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2002 Films on Disc  Stuart J. Kobak ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Spartacus/A, A

US/1960/Color/2.2:1 Wide Screen/196 minutes/Directed by Stanley Kubrick/Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton/Voyager Criterion Collection/3 discs/CLV-CAV/$124.95 

     What a welcome treat for movie and disc lovers to have this exemplary production of Spartacus available for their collections. A film of this stature deserves the treatment that has gone into the restoration and preservation of the celluloid imagery and production of this three disc set. Included in the package are truly extensive alternate audio track commentary, television interviews, deleted scenes, newsreel footage, original trailer, production stills and more.

     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.

     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.

     On the digital tracks, the original soundtrack of the movie is presented, while analog track one provides commentary written by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in response to the rough cut of the film. Analog track two has rich and varied commentary by Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, designer Saul Bass and restorer Robert A. Harris.

     The multi-layered battles of Spartacus did not all appear on the screen. Behind the scenes, author Howard Fast was battling to make the film of Spartacus faithful to his book, particularly his vision of Spartacus the man. On the secondary audio track, Fast complains that Douglas's Spartacus is too physical, not the thinker that he depicted in his novel. Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton have a battle plan of their own; shaping their characters and dialogue to suit their own egos. Then there is the battle of the blacklist: screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, hired under his own name to script Spartacus, had for almost a decade been on Hollywood's odious blacklist. Douglas, whose company produced the film, opted to break the blacklist by standing by the credit for Trumbo, notwithstanding threats from the Legion of Decency, and other organizations ready to picket the film. In some ways, Douglas's stand was the most heroic battle of all considering that blacklist backlash could have given Spartacus a greater thrashing than the might of Rome's legions many centuries before the film.

     From Kirk Douglas we learn that he never wanted to hire the first director, Anthony Mann, but was influenced to do so at the insistence of the studio. According to Douglas, Mann was dismissed after two weeks of shooting, even though virtually all of the footage he filmed remains in the opening scenes. Douglas, it seems, was involved at every level of production, from casting concepts to interpreting the character of Spartacus for the screen. Edward Lewis, producer of Spartacus, has a slightly different tale of Mann's leaving the production, claiming that Mann asked to be relieved lamenting that" the picture would kill me."

     Howard Fast criticizes the film often with a sense of pride that undercuts the thrust of his points. It seems that Fast is really more concerned with the realization of his own conception that of the ultimate success of the filmed Spartacus. Undoubtedly, Fast harbors some resentment that although initially hired to write the script, Dalton Trumbo was brought in to do a major rewrite. In all fairness to Fast, however, he does rightfully place the greatest scenes of the film at the gladiatorial school.

     Robert Harris is extremely informative taking us through much of the battle to restore Spartacus from the deterioration the surviving prints had gone through. The successful restorer is a Sam Spade finding the real black bird. Bits and pieces to the puzzle that fits together as the final restoration are located by chance as well as diligence. Harris's analysis and commentary at appropriate scenes adds another level to the enjoyment of the production.

     Peter Ustinov, both in the audio commentary and the later taped interview, is not only intelligent in his observations and remembrances, but often hilarious. Ustinov is fond of imitating Charles Laughton, and while this may grow tiresome to a degree, suffering the excess is well worth the resultant hilarity. Ustinov also easily digresses from Spartacus and probably should have been better edited.

     The presentation of the Trumbo comments has been handled in an interesting fashion by the production team. Trumbo, who died in 1976, had composed voluminous notes in response to his viewing of the roughcut of Spartacus and it is from them that his comments have been culled. It is interesting to note that while some of Trumbo's comments are extraordinarily insightful, others are so far afield it is difficult to believe they have originated through the same thought process. At one point he actually suggests that the slave performers dancing before the next day's battle should be cast with a top-notch dance company to enact a major set piece that will blow the audience away. Regardless of inconsistencies in his point of view, Trumbo's comments do offer a precious glimpse into the mind of one of Hollywood's great screenwriters.

     Trumbo is also the credited author of the restored "Oysters and Snails" scene, and while the scene is truly sexually tame by any reasonable standards, what does stand out is the superiority of the writing. The politically sophisticated scene is particularly important in understanding the thinking of Crassus toward "his" Rome.

     One regrets that there is no Stanley Kubrick commentary on the soundtrack, but the acceptable explanation for this seems to be that Kubrick never really considered this a "Kubrick" film. He was brought into it during production and consequently his ultimate input was minimalized as far as the script was concerned. The extraordinary fashion in which the technical aspects of the film have been captured are certainly a tribute to Kubrick's command of the medium. Ultimately, though, it is not difficult to call this a "Douglas" film.

     This disc set will provide you with days of viewing and reexamination. The quality of the transfer is exemplary. Enormous care has been taken to render colors cleanly and accurately. Details in the shadowed and dark scenes are clearly discernible due to the superiority of the transfer. Examine any one of the many crowd sequences and you will find even small faces remarkably in focus. This is a tribute to the chain of elements that link the film to disc. The soundtrack has likewise been given the lush treatment it deserves and sounds accordingly great. The pressing matched the quality of the transfer except for a few minor drop-outs just at the end of side four on my disc set.


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Laser Disc Ratings

12 Monkeys Special/A-,B+ 

12 Monkeys/ B+,B

1941 SE/ C-, B-

a la Mode/B+,B+

A Pure Formality/C,B

After the Fox/C+,B


Albino Aligator/C+,B



American President/ B+, B+


Apocalypse Now/A-,A-

Apollo 13 SpecialA,A

Apollo 13//A,A



Bad and the Beautiful, The/A,B+


Bend of the River/ B, B+

Belle Epoque/B+,A-

Bhagdad Cafe/B,B

Big Country/ B, C

Big Deal on Madonna Street/B,B

Big Picture, The/B,B

Big Trees, The/C+,C+

Bingo Long and His Traveling All-Stars/B+,A

Blood and Wine/B,B

Blue Kite/B+,B


Bordello of Blood/C-,A-



Brazil Special Edition/B+,A-

Bride Came COD/B-,B

Bringing Up Baby/A,B

Brute Force/B+,B+


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/B,A-

Call Nothside 777/B+,C+

Camille Claudel/ A, B+

Canterville Ghost/C+,C+

Caro Diario/A-,A-
Captain from Castile/B,B+

Casino/ C+, B


Cause for Alarm/C,B-

Celestial Clockwork/B+,B-

China Moon/B+,A

Christmas in July/A,B+

Christopher Columbus(1949)/C,C

Come and Get It/B,B+


Courage Under Fire/B,A


Crimson Tide/A-,A

Crossing Guard, The/B,B+

Cutthroat Island/C, A

Dante's Peak/B-/B


Dead Man Walking/C+,B+

Dead Man/C+,A-

Dead Presidents Special/ B+,A

Dersu Uzala/B+,B


Diary of Ann Frank/ A-,B

Dodes'ka-den/ B+, B+

Double Happiness/ B+,B+



Earrings of Madame de.../ B+, B+

Enemy Below/ B, B

Englishman Who Went..../C,B

English Patient/B+,A


Escape from LA/B-,A

Everybody's Fine/C+,C+

Executive Decision/B+,A

Eye for an Eye/B,B+


Family Thing/B,B+
Farewell My Concubine/A-,A

Far Country/ B-, C+

Field of Dreams Special/A-,B+

Field of Dreams/ A-, B

Fierce Creatures/B-,B+

Fires on the Plain/B+,B


First Knight/ C-, B+

First Wives Club/C+,B+

For Whom the Bell Tolls/B-,B+
French Kiss/B-,B+

Frankie Starlight/B+,B


Free Willy 2/B-,B+

Funny Bones/A,A

Get Shorty/ A, A

Goldeneye/ B, A

Ghost Story/B,B

Great Escape(MGM)/A-,B-

Great Expectations/A,B+

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan/B+,C

Grosse Point Blank/A-,A-

Grumpier Old Men/B-,B+

Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag, The/B,C-

Happy Gilmore/ B-, A-

Hard Boiled/B-,B+

Hard Eight/B,C+

Harriet the Spy/B,A

Haunting, The/A,B+

Head Above Water/D+,B


Heaven and Earth/B+,A-

Helen of Troy/C+,B+

Henry V/A,B


Hoop Dreams/A,A

Horseman on the Roof/B-,B

Innocent, The/ C, C

Innocents, The/ A, A-

Interrupted Melody/C+,C

Into the West/A,B+

Inventing the Abbots/B-,B+


Jean de Florette/ A-, B-

Jumanji/ B+, B+

Kansas City/D+,C+





La Dolce Vita/ A, B

Last Dance/B,B+

Last Man Standing/C,B

Last Supper, The/B-,B+

League of Gentlemen/B,B

Leave Her to Heaven/B+,B+

Les Miserables/ B, B+

Liar,Liar Special/B+,A


List of Adrien Messinger/B,B+

Lonely are the Brave/A-,A-
Lord of Illusions/B,A-

Love Jones/B,A-

Mi Familia/A-,A-

Miracle of Morgan's Creek/B,B-


Mission Impossible/C+,B+

Mona Lisa/B+,B+


Mulholland Falls/C+,B

Muriel's Wedding/ B, B+

My Name is Nobody/C,C

Mystery of Rampo/ A-, B

Natural Born Killers/B,B+


Net, The/ C, B+


Nothing Sacred/B,C

Old Man and the Sea/B,B


Peeping Tom/A-,A-
Raw Deal/B+,B
Red Firecracker,Green Firecracker/B+,A


Richard III/A,A


River Wild/B+,A-

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion/B,B

Room at the Top/A-,B



Seven SE/ B+, A

Shawshank Redemption/A-,A

Shining Through/C+,B

Silence of the Lambs/A,A
Sling Blade/A,B+


Something to Talk About/ B-, B+

Spartacus Special Edition/A,A


Star Trek: First Contact/C+,A-

Stars Fell on Henrietta/ C+,B+

Stealing Beauty/B,B

Strange Days/ C+, B+


Sudden Death/ B, A-

Sullivan's Travels/B+,B

Surviving Picasso/C,B+


That Old Feeling/B-,A-

That Thing You Do/B,C+

They Drive By Night/B,B

Thieves(Les Voleurs)/B,B

Things You Do in Denver When You're Dead/D+,B+

This Sporting Life/A-,B+

Timemaster/ D, C

Tom and Viv/B-,B-

Tortilla Flat/B+,B


Trees Lounge/B-,B-

Trigger Effect/B-,B+

Two Bits/C,B


Umbrellas of Cherbourg/B+,B


Usual Suspects/ B-,C+

Valdez is Coming/C+,B-

Vengeance Valley/B,C+


Virtuosity/ C+, A

Wait Until Dark/B,B-

Walk in the Clouds, A/ A-,


Waterworld/ B+, B

White Man's Burden/ B, B+

White Squall/ B,A

Whole Wide World/B,B

Wicked City/ B, C+

Wild Bill/ C+, B

Window to Paris/ B,B

Wonderful,Horrible World Life..../B+,B

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 Films on Disc 1999  Stuart J. Kobak , all rights reserved.