Review: Spartacus (1960)
Of the stable of movie reviewers here at Cineluxe, I am probably the least qualified to review Stanley Kubrick’s epic historical drama, Spartacus. I certainly don’t possess the encyclopedic film knowledge or ability to dissect filming styles like Mike Gaughn, nor have the ability to draw wide parallels and comparisons like Dennis Burger. But what I can bring to this review is a fresh set of eyes and perspective, unsullied by previous experience and unburdened by any real knowledge of the film, as this was my first viewing. What I can hopefully answer is the straightforward question, “Is it worth my time/money to watch Spartacus?”
Doing even the slightest bit of digging into the film reveals it was not the smoothest production. After failing to get the title role in Ben Hur, Kirk Douglas was looking for a major project for his production company, Bryna Productions, and he optioned
Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus. Fast was initially hired to adapt his work into a screenplay, but was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood blacklist at the time, writing screenplays under pseudonyms. Trumbo apparently turned the script around in two weeks and Douglas insisted that Trumbo be given on-screen credit for the film and publicly announced Trumbo as the writer, effectively ending the blacklist.
The original director, Anthony Mann, was fired by Douglas after the first week of filming, and a 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick (who had worked with Douglas on Paths of Glory just three years earlier) was brought in. However, this is the only film where Kubrick was not given complete creative control, and it included a significantly higher budget—$12 million (equivalent to $105 million today)—and far larger cast than anything he’d previously worked on. Disagreements persisted throughout the production, based on Kubrick’s shooting style, pacing, the screenplay, and choice of location.
SPARTACUS AT A GLANCE
Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 gladiatorial epic looks suitably spectacular after receiving the 4K HDR treatment, with an able assist from the Dolby Atmos mix.
The 4K resolution gives images great sharpness and depth throughout, with the HDR subtly accentuating highlights while bringing out rich colors, like the Legion’s crimson uniforms.
The conservative Atmos mix stays mainly in the front channels, which give the epic score plenty of room to breathe, but occasionally spreads into the surrounds for things like thunderstorms.
Despite all that, the film was a massive box-office success, receiving seven Academy Award nominations and winning four, including Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design.
With a run time of three hours and 17 minutes, watching Spartacus is a fairly significant time investment. While the film’s 1960 opening ran 202 minutes, the film received a pretty major trim—41 minutes—for a re-release in 1967. It received an extensive restoration in 1992, backed by Steven Spielberg, and while the cut footage—including the “infamous” bath scene between Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis)—was restored, the prints from the premiere were apparently lost, and there are two short scenes that no longer exist.
For its 55th Anniversary, the film was given another major restoration that included creating a new true-4K digital intermediate. A title card at the film’s conclusion notes, “2015 Digital Restoration 6K scan from original large format Technirama Film Elements 4K color correction and digital restoration, 7.1 channel audio by NBCUniversal Studio Post.” The 4K Blu-ray includes a DTS:X soundtrack, while the Kaleidescape version reviewed here features Dolby Atmos.
Born into slavery, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is saved from death when purchased by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who runs a school that trains gladiators to fight and die “for ladies and gentleman of quality, those who appreciate a fine kill.” While in training, Spartacus meets and falls in love with another slave, Varinia (Jean Simmons). After Varinia is sold, Spartacus leads a revolt and overthrows the soldiers at Batiatus’ camp. This revolt grows into an idea to rise up to free all the slaves of Italy, to create an army of gladiators that could fight their way to freedom to leave Italy forever to return to their homelands.
After the slave army conducts a variety of raids on Roman garrisons where they gather treasure and more freed slaves, the Roman Senate enacts a plan to send Legions to crush Spartacus’ army.
Spartacus is classic old-school, epic Hollywood filmmaking. It opens with a four-minute musical overture, followed by another near-four-minutes of credits, and even includes a mid-film intermission with a two-minute Entr’acte. With its run time, there is plenty of time to develop characters’ stories, appreciate Spartacus’ rise to power and march across Italy, and delve into the political intrigue happening in Rome, though the pacing does feel a bit slow at times.
What drives Spartacus is the strong performances of the leads. Likely motivated to show William Wyler he picked the wrong guy for Ben Hur, Douglas delivers a powerful portrayal, doing much of his acting with his eyes, saying more with a stare, a glare, a squint, or a furrowed brow than he does with his mouth. Olivier’s Crassus is a strong foil to Douglas, but the star of
the show for me was Ustinov, who seems to revel in his role as successful citizen turned sycophant to the Empire, tossing in off-handed comments and jokes that bring a bit of levity to the story, an example of which: “A gladiator is like a stallion that must pampered. Oiled, bathed, shaved, massaged, taught to use your heads.”
Spartacus’ influence on Gladiator is clear, though that later film relies far more on gladiatorial-battle set pieces and the CGI spectacle of recreating the Roman Colosseum. What Spartacus lacks in modern computer trickery, it makes up for in sheer
numbers, augmenting its cast with eight thousand Spanish soldiers to double as Romans for the climatic battle, and doing much of its shooting on location (including California’s Hearst Castle—and anyone who has ever been on the tour will recognize the swimming pool at what is supposed to be Crassus’ estate), which looks fantastic captured in the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format.
The quality of this transfer is apparent before the film even starts, as the title credits are razor-sharp, clean, and clear.
The opening shots reveal a natural bit of film grain in the blue skies, but images have incredible depth and sharpness, letting you see for miles into the distance. Resolution is impressive throughout, with individual pebbles and stones visible in the rocky ground, or the frayed edges on the ragged sleeves of the slaves’ tunics, the detail of the embroidery, or the scuffs and wear in leather. The detail lets you clearly know what the fabric of each actor’s costume would feel like, and reveals the quality differences between classes. The resolution also reveals incredible facial detail in closeups, clearly showing every pore, wrinkle, and line in Douglas’ leathery, sunburnt face.
One of the downsides to suddenly revealing everything in a film—especially one that is now 60 years old—is that some of the filming techniques and shortcuts of the day are apparent. For example, there is an interior scene where it is obvious the brick and mortar of the walls is just set-dressing façade. It’s also clear when they are shooting on an interior set rather than on location. And that the groups of Roman soldiers in some long-focus shots are not actually groups of soldiers.
Also curious is the filming decision to nearly always greatly soften the image when showing Varinia. The sharpness of every other scene makes this especially apparent. I can only imagine this was a creative decision of the day, as Simmons was beautiful and had no apparent skin imperfections. (Though her acting was fine, her casting made me think they really wanted Elizabeth Taylor but instead used the closest substitute they could.)
While the grand battle scene is certainly impressive, I was surprised there weren’t more lengthy shots revealing the entirety of the fighting force. However, there are plenty of scenes that show off an innumerable amount of people either marching, preparing for battle, or starting to charge.
Also impressive is the training that occurs at Batiatus’ gladiator camp. It’s clear the actors are doing their own stunts, some of which required a fair bit of dexterity and stamina, and it appears that some people are actually being injured. For example, at the 54-minute mark, Spartacus fights Marcellus (Charles McGraw), and the higher resolution and color reveal that McGraw is actually bleeding from a wound, and you see Douglas actually smashing his face into the cooking pot.
This new transfer greatly benefits from the HDR grading, with interior scenes having deep shadow detail, and inky, clean blacks. We also enjoy added highlights from sunlight glinting off sweating skin or in burning firelight. Having never seen the film prior, I can’t say for certain but it appears that they took a pretty conservative pass with the HDR, and definitely remained true to the film’s original look. The wider color gamut brings out the richness of the crimson of the
Roman soldiers and Senators, the gleam of shining gold, the red-orange as villages burn at night, and just a more natural quality to skin tones.
Sonically, it felt like about 90% of the audio came from the front three left, center, and right speakers. If the surrounds were ever employed, it was sparingly, and certainly not in a manner that ever caused distraction or undue attention. The sweeping score is big and dynamic, with its soundstage given a chance to open up across the width of the front speakers with a bit of the strings mixed up into the front height channels for added dimension. The only other time I was aware of any height-channel activity was during a thunderstorm were a bit of the storm is mixed overhead. They also use the subwoofer to bring weight to the musical score, and to punctuate some of the battle scenes or marching. Dialogue is kept to the center channel, and it is clear and intelligible throughout.
Spartacus remains a spectacle and triumph of its time, and it is the kind of massive Hollywood film of epic scale we don’t often see any longer. Further, the care and effort that went into this restoration are simply stunning to behold, letting you appreciate details audiences 60 years ago likely missed. Getting back to my opening question, “Is it worth your time/money to watch?” Absolutely.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.