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review added: 7/21/99
updated: 4/5/01




Spartacus

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

The Films of Stanley Kubrick on DVD

Spartacus (Criterion)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
Spartacus
1960 (2001) - Universal (Criterion)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
198 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.20:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:35:58, in chapter 22), double Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with producer/star Kirk Douglas, preservationist Robert A. Harris, actor Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis and designer Saul Bass), Screenwriter Analysis and Score Variations (rough cut notes by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo read by Michael McConnohie with additional narration by Barbara Goodson - also includes additional score compositions by Alex North not heard in the theatrical release of the film), Restoration Demonstration featurette, color bars, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (46 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 3.0), subtitles: English

Disc Two: Supplemental Material
63 mins, NR, full frame and letterboxed widescreen (various aspect ratios), single-sided, single-layered, double Amaray keep case packaging, 4 deleted scenes, Behind the Scenes at Gladiator School archival footage, Spartacus Via Newsreel loop of 5 newsreel excerpts, Jean Simmons TV interview (circa 1960), Peter Ustinov Reminisces 1992 interview, Peter Ustinov TV interview (circa 1960), The Hollywood Ten short, essays with stills: Spartacus and the Blacklist, Dalton Trumbo and the American Legion boycott letter, The MPAA Responds (letter from the MPAA with stills on changes needed for script to get approval), Saul Bass storyboards, promotional materials: production stills, lobby cards, poster art and print ads, Dell comic book reproduction, original theatrical re-release trailer (circa 1961), Kubrick and Spartacus essay with stills, storyboards for the finale by Kubrick, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, feature access, languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none



Spartacus Spartacus
1960 (1998) - Universal

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/ B-

Specs and Features


196 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:47:45, during intermission), Amaray keep case packaging, production notes, cast and crew bios, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Close Captioned


NOTE: The DTS track that was originally to have been included on the new Criterion Spartacus DVD was omitted to allow for the highest possible picture quality.

Politics, revolution and inspired leadership weren't just what this film was about - it was how this film was made. First off, although Spartacus was directed by Stanley Kubrick, it's not really his film. It's not going to fit easily into his cannon. What I mean by that, is that he was never really happy with it in the first place - he had absolutely no control over it, and its themes don't really gel with the themes in his other films.

Kubrick liked to rip the shell off of the modern man. He liked to take a man, who lives his everyday life by a certain code or certain rules, and then set him in a world where those rules no longer apply. There are several examples: the boxer in the underworld in Killer's Kiss, a logical writer in an illogical haunted house in The Shining or even (most recently) a straight-laced doctor in a life-threatening orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick also had a way of setting his audience on edge, either with music or long, drawn-out close-ups of people going through a series of emotions. None of that is apparent in Spartacus.

Spartacus is an epic Hollywood film, filled with all the music and camera shots that define that genre. I think, as a Hollywood film, Spartacus is virtually perfect. It's so perfect, in fact, that it ended up becoming the template for the modern epic. Making full use of the wide screen, Spartacus tells the story of a slave saved from an immediate death sentence, only to be sold into a different kind of slavery - the life of a gladiator. Trained in the ancient art, Spartacus himself (played by producer and "shot caller" Kirk Douglas) ends up leading a revolt across Imperial Rome and the rest of Italy, fighting for his rights as a man. It's a great film... big and entertaining.

I really think Spartacus is pretty much the perfect studio flick. For its time, and even ours now, it has just about everything that a major studio epic needed: big stars, big vista shots and huge battles. But as a Kubrick film, it disappoints. Maybe that's because it's not as layered as his other films... or maybe not. Either way, even to his dying day, Kubrick would have been happy having never made the film in the first place.

The Criterion Collection has once again done us all proud with its newest gilding of a classic. Having faithfully remastered this film from restored prints, their new issue of Spartacus on DVD rocks. The anamorphic widescreen picture is crisp and light, with no source or digital defects to be found. The colors are perfect, the skin tones are supple and the blacks are deep and solid. There are only a few problems with the transfer that I caught, but you know what? It just doesn't matter. Spartacus looks fantastic. I don't think any of us could ask for a better-looking version of this film in our homes. It's also important to note that this DVD marks the first time (in a VERY long time) in which the film's opening credit sequence (by Saul Bass) will be seen in the original colors it was meant to be seen in (see the Restoration Demonstration on Disc One for more on this).

The sound on the new DVD version is also remastered. We're given a choice between a full-sounding Dolby Digital 3.0 (which faithfully preserves the original experience) and a rootin' tootin, full-blown 5.1 remix. I chose the 5.1, jacked my receiver way up, sat back and just watched this film march past me. The neighbors banged on the door - I just let them in and watched as they sat back and marveled at the thing. I even forgot to eat my Cheetos, I was so enthralled.

Just for comparison's sake, the original Universal DVD (if you even care) was an okay disc. The picture looks fine, but is non-anamorphic. Overall, it's an okay transfer - the colors are solid and there's not too much noise. But it looks to me like the original laserdisc transfer was re-used for this disc, so you will see some of the kinds of analog artifacting and edge enhancement that are typical on DVDs using recycled transfers. Like this new Criterion edition, it's also the "remastered director's cut", adding back footage cut by studio censors. The most notable replacement, is the Sir Laurence Olivier speech to Tony Curtis, pertaining to his bisexuality (but using a seafood metaphor) - classic stuff. The sound quality on Universal's version is pretty good as well, in fully re-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1. And that was it for Universal. No extras, no nothing.

Thankfully, Criterion's remedied that with a passion. Their new edition is a two-disc set, so expect the works. On Disc One, along with the film we get one of the greatest historical audio commentaries ever done. It was produced by Criterion for their 1992 laserdisc release, and it holds up just fine today. Robert Harris' dry-wit starts things off, with an explanation of why we see the word "Overture" plastered on our screen during the 4 and a half minute... er, overture... at the beginning of the film. And we keep going from there - no pauses, no breaks. We get lots of info on the origins, the filming, the struggles and the restoration of this epic film, straight from the mouths of Kirk Douglas (pre-stroke), the late Saul Bass, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast and producer Edward Lewis. I've always loved this commentary and now you can too. It really is one of the best things ever done by Criterion... and that's saying a lot.

Also on Disc One is a neat extra: writer Dalton Trumbo's notes, taken during an early rough cut session. You can watch the film and listen to Michael McConnohie read Trumbo's thoughts about scenes before they were changed. Also on this track are unused pieces of Alex North's score, in the places they would have appeared in the film had they been used. You'll also find the above-mentioned Restoration Demonstration. Usually, Criterion did these as text with video wipes. But this time, it's a short featurette with Robert Harris walking us through what he and his team did to get this film looking as wonderful as they did. There's a few examples of before and after, as well as the aforementioned info on the opening credits.

Disc Two rocks just as hard as Disc One. We get 4 deleted scenes (5 really, because the first one is a look at the UK and US versions of a scene that changes markedly based on just a few short cutaways). The third scene is an audio cue that was lost to the ravages of both time and studio morals and the fourth is a script excerpt with stills. It's an interesting look at some stuff we'd never get to see otherwise. Next up is some archival footage of Douglas and company training at "gladiator school". It's presented with music from the score, but it's quite apparent that this was meant to be a cheesy studio promo piece, with a equally cheesy narration: "Here's Peter Ustinov eating a glazed donut. Cheers Pete!" We then go on to the fluffy archive stuff, like newsreel footage (there are 5 excerpts) and a pair of standard TV interviews with Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov (complete with dead space for the local entertainment anchor to insert questions). It's neat but, as I mentioned, fluffy. Resurrected from the laserdisc is a 24 minute interview with Ustinov, conducted at his home. He discusses all the regular actor issues and how the film stands up.

Rounding out the rest of the supplements are some text and art heavy options. You get essays on the Hollywood Blacklist, a letter from the MPAA on changes needed on the script, Saul Bass' gorgeous storyboards and promo materials up the wazoo, including poster art, a comic book reproduction, production stills and lobby cards. There's also an essay on Kubrick, as well as his sketches & storyboards for the end scene. You'll also find a short film on the famed Hollywood Ten, which is a sort of anti-propaganda piece on the screenwriters sent to prison for not cooperating with Congress during the Red Scare. Finally, there's an early re-release trailer for Spartacus that has seen better days. What else can we say? This is a beautiful special edition and it's a DVD that all should own.

You'll soon be able to replace the awful Warner Kubrick discs with remastered versions. But you can start your Kubrick DVD replacement spree early - pick this new Criterion disc up as soon as its released. I have no idea how Criterion keeps pumping these beautiful discs out, but I really don't care as long as they keep doing it. If only we could go back to the time when studios didn't care about special editions and companies like Image, Criterion and Synapse were licensed to make them all look as good as this. Don't miss it.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com

The Films of Stanley Kubrick on DVD

Spartacus (Criterion)


Spartacus (original)


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