Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Spartacus (1960)
Studio Line: Universal Studios

Director Stanley Kubrick tells the tale of Spartacus, the bold gladiator slave and Varinia, the woman who believed in his cause. Challenged by the power-hungry General Crassus, Spartacus is forced to face his convictions and the power of the Imperial Rome at its glorious height.

The inspirational true account of man's eternal struggle for freedom, Spartacus combines history with spectale to create a moving drama of love and commitment.

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin
Won for Best Supporting Actor-Peter Ustinov; Best Cinematographer; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design. Nominated for Best Film Editing; Best Score-Alex North. 1961.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles: Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 16 chapters; Not Rated; 196 min.; $26.98; street date 3/31/98.
Supplements: Production Notes; Talent Bios; Theatrical Trailer; Film Highlights.
Purchase: DVD | Criterion DVD | Score soundtrack - Alex North

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B/D+

And the Kubrick hit parade continues! Ever since most of his films hit DVD a few months ago, I've tried to work my way through them - or at least through the ones my local DVD rental store offers - so today I looked at an older title, 1960's Spartacus.

I found Spartacus to be an uneven but generally compelling film. Interestingly, it appeared to be less strongly a "Kubrick" piece than any other work of his I've seen; the director's signature style didn't really seem to be on display. Actually, I really didn't see much that differentiated it from other "epics" that were so popular in that time period; Spartacus stands up nicely when compared to pictures like Ben-Hur or Cleopatra, but it doesn't outdo them, and it never approaches the heights of Lawrence of Arabia.

Spartacus did manage to offer some parts that were very nicely done and fairly emotional. Its best scenes appear during the final third or so of the picture; one large battle and the movie's emotional conclusion both worked tremendously well and stood out as the picture's high points. Other than that, however, I simply didn't see much that made the film stand out from the other movies typical of the era and the genre.

One interesting aspect of the film is how strongly the "good guys" differentiated from the "bad guys." Overall, I found our heroes - mainly Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, and Tony Curtis - to be dull and wooden. All of them made for pretty and attractive presences, but their acting wasn't terribly effective, especially in the case of the ridiculously-miscast Curtis, who offers some terrible "singing" in his role.

The villains of the piece, however, are all tremendously well-acted and vibrant. This is mainly because our chief bad guys are played by Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov - who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor - and Charles Laughton; that's an awfully high-powered trio, and they acquit themselves well. There's simply a subtlety to their work that I found lacking among the protagonists; those characters seem to be cartoons whereas our villains appear as much more full-blooded people. Ustinov may have won the Oscar - thankfully, he kept his occasionally-overwhelming mannerisms in check here - but I think Laughton did the best work here; his Gracchus really straddles the line between good and bad and makes for a very interesting character despite limited screen time.

Overall, I found the scenes that featured our antagonists to really be the only ones that kept me going. It's a looong movie, and the parts that featured Spartacus, et al., frankly seemed pretty dull. Some of this may have been by design - you never really know with Kubrick - but I think most of the responsibility falls with the actors; they simply couldn't keep up with their competition.

As a whole, Spartacus provided an interesting but erratic experience as it could become something of an endurance test. I loved the scenes with Olivier, Ustinov and/or Laughton, but most of the rest of the film bored me somewhat. Ultimately, it's a good film, but I didn't think it's tremendously special.

The DVD:

The same can be said for Universal's DVD release of Spartacus: it was decent but not great. The film appears in its original aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and spreads across a single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, I thought the picture looked pretty good, although it could be very inconsistent, something that was probably inevitable considering that the film's old and somewhat cobbled-together (more about that later).

Some scenes looked crystal clear, but many seemed hazy and displayed oversaturated colors. If I had to pick the single most consistent flaw in the image, that last one would be it; the colors often appeared too "heavy." In general, the print itself seemed clean, but speckles and grain affected it from time to time. When one considers the film's history, I have to acknowledge that the image looked excellent in that regard and it probably will never appear much better; in the real world, however, that translated to "pretty good but inconsistent."

Spartacus offered a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that was surprisingly robust for one attached to such an old movie. In particular, it displayed an excellent front soundstage. Sounds panned across the front three channels very nicely and added greatly to the film's ambiance. Check out a gladiator battle that took place about 45 minutes into the film; because it was presented from Spartacus' point of view, we actually see almost none of the fight, but we hear the combatants tussle across the three front speakers. Pretty cool stuff!

As far as the rest of the mix went, the rear channels seemed reserved for music and some very rare effects. The quality of the music in all five channels was really very good, but dialogue and effects sounded lifeless and dull; I could understand speech, but it didn't sound as natural as it should. Still, considering the advanced age of the mix, it seemed quite good.

Spartacus includes a few extras, but don't expect much. We get two theatrical trailers, some pretty good biographies for significant cast members and for Kubrick, and some nice production notes. The latter pieces of text discuss a little bit about the making of the film itself, but they generally detail the restoration of the movie that occurred in the early 1990s.

It's that last aspect of the movie that I referred to when I called Spartacus a "cobbled together" picture. From what I understand, after its premier in 1960, the movie essentially got butchered by the studio; the distributed cut of the film omitted more than a half an hour of footage we see in this version. Ala Lawrence of Arabia, original elements were located and were reassembled into this version, which displays Kubrick's original cut of the film. So there you have it!

Anyway, the supplements included with this DVD of Spartacus are decent but unspectacular. For serious fans of the movie, you'd probably be better off waiting for the upcoming DVD release from Criterion; it'll cost more, but it'll also offer what appear to be some nice supplements.

When that happens, that Criterion release of Spartacus will unquestionably be the finest DVD of any Kubrick film. Of course, that title's not hard to claim, since the others have been pretty poor issues. Universal's current DVD of Spartacus probably is already the best Kubrick DVD on the market, though 2001 is on about the same level. If I wanted to own Spartacus, I'd definitely wait for the upcoming Criterion release, but I'm a supplements junkie; if all you want is the film itself, you should be very happy with the current DVD from Universal.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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