Universal/1960/196m/WS 2.35

     Spartacus is an exciting film to watch on many levels. As a pure action adventure, the early training and revolt scenes are thrilling. In terms of epic scale, the sweeping depiction of the ultimate clash between Roman legions led by Crassus and the rebel army is majestically choreographed by director Stanley Kubrick. The long pan over the legion of dead twisted rebel bodies alone is worth owning this disc set. But Spartacus is not just a physical assault on the senses; the political battle for the future of Rome is depicted in exciting fashion in the philosophical clash between Gracchus, spiritual leader of the Roman senate and the aristocratic Crassus. The intellectual battle for Rome takes place in beautifully designed sets of the Senate chambers and Roman baths.
     Less prominent as a major element in the structure of the film is the romance between Spartacus and Varinia, which is developed to humanize the larger than life figure of the rebel leader, and on this level it does work. No, this not "the" great love story, but the romantic development also provides softer interludes between the larger and most powerful cogs in the Spartacus engine.
     An exquisite example of the power of the combined film elements is the bouts of the matched pairs. When Spartacus and Draba, played by Woody Strode, stalk and slash each other round the confines of the gladiator ring, Alex North's magnificent score achieves it finest moments. The strains of North's music match perfectly to the movement of the actors and this becomes a ballet-like set piece, a precious gem adorning the overall wonderful production. For more than eight minutes the high drama of the bout builds with no dialogue whatsoever and ultimately culminates in a scene restored from the fangs of the censors when Olivier's Crassus executes the final thrust of the ballet, the last note of music written in a spray of blood upon Olivier's face.
     This beautifully made film is enriched by a variety of fine performances. Although Kirk Douglas has often been unfairly accused of being a one-dimensional actor, it is the animal intensity of Douglas's screen presence that infuses Spartacus with incredible power. Every close-up extracts levels of meaning to the character that scripted dialogue or action would be hard-pressed to express over excess pages. Douglas's hardened, sculpted physique perfectly represents the image of the fiery gladiator. The physicality of this performance exists internally as well as externally and ranks with the best screen appearances of Kirk Douglas.
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Pairs to the deathİUniversal

     In perfect compliment to Douglas's Spartacus is Laurence Olivier's effete Crassus. Olivier's portrayal is a masterful exhibition of an actor acting. While Douglas's footprints are deeply embedded impressions, Olivier glides effortlessly over the slick path of aristocratic misdeeds. Charles Laughton does a marvelous turn as Gracchus, portraying the senator in cynical bravura fashion. Laughton's scenes with Peter Ustinov are thoroughly enjoyable. Ustinov was honored with the Best Supporting Actor Award for his convincing interpretation of Lencious Batiatus, owner of the gladiatorial school. Ustinov's pious posturing of subservience masked a fascinating portrait of a survivor. All the style and mannerisms that comprise the breath of Ustinov's physicality are richly wielded by the actor at his best. The characterizations and sub-plots that exist within Spartacus raise the level of the overall production. And there's no denying the chemistry that Jean Simmons playing Varinia generates with Douglas.
    It appears that the DVD transfer for Spartacus is made from a composite master, thereby losing out on some of the most important DVD benefits. There is also some edge enhancement that detracts from the image. The widescreen images of Spartacus would have surely benefited greatly from an anamorphic component transfer. Still, this is the best Spartacus has looked since the Harris/Katz restoration. The color is full range and seldom looks worn. Difficult scenes that depend on shadow detail, like when Spartacus first meets Varinia are well handled. The Dolby Digital  5:1 sound is clean and shows off the Alex North score handsomely. I must say that I was pining away for the marvelous commentary extras that appeared on the Criterion Collection special edition of a number of years ago. C'est la DVD.

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