50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Year: 1960 (Restored by Robert A. Harris & James C. Katz in 1991)
Length: 3 hrs 17 mins
Genre: Historical Epic
Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
BD Resolution: 1080p
BD Video Codec: AVC (@ an average 18 mbps)
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (@ an average 3.5 mbps)
French DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Film Rating: PG-13 (Violence, Sexuality)
Release Date: May 25, 2010
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin and Tony Curtis
Screenplay by: Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel by Howard Fast
Executive Producer: Kirk Douglas
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Film Rating: 4/5
Spartacus is a truly unusual Roman epic, for a host of reasons that have been discussed many times by greater minds than mine over the past 50 years. For me, the interest centers on the recruitment of Stanley Kubrick into what was essentially a Kirk Douglas picture, and how Kubrick’s involvement did and did not impact the full measure of the film. Watching the film today, you can see multiple examples of Kubrick’s steady framing – particularly the climactic battle sequence in wide compositions that allow the Roman legions to literally fill the screen. There are also many subtler framing decisions, particularly a late scene with Charles Laughton that has form literally following function. At the same time, I notice today a striking difference in style and tone between the Roman scenes with Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier, where things have a pretty crisp staging and pace to them, and the Kirk Douglas-centered sections of the film, where things take on a different pallor that feels closer to Douglas than Kubrick. That aside, the film continues to impress even now, both due to what choices Kubrick was able to include, and due to some very clever dialogue and performances by Olivier, Laughton and Ustinov. (One early scene where Ustinov, compelled to provide some of his gladiators for an unpaid deathmatch, tries to get his guests to pick the smaller and less expensive fighters, is priceless in itself.)
Spartacus has been released on Blu-ray one week ago as a 50th Anniversary Edition, following past releases on standard definition DVD and HD-DVD, and most notably, an excellent Criterion Collection laserdisc and DVD. The Blu-ray edition holds a high definition picture and sound transfer, along with some of the special features from the Criterion edition, albeit without some helpful explanatory material, and without the terrific commentary recorded for that edition. Further Blu-ray functionality is also part of the package, including the My Scenes bookmarking function and BD-Live access. This has been a controversial release, given that the picture quality has come under intense criticism. Readers of this forum are already familiar with this issue, but I will include a link in the appropriate area.
VIDEO QUALITY 1 ½/5
Spartacus is presented in a 1080p AVC 2.20:1 transfer that apparently uses extensive DNR to try to clean the image, followed by an application of artificial grain to cover the wound. Even on my 40” monitor, I was able to see a notable lack of definition in people’s faces throughout the film, which was profoundly depressing, given the capabilities of this format. For a more thorough and proper discussion of this issue, I give you a link to Robert Harris’ thread about these matters. Given Mr. Harris’ history with the 1991 restoration release of this film, and his familiarity with Kubrick’s intended look, I think he can speak better than anyone else to these issues. http://www.hometheaterforum.com/forum/thread/300552/a-few-words-about-spartacus-in-blu-ray
AUDIO QUALITY 3 ½/5
Spartacus is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English, along with a standard DTS 5.1 mix in French. The sound fares much better than the picture here, with the greatest beneficiary being Alex North’s score, which fills all the channels with authority.
SPECIAL FEATURES 2/5
The Blu-Ray presentation of Spartacus comes with the usual BD-Live connectivity and My Scenes functionality. There are a few special features in standard definition carried over from the superior Criterion release, but without the helpful explanations that could be found there, and most critically, without the group commentary that ties the whole thing together. I think an argument could be made here that things would have gone better had this release been licensed directly to Criterion for Blu-ray release, but that ship has sailed.
Deleted Scenes – (7:40 Total, 480p, Anamorphic) Four of the deleted scenes from the Criterion edition are here, including alternate takes of Spartacus’ first encounter with Varinia, the drastically edited no-Douglas ending of the 1967 cut, and the audio of a final scene with Charles Laughton. Unfortunately, the explanations of this material from the Criterion release have been left out here, which is a real shame.
1960 Interviews – (2:58 and 3:44, 480p, Full Frame) Two period interviews from the Criterion edition are presented here, including one with Peter Ustinov and one with Jean Simmons. The latter interview contains helpful gaps for local reporters to insert themselves asking questions that Simmons then answers as if she was talking directly with them. I should note that the more interesting 1992 Ustinov interview from the Criterion edition has NOT been included, which is another real shame.
Behind the Scenes – (5:11, 480p, Full Frame) Another inclusion from the Criterion edition is this brief look at the staging and rehearsals for the gladiator school in the film. There is no narration to this, and the footage is not in the greatest of shape, but it’s interesting to see Kirk Douglas staging rehearsal fights for the period version of EPK.
Vintage Newsreels – (4:58 Total, 480p, Full Frame) Five period newsreels from the Criterion edition are shown here, featuring appearances at various events and premieres. In one great bit, Kirk Douglas is shown getting his signature, shoeprints, and chin immortalized in cement at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
Theatrical Trailer – (2:45, 480p, Non-Anamorphic) Also from the Criterion edition, we get to see a re-release trailer for the movie after its collection of 4 Oscars.
Image Galleries – One very nice inclusion from the Criterion edition is this collection of images, broken up into sections for Production Stills, Concept Art, Costume Designs, Saul Bass Storyboards, and Posters & Print Art.
BD-Live - The more general BD-Live screen is accessible via the menu, which makes various online materials available, including tickers, trailers and special events.
My Scenes - The usual bookmarking feature is included here.
The film and the special features are subtitled in English, French and Spanish. The usual pop-up menu is present, along with a complete chapter menu.
IN THE END...
Spartacus is a film that certainly deserves attention and a good Blu-ray release. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the full measure of that yet. Due to the serious picture quality issues, and due to a surprisingly skimpy collection of special features, I am forced to recommend that fans of the film rent the standard definition Criterion DVD instead, assuming they don’t already own it.
June 2, 2010.