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The Criterion Collection presents
Spartacus (1960)

"Tell them we want nothing from Rome. Nothing...but our FREEDOM!"
- Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)

Review By: debi lee mandel and jesse shanks   
Published: April 14, 2001

Stars: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis
Other Stars: Woody Strode, John Gavin, John Ireland, Herbert Lom John Dall, Charles McGraw, Harold Stone, Joanna Barnes, Peter Brocco, Nina Foch
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Manufacturer: dvdi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for (battle violence)
Run Time: 03h:16m:34s
Release Date: April 24, 2001
UPC: 715515011723
Genre: epic

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+A-B- A+

DVD Review

Spartacus is the quintessential poster child for The Criterion Collection's brand of film restoration. Locked in memory as a beloved epic, it is actually more deserving of preservation for its politics - both on screen and behind-the-scenes - than its cinematic qualities. It seems Criterion's DVD producers may have recognized this as well, loading this 2-disc set with a wealth of historical documentation of the sociopolitical barriers surrounding the film's conception and production. And while some may find little interest in these external events, it might be that Spartacus would not stand the test of time without this archival infrastructure.

No one can truly gauge the effect of a movie like Spartacus on the American consciousness in 1960. America was a very different society then: there was segregation; the Cold War blew hotly in Southeast Asia, and the horror of nuclear annihilation hung over the world. However, change was in the wind; the studio system was deteriorating and John F. Kennedy was elected President. Activists worked to end segregation and achieve civil rights for all Americans. Folk singers like Pete Seeger were imbuing a generation with new ideals, efforts for which they were attacked and even blacklisted.

Most epics of the era used the Roman Empire as background for a biblical story, either as the main plot line or a subplot. But Spartacus tells the story of ordinary men and women of various ethnicities and nationalities, forced into slavery, rallying together in a fight for freedom prior to the emergence of Christianity. This vast group of conquered peoples took on the wealth and might of the Empire, preferring to fight, against all odds, and to die, rather than bend to their oppressors. What could the effect of this story be on a nation that participated in the suppression of new ideas and oppressed whole segments of its own society? In its unique way, Spartacus is as politically potent as Gentleman's Agreement and The Defiant Ones. Interestingly, the attacks on the film for its politics and "racy" scenes only piqued the interest of those who were looking to explore ideas beyond the accepted boundaries of 1960's America.

Spartacus was adapted for the screen by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo from the novel by Howard Fast. In openly hiring Trumbo, Douglas heralded the end of the McCarthy era and many aspects of then-contemporary politics are deeply embedded in the final product.

For historical perspective, the events of this story occur at a time in history just decades before that of Cleopatra. Rome is in full bloom, built on the backs of its conquered peoples. Toiling in the burning wasteland of a mine is Spartacus (Douglas), a man born into slavery. Kirk Douglas is a memorable figure, but this performance runs right up against issues of actor vs. movie star. Douglas is a great movie star, but not often a great actor. Some have stated that his performance in Spartacus lacked subtlety and realism, and we found ourselves agreeing. In his commentary track, screenwriter Trumbo goes so far as to label Douglas' portrayal as that of a Hollywood stunt man, rather than the intelligent, reasoning man he wrote him to be. It is as if all of Douglas' passion was spent on the film as producer, sparing little emotion for his role.

Slave-dealer Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) buys this feisty slave and takes him to his gladiatorial school to be trained to fight in the arena. Ustinov re-wrote much of his own material, especially his scenes with Laughton. This helped him to snare an Academy Award¨ for Best Supporting Actor, but opinions differ on whether his contribution hurt or helped the movie overall. Still, he is inventive and witty in his portrayal of the wily con man. We part in our opinions here: Jesse sees him as over-acting and scene-stealing, whereas debi believes he adds the only natural, fully-formed humanity to the story.

At the school, Spartacus falls in love with a slave girl (Simmons) and eventually leads a revolt that overthrows the school and then swells into an army of slaves that takes on Rome itself. As the love interest, Varinia, Jean Simmons comes off the worst in the ensemble. Her prim portrayal of an abused slave who finds love and freedom severely damages the story and the film. The role of Varinia could have carried the weight of the fundamental story, the plight of someone stolen from her home, forced into slavery, sexually objectified and eventually fighting back. Instead, we have an impossibly lovely character and, in what should be one of the film's most powerful moments (when Varinia and Spartacus first meet), Simmons seems more pre-occupied with being beautiful than playing the scene.

Meanwhile in Rome, a young Julius Caesar (Gavin) is first making his bones; the Senate is dominated by 2 factions, lead by Gracchus (Laughton) and Crassus (Olivier): this army of slaves is seen as nothing more than a pawn in their struggle for political control. Laurence Olivier is awe-inspiring as Crassus. He portrays this giant of Roman history with great gusto and wide dimensions of characterization. In a way, this is almost to the detriment of the movie as a whole, because his performance tends to emphasize the narrower dimensions of the film's protagonist, Spartacus. In the same way, Olivier and his cohorts on the Roman side of the story threaten to overwhelm the slave side as a whole. Crassus uses the crisis of the slave rebellion to aid his goal of destroying the Republic of Rome and putting himself at the head, presaging the events that would occur 30 years later following the death of Julius Caesar. Although very dramatic, the conception of Crassus suffers the most in portraying actual history. Crassus was indeed an important figure in Roman events and did use the suppression of the slave revolt to further his own political aims. However, it was only with his later formation of the first Triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey that Crassus was able to achieve any type of political domination (and even then only as a partner, not as a singular dictator as this film suggests).

In one of his final film appearances, legendary actor Charles Laughton portrays Crassus' political nemesis, Gracchus, with much pomp and appeal. Perfectly cast, he becomes the corrupt and corpulent Senator in the way only Laughton could. Stories of his disagreements with Olivier and his collaboration with Ustinov in rewriting their dialogue fill the commentaries.

Other notable performances include Herbert Lom as the merchant, Tigranes Levantes, who makes the deal with Spartacus for ships to leave Italy. Peter Brocco plays the assistant to Batiatus, Ramon. His performance is notable because he was another name on the blacklist that Douglas hired and likewise credited under his own name. John Gavin, who later became the US Ambassador to Mexico during Ronald Reagan's presidency, portrays a dashing but briefly-seen Julius Caesar. At the gladiator school, Woody Strode appears in a small but crucial role as Draba, the African slave forced to fight Spartacus in a match pair, for the amusement of the visiting Crassus and friends.

Tony Curtis appears as Antoninus, a Sicilian slave who is involved in the most notorious scene censored from the original movie. Fully restored (with the assistance of Anthony Hopkins, whose voice replaces Olivier's on this portion of the audio track - a much older Tony Curtis re-dubbed his own), we now have the famed "oysters and snails" scene in which Crassus attempts to seduce the young slave. Antoninus runs away, joins the slave army and eventually becomes a close adviser to Spartacus.

As the slaves attempt to fight their way to the sea and meet their ships, the Romans use fear and confusion to further their own political aims. Eventually, Crassus uses the very real fear that a total slave rebellion could overthrow the government of Rome to gain appointment as Commander of Rome's legions and election as First Consul of Rome. By bribing the pirates who had agreed to provide the slaves with transportation, he maneuvers Spartacus toward his fait d'accompli: a march on Rome itself.

Spartacus won three other Academy Awards¨ in 1961, including Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction-Set Direction and Best Cinematography. Also nominated were Alex North's score and the film's editing. These technical achievements, plus the incredible choreography of the gladiator fight sequences and the battle scenes take Spartacus to a legendary level of spectacle. One of the issues upon its release was the graphic nature of these battle sequences; some were cut and others changed to reduce the amount of violence. Also, a long tracking shot depicting vast amounts of dead bodies was cut. Some of these scenes have been reinstated in this restored version.

Producer Douglas first selected director Anthony Mann to helm the vast project. Stories vary as to how and why Mann left the job, but Douglas gambled and picked 31-year-old Stanley Kubrick to take over the production with very little preparation. Opinions vary as to the depth and quality of his contribution. Although Kubrick had worked with Douglas earlier on the well-received Paths of Glory, the studio was dubious about the choice. But, with Douglas as his champion, Kubrick was able to put his stamp on a film in which he had no participation in many crucial decisions such as casting, script and concept. After the completion of Spartacus, Kubrick downplayed his participation, saying in one quote, "I don't know what to say to people who tell me they like Spartacus." There is no doubt that, by completing this film, he became a bankable director and went on to make films his own way. Kubrick did participate in the restoration efforts in the early 1990s and there are some indications that he had somewhat revised his feelings about the film. His lack of control spread to become an apparent lack of interest: the success of a film, even under duress, is the responsibility of its director. It might be that Kubrick's lack of enthusiasm for a project not his own cost the production, too, in the end.

Spartacus stands as a tribute to film restoration. In the commentary, Robert Harris describes the incredible effort that went into restoring it to a state resembling its makers' original intentions. Working frame by frame, the restorers cleaned and color corrected the separations and negatives. Scenes that were censored were added back in. Harris discusses the great number of films that have already been lost and the very real possibility that many more will be lost if nothing is done to restore them. If Spartacus is not the poster child for this painstaking process, it should be.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.2:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: One needs only to watch the deleted scenes to understand the triumphant accomplishments of this transfer. It really is a pleasure to see this grand spectacle in this lovely anamorphic transfer of the restored source film. Details and colors are more than crisp and clear; they lend an interesting "realism" to the original Academy Award®-winning cinematography. Some of the long, wide shots have hints of movement, but this is easily forgotten in the overview. Blacks are rich and overall tints are now as the director wished. With that, who could ask for more?

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Issues include spongy spacing of dialogue as perspective shifts between characters, and the score too often overwhelms the dialogue in both the 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. Not much happens in the surround speakers, other than adding to the already overwhelming music (in the 5.1 track). The original monaural audio is included for the purist.

Peter Ustinov says in the commentary that, "If anything dates the movie, it is the music." He continues with the opinion that music used so "fulsomely" can be too much for a movie when it causes one to lose perspective, and that it becomes a sort of Muzak that winds up ignored. Listening to the variations on the score in the extras, it is apparent that ultimately, in post-production, the decision was made to avoid subtlety in the music for the film. While it may be powerful on its own, composer Alex North's score makes the battle scenes sound more like a rumble from West Side Story than historic clashings of epic bravery.

Perfectly serviceable but ultimately nothing special.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 46 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Deleted Scenes
1 Alternate Endings
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by producer/actor Kirk Douglas, actor Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, resoration expert Robert Harris, designer Saul Bass and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo
Packaging: Amaray
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Behind-the-scenes at the "Gladiatorial School"
  2. Newsreels, Jean Simmons TV Interview, Peter Ustinov Reminisces
  3. Breaking the Blacklist, The Hollywood Ten, essays, letter reproductions
  4. Stills Gallery, art gallery, sketches
Extras Review: Once you explore these extras, you have learned something about America and its films. In a manner similar to Cleopatra, Spartacus is an important film in the history of American Cinema. The film was produced by Kirk Douglas' own Bryna Productions; as an independent filmmaker, Douglas could take some advantage of the fading studio system but still operate outside of it. He was able to provide blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo with a screen credit for his work, an act of defiance for which Spartacus would be attacked by many institutions of the early 1960s, including the Legion of Decency.

The booklet is very nicely designed; however, there is one terrible typo. In remarking about the once-censored scene of Crassus and Antoninus, Stephen Farber writes that it "...hints at [Crassus'] Catholic sexual tastes...." This should be catholic (with a small "c"), "of a broad or liberal scope," and not the capitalized "C" of the Roman Catholic Church. What folly!

A commentary by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is combined with score variations by Alex North. This is a unique extra and worthy of a casual listen, as well as study by students of screenwriting and cinema. When Trumbo originally viewed Kubrick's rough cut of Spartacus, he wrote a scene-by-scene critique of the production, which included direct commentary on scene choices as well as general discussions on filmmaking. He still has strong opinions about how his writing was used, the performances of the actors and the decisions made by Kubrick. In this track, Trumbo provides much historical information about the period in Roman history portrayed in Spartacus, and actor Michael McConnohie reads these comments very effectively. Interspersed on this track are very interesting, often very effective score variations. This commentary is fully indexed with 46 chapters.

A second commentary, made up of separate tracks by producer/actor Kirk Douglas, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert Harris, actor Peter Ustinov, writer Howard Fast and designer Saul Bass, was originally created for the Criterion laserdisc release in 1992. This is one of the best commentaries we have heard to date, with captivating personalities making fascinating remarks and adding tales of numerous behind-the-scenes machinations, evenly-paced to leave very few holes for dialogue. Douglas discusses the genesis of Spartacus and some of the decisions he made as both producer and star. Producer Lewis provides many insights into the varied personalities of those involved. Ustinov wanders a bit, but is very amusing and witty as he tells anecdotes and draws some interesting parallels. The author of the adapted novel, Howard Fast, has some axes to grind and his comments are mostly (and at times justifiably) critical. Robert Harris chimes in with details about the restoration process particular to this project. He points out scenes that are great achievements, as well as scenes that are still not perfect, and even "re-creates" a couple of sequences that could not be found. Saul Bass worked closely with Stanley Kubrick in designing important battle sequences, as well as the titles and key art, and he provides intriguing comments about the concepts and execution of his ideas. This bulging commentary is also fully indexed with 46 chapters.

Deleted scenes: Four diverse presentations make this addition more interesting than usual: the UK and US versions of the bittersweet first meeting between Spartacus and Varinia in his cell are compared, with the more tightly edited US version making a more powerful impact; a 1967 finale in which all close-ups of Spartacus on the cross are - literally - hacked out; an audio-only version of Gracchus' suicide as he shoos his sobbing servant from him, which is presented over the last image in the scene in which he takes his dagger to his bath and closes the curtains around him; as noted in writer Trumbo's scene analysis, a completed scene cut from the final version that would have fleshed-out Gracchus' relationship with his lower-class constituents and better set up Caesar's disdain and eventual defection to Crassus, presented in text-only, script format.

Behind-the-scenes at the "Gladiatorial School" is a five-minute visual segment on set and prop construction, as well as some of the stars and extras in their gladiatorial training. Ustinov shows up with a cigarette and bagel in hand and joins in for fun. Accompanied by portions of the score.

Newsreels include the London Premiere, Curtis wins a "Bambi" (in 1958, during production, Tony Curtis is voted favorite foreign star by readers of a German film magazine), Olivier in Hollywood, Douglas Immortalized (footage of Douglas leaving both his foot and chin prints in the famous cement of Hollywood's "Walk of Fame") and Douglas in New York. About 4 minutes total.

The Jean Simmons TV Interview is a fascinating period piece (circa 1959). It's actually a "formula" interview with lead actress Jean Simmons, in which she responds to unheard questions, allowing local broadcasters to complete the illusion by dubbing in the canned questions in their own voices. About 4 minutes.

In Peter Ustinov Reminisces (24m:23s), the intelligent, charming and delightful Peter Ustinov is interviewed in a "camera on, camera off" style. This 1992 short begins with Ustinov discussing Spartacus as a secular epic that set it apart from the biblical extravaganzas that preceded it. He goes on to praise Douglas for his choice to make this film about a plebian uprising while the dark cloud of McCarthyism still hovered over Hollywood. He adds some flavorful anecdotes about key players and does some marvelous impersonations, including an accurate voice and visage of the great Charles Laughton. This segment also tags on a "formula" interview, companion to the Simmons media kit described above.

"In the fall of 1947, ten filmmakers defied the House Un-American Activities Committee... the makers of Spartacus helped end this devastating era."

In a section called Breaking the Blacklist, Criterion has assembled 4 pieces to illustrate this bleak chapter of all-too-recent American History. It is a tribute to this movie, whose producers helped to end this tense period, and to Criterion for remembering and including this material. We must keep alive the memory of a time when any American could be denied his constitutional rights and sent to prison and/or blacklisted from working, based on personal beliefs.

The Hollywood Ten (14m:41s) is a documentary by John Berry, made on the eve of the imprisonment of ten screenwriters, directors, novelists and historians who refused to answer the questions put to them by J. Parnell Thomas of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, including, "Are you now, or have you ever been...." On April 10, 1950, the Supreme Court refused to hear their appeal and the Ten were sentenced to one year in prison, after which their names were added to a list of people who could not be employed by the Motion Picture industry. These men were: Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Alvah Bessie, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Herbert Biberman and Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

There is also a brief essay on Spartacus and the Blacklist and a 7-screen essay with photos specifically featuring Dalton Trumbo, followed by a letter from the American Legion protesting Trumbo's involvement, occupying 12 tantalizing screens of political idiocy.

Criterion also includes a letter from the MPAA containing suggested changes - some subtle, some not - to either dialogue or screen action to meet their standards.

Saul Bass was the designer of the logo and powerful poster illustration, as well as the titles and some of the battle scenes. Twenty-three of his storyboards are shown, but they appear to depict a battle that was cut from the script.

The art section contains 211 black & white and full-color production and promo stills, with random intertitle-style captions; 15 full color lobby cards; 24 posters and print ads, and 31 line-art panels excerpted from a comic book based on the movie.

A small section on the film's director, a young Stanley Kubrick, includes 11 screens of text and photos, as well as 14 of his sketches for the finale.

Criterion includes their standard color bars.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

What a phenomenal DVD! An exciting, important movie surrounded by a truly outstanding collection of supplemental materials that explore the politics, the history and the art of cinema. Recommended, as much for its historical nature as for its entertainment value.


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