. This is a surprisingly poignant piece of film that presents a potted history of each of the writers. Then short interviews with each of them where they give their side of the story, fascinating and compelling viewing. Three text sections follow this. The first contains a letter outlining why the Ten should never work again. The second details Trumbo’s background and the third shows how Spartacus helped break the blacklist once and for all. I have to say I knew nothing about the Hollywood Ten before I got this disc and this section certainly opened my eyes!

The MPAA Responds. A letter from the MPAA pointing out the changes they would want made to the script before they could pass it. Both interesting and laughable in equal parts.

Original Storyboards by Saul Bass. This contains Twenty-three stills of the main battle scene.

Production stills, lobby cards, posters, print ads and a comic book. Hundreds of stills divided into sections. The scans look very good and clear.

Stanley Kubrick. This section contains some text dealing with Kubrick’s background and involvement in Spartacus. This is very brief but with some nice stills. Finally this section also contains 14 sketches by Kubrick , seemingly the storyboard for the end of the film. This section goes to prove that Kubrick was no artist.

Theatrical Trailer. It’s a nice enough trailer and it helps to ensure a comprehensive package, nothing more.


I think its all been said above. This is a classic film and an excellent transfer. The extras are well presented, intelligently chosen and give a well-rounded picture of the whole production. Price is always an issue with Criterion but I have to say this package is well worth the £29.99 I paid for it. If you are a fan of the film, of Kubrick himself or a fan of film in general I would recommend you buy this disc.

Mark Davis

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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