Stanley Kubrick directed a cast of screen legends—including Kirk Douglas as the indomitable gladiator that led a Roman slave revolt—in the sweeping epic that defined a genre and ushered in a new Hollywood era. The assured acting, lush Technicolor cinematography, bold costumes, and visceral fight sequences won Spartacus four Oscars; the blend of politics and sexual suggestion scandalized audiences. Today Kubrick’s controversial classic, the first film to openly defy Hollywood’s blacklist, remains a landmark of cinematic artistry and history.
Criterion’s Spartacus was a breath of fresh air on its initial release, following the release of the original Kubrick box set from Warner Bros., which presented below average transfers for all of the films in it. Presented in its restored 196-minute version in the aspect ratio of 2.20:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set, the film looks to have received a vigorous restoration. It had been restored back in 1992 for re-release on VHS and Criterion laserdisc and most everything looks to have been ported over to this Criterion DVD, though the transfer on here is new to the DVD (suggested by the restoration demonstration and the fact the Kubrick actually participated in the release of this DVD by giving Criterion notes on how the film should look. His death actually led to the delay of this release.)
The image looks quite good and is an improvement over the previous Universal DVD, though has its problems because of the source materials. Restoration expert Robert Harris, who worked on the restoration of this release originally for the laserdisc and then again for this DVD, mentions some of these problems in supplements and how they tried to fix them, and considering what they had to go through, especially with reinserting cut sequences (which were cut by censors for the most part) it does still look pretty good.
The print still has a bit of damage, though it is minimal, limited to some debris here and there, and the occasional blemish or bit of discolouration. Colours look beautifully saturated. The colour scheme looks a little drab at times but they still manage to jump off of the screen. The film has thoroughly been restored and it shows.
The image looks pretty sharp but can get fuzzy on the edges of the frame at times. Compression artifacts in the way of edge-enhancement and noise can be noticeable from time to time, probably having to do with so much content jammed onto the one disc.
The HD DVD release was a little sharper, though was based on the original Universal DVD’s master, which had weaker colours. I think I still prefer the DVD, in terms of colours anyway (I don’t know of any Blu-ray release replacing the HD DVD yet.) In terms of its digital transfer it’s not up to Criterion’s best, but the restoration still looks quite good.
Criterion has included 2 different audio tracks on this disc. I'm sure the film was originally mono, but that seems to be missing from here. What we do get, though are a Dolby Surround track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. For this review, I viewed the disc's 5.1 track.
I should mention (though I’m sure it’s common knowledge now) that the original announcement of this DVD stated a DTS track was to be included. This looks to have been abandoned as it’s nowhere to be found, and I assume it was due to space limitations.
Still, the 5.1 track actually a little more active than I thought it would be, and is a little more than an over-glorified Dolby Surround track. The forward stage is where most of the activity occurs, mainly the center. But the other two front speakers also have a bit to do, panning sounds being very good and accurate.
The surrounds have something to do once in a while, other than handling music. I was impressed that a few splits are present, with an excellent range. Some of the battle scenes and a couple crowd scenes present the splits. Ambient noises can also be heard. The woofer is more noticeable during musical sequences.
Sound quality overall sounds very crisp and clear. The opening overture is very strong and powerful. Dialogue and music sound crisp and clear, with no signs of break-up or distortion. But one scene in particular did show a problem. Just before the slave revolt the sound goes from strong to quite weak and quiet. This stays like this for a couple minutes then slowly builds back up. This was a disappointment, considering this would be one of the louder scenes.
But given that, it's still a pretty 5.1 surround track and it’s gone through its own restoration, sounding quite clean.
Universal previously released a disappointing movie-only edition and this one comes with a few extras.
The big extra would be the fairly extensive audio commentary by Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, author Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert A. Harris and designer Saul Bass. This commentary was recorded back in 1992 for the original laserdisc release.
This is actually one of my all-time favourite commentary tracks. All participants have been recorded separately and then edited together. The topics covered are vast and there’s a lot jam packed on this. There isn’t much about Kubrick specifically, though it’s touched on how he was never a very big fan of this film. It’s mentioned that Kubrick and Douglas had a bit of a falling out, related to this film to my understanding, but Douglas speaks highly of the director on this set, as do others. There were a lot of conflicting personalities on the set, and five of the actors were also directors, but everyone on the track, specifically Lewis, commend Kubrick on his handling of everything.
Where Lewis and Douglas talk about the production, political issues behind the film (specifically about the blacklist and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo getting a credit,) shooting in Spain (under Franco’s watchful eye), and Kubrick, everyone else focuses primarily on their duties. Harris talks specifically about this restoration, which refers more to the one that appeared on the laserdisc, pointing out restored sequences, problems that remain, and how he got around issues that arose. Bass only perks up once in a while, talking about the titles that appear, and battle sequences he came up with. Fast talks about the novel, writing it in prison (after refusing not to “name names”) and what he likes and dislikes about the film (he doesn’t think Douglas makes a good Spartacus and doesn’t like the homosexual elements that appear in this restored version) and his slim involvement in the screenplay (Lewis mentions he had to fire Fast from writing the screenplay for various issues.) There’s a lot of conflicting stuff in here, though, as we get multiple sides to most stories, which is most evident in the departure of the original direction, Anthony Mann, who Douglas says he had to fire at Lewis’ request, though Lewis says Mann quit because of the clashing egos.
The best participant, though, would have to be Peter Ustinov. While no one really holds back in this track, Ustinov may be the most honest. He has unflattering opinions about certain performers, specifically Laurence Olivier (his thing for fake noses) and Charles Laughton (with his face he couldn’t help but overact,) though he still holds a certain respect for them. He also gets into the friction that existed between Olivier and Laughton, shares some rather funny anecdotes and does some incredible impersonations (his Olivier is pretty good, but his Laughton, complete with wheezing, is priceless.) Throw in his opinions on the current state of movies, and the occasional out-of-left-field quip and I wish this guy had a track all to himself.
If I was to make a list of ten audio commentaries you have to listen to I would include this one on that list. It’s incredibly honest, informative, and entertaining. It’s a fantastic track.
Another audio track is included, which is Dalton Trumbo's scene-by-scene analysis. These notes are read by Michael McConnohie and Barbara Goodson. As well, additional composition pieces by Alex North appear where they originally would have. This is all-in-all interesting but not great. There are scenes mentioned that didn't make it into the film, which is probably the only true surprise in here. Like the commentary this is also indexed off.
Finishing off the first disc is a 3-minute restoration demonstration, which is presented in a different fashion from some of Criterion’s other demonstrations. Harris explains the colour correction for the film and a side-by-side comparison is given of the opening titles, comparing what I understand to be the old laserdisc release with the new DVD. It also mentions that the restoration is a joint venture between Criterion and Universal.
Now onto the second disc, which is single-layer.
There is a Deleted Scenes section that presents 4 different sequences that are mentioned in the commentary and were intended to be in the film, but were cut out or replaced. We first get an alternate scene involving Ustinov looking down on Douglas when he first meets Simmons. Where the original sequence had Ustinov come out of nowhere this one actually shows Ustinov arrive and look down. This actually does make the scene a little less powerful and it's not explained why this alternate take was used in the UK release of the film. For a comparison, the US version can also be viewed here. You also get an alternate ending that doesn't show any close-ups of Spartacus on the cross, as it offended the real "religious" types who thought the image made crucifixion look more common and somehow degrading Jesus Christ’s own crucifixion (forgetting, of course, that this was a common practice for Romans.) For another sequence we get Gracchus' suicide. Well, an audio clip anyways. Apparently the video is lost and the audio is all that remains. A shame but I'm still happy this was included. As well, there was a scene shot with Gracchus and Caesar walking through the slums. This scene was shot but is completely lost. Criterion has included the portion of the screenplay showing this scene as well as a few photos. Disappointing that some scenes look to be lost for good, but Criterion’s effort in presenting them is very much appreciated.
There is also a behind-the-scenes section that contains a short little featurette from the filming of the set. This shows some of the practicing behind the gladiator fight scenes. This looks a little odd and even Criterion seems unaware of its intention. It was more than likely an advertising bit. Anyways, it's here and is interesting enough.
There is also about 5-minutes worth of newsreel footage. This is mostly pre-production stuff, showing Olivier making a trip to the States, Douglas getting his spot on the walk of fame and also shows Tony Curtis getting a Bambi award. The London premiere of the film is also included, complete with a very young Stanley Kubrick. I always love these for nostalgia reasons and these were particularly interesting.
There's a couple interview segments. One has Jean Simmons, which is one of those pre-recorded ones. Simmons was filmed, looking like she was answering questions, making small pauses in between where it would represent a reporter asking a question. This of course means there’s no spontaneity. There are then two interviews with Peter Ustinov, a short one from 1962, which also includes clips from the film. There is also one that I'm guessing was made for the 1992 Criterion laserdisc release of the film. This one is about 24 minutes and is also indexed. He reminisces back and talks about many of the participants. Ustinov offers many funny anecdotes and other amusements (seeing his Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier impersonations are even funnier when you can see his face). They’re all good interviews but the newer Ustinov clip is the one to go with if you’re only going to go through one.
A running theme to the disc is the Hollywood blacklist, as this is the film that apparently broke through that. There is a section devoted to that aspect of it. A 1960 documentary called The Hollywood Ten offers a brief and fairly mellow look at the ten people who were found in contempt by the Un-American committee. I find the subject interesting and was disappointed in this 14-minute clip. The doc was made during the period and a newer documentary that looked back at the era would have been more interesting. You will also find some notes in this section about how the makers of Spartacus giving blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo a credit, along with a little text section about Dalton Trumbo and his involvement. And finally a letter from the American Legion is also included, which objected to the hiring of Dalton Trumbo. I found parts of this overall "blacklist" section to be informative, but a tad on the disappointing side.
A fairly amusing letter from the MPAA is also on this disc, stating a lot of the cuts and changes that should be made to the script before production began. By today’s standards some of the requested cuts are for scenes that seem rather tame.
Storyboards by Saul Bass can also be found here, with only a few images specifically for the battle sequences. Promotional materials are also included on the disc, which consists of an original theatrical trailer, posters, lobby cards, ads and even segments from a comic book. Its your typical presentation where you use your remote to flip through them but is nice treat none-the-less.
You also get a section devoted to Stanley Kubrick, which only contains a fairly brief bio on the director (as well as some photos). There are also some sketches by him. Not a very thorough section but worth looking through.
And closing off the nice (if not spectacular set) is an insert by Stephen Farber on the production. There’s also a brief not on the multiple versions of the film, including the original 202-minute version and the theatrical, censored, 189-minute version. This DVD includes the 1991, restored-as-best-they-could 196-minute version.
The supplements overall are pretty good, though maybe some more on the blacklist and the multiple versions of the film would have been welcome. Still, the commentary, one of my favourites, make this release worthwhile.
Open for improvement in the picture department (it would look fantastic on Blu and if Criterion used the same master for it it would be an improvement over the HD DVD release) and the supplements could have more, but as it stands I still think this is the best release for the film so far and the commentary makes it more than worthwhile.