I was very fortunate almost 25 years ago to be working in the theatre business. It seems that my theatre had been selected to show the “restored” version of the 1960 film SPARTACUS on the big screen. And by big screen, I’m talking about a 1200 seat auditorium with the largest indoor screen in town that wasn’t IMAX. Thankfully the people came and a classic was re-discovered. Now that film has undergone and even more breathtaking restoration and is now available on Blu-ray.
A classic sword and sandal epic, SPARTACUS was star and executive producer Kirk Douglas’ answer to the William Wyler film, BEN HUR, in which Douglas had hope to star. In later years, during interviews, Douglas has stated that SPARTACUS was his way of saying “see, I can do that” to those that doubted him. And he certainly could, creating one of his most memorable roles.
The story begins about 75 years before the birth of Christ. We are first introduced to Spartacus (Douglas) as a slave. When one of his fellow stone carriers collapses from the weight of his labor Spartacus goes to his aid, only to be beaten. In a rage he “hamstrings” his attacker with his teeth. He is about to be put to death when the jovial Batiatus (Ustinov), who runs a gladiator school, comes by and purchases Spartacus and a few of his fellow slaves. The men will train to fight in the arena. They are allowed to bathe, fed well and occasionally are treated to the company of a lady. When his turn comes, Spartacus is paired up with Varinia (Simmons). However, he is too kind and gentlemanly to touch her, which makes him the mockery of his instructor, Marcellus (Charles McGraw), who has been instructed to break Spartacus’ independent spirit. Things take a turn for the worse when a Roman Senator and General, Crassus (Laurence Olivier) manages to arrange two “fights to the death” among the trainees. Chosen for one of those fights is Spartacus, who is spared when his opponent refuses to kill him. Outraged by this even, Spartacus leads a revolt of the fighters and they escape, forming their own army. Spartacus now acts as a type of “Robin Hood,” freeing slaves from their masters and pillaging for treasure.
As an epic, SPARTACUS stands among the best ever made. Rumors of fights between Kubrick and Douglas, Douglas and Olivier, Olivier and Charles Laughton and others are the stories of Hollywood history. All of these very strong personalities managed to put aside whatever their problems were to put together a film that still entertains more than five decades later. As a bonus for film fans, a major scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis was restored in 1991, having been cut because sensors considered it “too erotic.” Over the years, the original sound recordings had been lost. However, the studio engaged Anthony Hopkins, a long-time friend of Olivier’s to dub the late actors voice, while Curtis re-did his own dialogue. It is a fun scene, debating the preference of oysters or snails, and it is as erotic as the sensors feared!
SPARTACUS also has an important role in Hollywood politics. This was the first film to credit screenwriter Dalton Trumbo since he had been blacklisted. The studio was nervous about crediting Trumbo and word is that Kubrick offered to take the screen credit. This upset Kirk Douglas who demanded Trumbo’s name be prominent in the credits. The American Legion picketed the film at theatres until the newly elected President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, walked past their picket line to attend a screening of the film. Thankfully cooler heads have prevailed and we have a film to treasure forever.
Video: Presented in a 2.20:1 aspect ratio, the picture leaps off the screen. The quality and clarity here is even better than I remember from the 1991 restoration.
Audio: The soundtrack is delivered in DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 and is nothing short of amazing. Nothing is left out. Not the sound of a voice or the clang of metal against metal, all perfectly accompanied by Alex North’s Academy Award nominated score.
I Am Spartacus: A Conversation with Kirk Douglas (9:39): The star talks about the making of the film, his casting choices, Stanley Kubrick and the Hollywood “blacklist.” Would have loved to have a full film commentary!
Restoring Spartacus (9:00): A behind the scenes look at how the film was restored, featuring Universal’s Vice President of Content Management Peter Schade, Restoration Project Manager Seanine Bird and Re-Recording Mixer John Blum. Another feature that I wish had run longer.
Deleted Scenes: “Spartacus Meets Varinia” (UK Version) (2:07), “Spartacus Meets Varinia” (US Version) (2:25), “1967 Finale” (2:26) and “Gracchus’ Suicide” (Audio Recording) (0:59). The footage from this scene was lost years ago hence only the audio.
Archival Interviews: With Peter Ustinov (2:57) and Jean Simmons (3:43)
Behind the Scenes Footage (5:11): A behind the scenes look at the swordplay involved in the film.
Vintage Newsreels: “London Ovation” (1:44), “Tony Curtis Honored” (1:12), “Sir Laurence Olivier Returns to Hollywood” (0:35), “Kirk Douglas Honored” (0:51) and “Kirk Douglas Arrives in New York” (0:35).
Image Gallery: A nice assortment of stills, concept art, costume designs, storyboards by opening credit creator Saul Bass as well as posters and print ads.