In the following joint review, John J. Puccio and Yunda Eddie Feng wrote up their opinions of the film, and in addition John wrote up the video, audio, extras, and concluding remarks.
The Film According to John:
The 1950s were a time of change, and not a little trepidation, for the movie industry. Television was the enemy, keeping people in their homes, and Hollywood was doing everything it could to lure viewers back into theaters. It was the age of widescreen color, Cinerama, CinemaScope, 3-D, stereo sound, and the grand extravaganza. It was the era of "Ben Hur," "The Ten Commandments," "El Cid," and their casts of thousands. And at the end of the decade, released in 1960, came the best and most intelligent of the blockbusters, Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus." It is fitting that one of the finest of its breed should be among the first of its kind to make it to HD-DVD. Although no home theater can fully replicate the big movie-screen experience, "Spartacus" on HD-DVD, fully restored (if not fully cleaned up), is as striking today as ever. It is a film fully worthy of its ranking as a super spectacular.
The character of Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas, is, of course, based on the real historical figure, an escaped gladiator-slave who led an army of fellow slaves in revolt against the legions of the Roman Republic in the first century, B.C. The movie is notable not only for its expected sword play and scenery, but for the genuine complexity of its characters, their relationships, and their political intrigues. It is a story of both inward and outward conflicts, common territory for director Kubrick and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. In addition to Douglas, other stars of the film include Jean Simmons as Varinia, the slave with whom Spartacus falls in love, Sir Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman general, Charles Laughton as Gracchus, a scheming Roman senator, Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, an obsequious slave trader, and Tony Curtis as Antoninus, a body servant to Crassus and singer of songs. In age before CGI graphics, it features a multitude of extras making up the slave army and the legions of Rome. It's quite a sight to behold.
The Film According to Eddie:
When I first watched the film on disc, I skipped over the entire movie just to watch the scene where the slaves rise in unison, all shouting, "I'm Spartacus!" I'm telling you, despite the simplicity of the on-screen action, the emotions stirred by the scene overwhelmed me. My eyes misted over, mirroring star Kirk Douglas's reaction to what was happening.
I first saw "Spartacus" when I was about six or seven. One evening, my dad, my mom, and I sat down to watch "Spartacus." I didn't remember much of the film, obviously, but I got the feeling that my dad was really impressed with it.
When I first got "Spartacus" in the mail, I gave my dad a ring to tell him about it. He was happy, of course, and he told me that my grandfather had taken him to see the movie back when he was a teenager. I guess watching "Spartacus" with me was my father's way of way of passing down some sort of cinematic legacy to me. I intend to watch it with my dad again some time. I also plan on watching "Spartacus" with my children. In a way, this film is the ultimate family film. Spartacus fights not only for freedom but also for dignity, family, brotherhood, and father-son relations. The film is a moving experience but not in the Robin Williams schmaltz sense. Rather, here is a film based on ideals, convictions, and moral vigor that enthralls through sheer force of intellect.
Back in the day, Kirk Douglas eagerly sought the title role in "Ben-Hur." Director William Wyler chose Charlton Heston instead, offering the role of Messala to Douglas. Miffed, the hotheaded Douglas decided to make his own Roman epic. He secured the rights to "Spartacus," a novel written by Howard Fast, and hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. Now, Trumbo was on the blacklist as one of the "Hollywood Ten," so he had been writing screenplays with pseudonyms. (The Hollywood blacklist lead to anomalies such as French writer Pierre Boulle winning the Oscar for "adapting" his own novel for "Bridge on the River Kwai," despite the fact that he didn't write the screenplay and didn't speak a word of English!) At any rate, Douglas worked as the executive producer of the film, and he decided to go ahead and openly credit Trumbo for writing the screenplay. I remember once reading a magazine article about the making of "Spartacus" where Douglas discussed Trumbo's contributions to the film. Douglas said that one day, Trumbo walked up to him looking at him weirdly and softly said, "Thank you." History has been kind to Mr. Douglas--he is credited with breaking the blacklist.
In the film, Douglas stars as Spartacus, a Thracian slave sold to Batiatus (a hilarious Peter Ustinov), a gladiator trainer. Eventually, Spartacus leads a slave revolt that threatens to collapse the Roman system. Sir Laurence Olivier stars as Crassus, the ambitious Roman senator who seeks to become dictator of Rome. Crassus actually believes in the greatness of Rome as an ideal, and he sets out to quash Spartacus's rebellion. What makes this film so endlessly fascinating is that the "bad guys" fight for their beliefs as much as the "good guys" do. To get a sense of how good the script is, there is a scene near the end of the film where Crassus talks about drawing up lists of Rome's enemies, a cleverly off-handed way of referring to the blacklist.
Jean Simmons plays Varinia, Spartacus's love interest, Tony Curtis plays Antoninus, a "singer of songs," and the sly Charles Laughton plays Gracchus, Crassus's main opponent in the Roman Senate. Laughton and Ustinov would've stolen the movie had it not been for the power of Douglas and Olivier's acting. The "corpulence" dialogue between the two "big" actors is a marvel of screenwriting.
Some time ago, I wrote about how powerful it was to see actual airplanes and ships recreate the attack on Pearl Harbor in the film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" A similar effect takes place here, where a real cast of thousands was employed for the massive battle scenes. There are matte shots, of course, but still, for the most part, the people that you see on screen were actually physically there as opposed to the computer-generated "cast" of thousands we see in modern-day epics.
Much brou-haha has been made about the fact that Stanley Kubrick directed "Spartacus." Some think that the film fits neatly into Kubrick's oeuvre, how he never made the same movie twice. Others think that it was a shame how their beloved director was shoehorned into the project as a gun-for-hire after the original director left due to creative differences with Kirk Douglas. You want to know what I think? Except for "Paths of Glory" and "Dr. Strangelove," Kubrick was overrated. Just because Kubrick's films are difficult to understand does not necessarily make him a genius. Personally, I don't think that Kubrick directed "Spartacus" at all. He was just there to set up a few shots and to keep the Director's Guild from fining the production for violation of guild rules about actors/producers who seize control from directors. Every minute of the film feels like it was directed by Kirk Douglas.
A few years ago, DreamWorks drummed up publicity for "Gladiator" by comparing it to "Spartacus." While I liked the Oscar-winning "Gladiator" (Best Picture, no less), I think that the comparison is rather off key. Aside from both being Roman epics with gladiators, the two films don't share much story-wise. The contemporary film most like "Spartacus" is another Best Picture winner, "Braveheart."
If you pay attention to the way Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" plays out, you'll find that its screenplay basically follows in the footsteps of the one for "Spartacus." Hero seeks a peaceful life. Hero is forced to fight. Hero sets fire to an enemy garrison. Hero leads army to multiple, unexpected victories. Hero is betrayed by supposed allies. Hero loses to archenemy in a climactic battle. Hero is executed in a crucifix-like (Christ figure, anyone?) position. The battles in "Braveheart" occur within the rules set by "Spartacus." Even the tone of the endings of both films match. We are left with a feeling of ambiguity--do we cheer, or do we weep?
"Spartacus" is not without its faults. For example, there is a scene where a spear is thrown, and its trajectory curves upwards rather than downwards. The acting by John Gavin and John Dall can be pretty wooden and almost campy. Tony Curtis has some laughably bad moments, particularly during the scene where he first meets Olivier ("For whom did you practice this wondrous talent?" "For the children of my master whom I taught the classics.") Curtis does overcome his lousy line readings and rises to the occasion when he joins the other slaves in shouting "I'm Spartacus."
However, "Braveheart" had terrible continuity errors in editing, yet those mistakes were not enough to overwhelm the film. "Spartacus" is too great an enterprise, both cinematically and historically speaking, to be undone by small factors. The final film is greater than the sum of its parts.
True to form, as "Spartacus" is a fairly long sit (over three hours, with an overture and an intermission), some parts will seem redundant or feel like padding. However, no long film feels like an epic without some "fat" attached. In every way, an epic is supposed to overwhelm you with its grandeur, ambitions, heft. "Spartacus" ranks right up there with "Ben-Hur," "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "Heat," "Schindler's List," and "Saving Private Ryan."
Spoiler alert: If you wish to avoid having the ending of the film ruined for you, skip down to the next paragraph. Allow me to go back to the "I'm Spartacus!" scene. After the slaves are defeated by Crassus, they are rounded up and chained. The Romans promise to spare the lives of the slaves on the condition that they identify the living or dead person of Spartacus. Spartacus doesn't see much sense in having the survivors of his army slaughtered, so he prepares to surrender himself. As he stands up, Antoninus rises and shouts out "I'm Spartacus!" The rest of the captured slaves pick up the defiant cry, and the film cuts to a shot of a stunned Crassus--he cannot believe that these people would all die rather than live on as slaves. The lush music score swells mightily. It's not a particularly lengthy segment, nor is it written especially well. Indeed, it could've been a corny moment. However, once again, the strength and conviction of the mighty Douglas (and his powerful chin) carry the day.
One funny note: As I was watching "Spartacus" at my best friend's place, his girlfriend, who had never seen the film, said that it looked and sounded familiar. She said this right around the scene where Tony Curtis talks about "the classics," and I had to laugh. She recognized this film from the clip that they show in "Clueless" (incidentally, a film released in the same year as "Braveheart"). How cute. :-)
The HD-DVD presents the film in the 1991 restored cut at three-and-a-quarter hours. For those people who may worry about getting that much high-definition material onto a single side of a single dual-layered HD-DVD, I can assure you it is quite possible using VC-1, and the entire movie played straight through in 1080 resolution without a hitch.
The movie's original 2.20:1, 70 mm theatrical dimensions are here rendered well enough, with colors that are deep and vibrant. There is perhaps more grain than I'd like to have seen in this restored print, though, noticeable in large areas of sky or field, and there is the occasional age fleck, as well as what look suspiciously like video noise and compression artifacts. Oh, well. Whatever flaws one may see are more than compensated by the fine detail and delineation of the high-def transfer.
By comparison to the regular SD edition, the HD-DVD displays not only better definition but brighter, richer, and more vivid colors, with deeper and more intense black levels. It is a marked improvement all the way around, noise and artifacts or not.
The standard-edition's Dolby Digital 5.1 remastered sound was excellent for its age and typical of movie-theater sonics--very wide, very dynamic, but not a little bright, thin, hard, and edgy. The HD-DVD's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 is marginally smoother and a bit less brittle. Although there is still not a lot of surround activity, the DD+ is an improvement in most ways.
Understandably, with a film so long as this one, there wasn't much room left for extras. Besides, the previous Universal DVD release didn't have any bonus items, either. For extras, you have to go to the Criterion Collection. Anyway, what you get on the HD-DVD are a measly sixteen scene selections, a "My Scenes" favorites list, an elapsed-time indicator, English, French, and Spanish spoken languages, and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
To be honest, as nice as it is to have the fully-restored version of "Spartacus" on HD-DVD, it is a tad long for a single sitting, and I am not convinced that all of the restored scenes, over thirty minutes of them, are entirely necessary. Nevertheless, one always has recourse to the fast-forward button in subsequent viewings, and the newly upgraded high-definition picture quality makes it a film especially worth owning.