- May 9, 2003
Spartacus returns to Blu-ray in a thankfully restored edition that provides a night and day contrast from the earlier 2010 release. The new Blu-ray is a lovely piece of work, offering a beautifully detailed high definition picture and a full-throated 7.1 DTS-HD MA mix. This release is truly a pleasure to watch and it’s an easy one to Highly Recommend. And yet the question remains – why wasn’t the 2010 release handled like this?
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1
Audio: English 7.1 DTS-HDMA, French 5.1 DTS
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
Run Time: 3 Hr. 17 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 10/06/2015
The Production Rating: 4/5
During this review, I’m going to quote a bit from my 2010 review, where those observations remain relevant. This next paragraph, covering the movie itself, is one such quote:
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 55 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 re-released on Blu-ray earlier this month as a Restored Edition, following multiple past releases on standard definition DVD and HD-DVD (most notably, an excellent Criterion Collection laserdisc and DVD), and the notorious 2010 Blu-ray release, which had significant picture quality problems. The new Blu-ray edition holds a vastly improved high definition picture and sound transfer, which almost instantly demonstrates the beauty and the epic scope of this production. As part of my reviewing process, I did multiple A/B comparisons from the 2010 Blu to the new 2015 re-release, and the difference was truly breathtaking. On the strength of the transfer alone, it is easy to Recommend this release. I should also note that the new release includes the same special features as the 2010 disc, again without the terrific commentary recorded by Criterion for their edition. The new release adds a pair of new special features – a short 2015 interview with Kirk Douglas (the piece runs nearly 10 minutes but much of that time is taken up with clips from the film or from clips of the infamous HUAC hearing where Dalton Trumbo challenged Joe McCarthy) and a new featurette about the work done over the past year by Universal to give Spartacus a proper restoration.
So I do Highly Recommend this release. But we need to discuss a fairly serious matter here. It’s not that this is a problematic release. In fact, the 2015 release is a spectacular release that any film aficionado would be proud to have in their library. My question is: Why wasn’t this approach taken with the 2010 release? The fact that a great job has been done here only serves to point up the problem with the prior release. Fans have a right to expect better quality standards – particularly for what Universal has acknowledged is an important part of their history. If this fine restoration work could be done in 2015, there’s no reason that it could not have been performed in 2010.
I also need to note that the current edition’s packaging is extremely similar to the 2010 release, using the same cover image of Kirk Douglas on horseback. I strongly urge consumers to be very careful which Blu-ray of this movie they purchase. Make sure that it says “Restored Edition” or has a slipcover saying “Restored Edition”. Make sure you’re not accidentally purchasing the “50th Anniversary Edition” – that way lies despair. If somehow you should make that mistake, here’s how you’ll know. When you start the disc, the movie images on the 2015 disc fill the screen. On the 2010 disc, they were reduced. Also, when the Overture starts, there’s a telltale difference between the discs. On the 2015 disc, the Overture title is presented over a black screen. On the 2010 disc, the Overture title begins over an image of Kirk Douglas from the film.
Video Rating: 5/5 3D Rating: NA
Spartacus is presented in a 1080p AVC 2.20:1 transfer (at about 22 mbps) that offers a breathtaking amount of detail throughout. This is an unabashedly beautiful picture! I spent a fair amount of time doing A/B comparisons between the older Blu-ray and this one, and to be honest, this new release makes the older one look like a standard definition transfer. Right away in the opening scene, you can now see a lot more detail in the hillsides and the slaves’ work. The early confrontation between Marcellus and Spartacus now boasts fine facial details for both men, where the prior Blu smeared most of that over. The big battlefield confrontation between Spartacus and Crassus benefits in a big way. Where the prior Blu showed the distant forces as an obscure, amorphous blur, the new transfer offers crisp detail – you can tell the various fighters apart at a distance. Frankly, the new transfer puts the old one to shame. Some scenes I tried to compare actually looked out of focus on the older Blu – on the new release, the grain and the detail has thankfully been restored.
Audio Rating: 5/5
Spartacus is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix in English (averaging at 4.9 mbps and going up to 6.3 mbps in the big moments), along with a standard DTS 5.1 mix in French. The new 7.1 sound mix, built from the 1990 6-track mix, provides a fair amount of atmosphere and depth throughout. And as with the older mixes, the greatest beneficiary is Alex North’s score, which fills all the channels with authority.
Special Features Rating: 2.5/5
The Blu-Ray presentation of Spartacus carries over the same special features in standard definition 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 continue to 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 long sailed.) The new release adds a pair of special features – a short new interview with Kirk Douglas and a featurette about the new restoration. These are both nice moments, and they elevate my score a bit, but they don’t obviate the missing commentary. Collectors of this film will still need to hang on to their Criterion DVD for that.
I Am Spartacus: A Conversation with Kirk Douglas – (9:39, 1080p) (NEW FOR THIS BLU-RAY) – Kirk Douglas is briefly interviewed about the movie, going over a few details about the production and about his work to have Dalton Trumbo credited for his screenplay. Douglas also recounts firing the original director, and then picking up Stanley Kubrick, fresh from being fired himself off of One-Eyed Jacks. Douglas can be difficult to understand, given the speaking difficulties he has endured in recent years, so the interview is subtitled. I note that despite the ten minute running time, much of the time is actually taken up with clips from the film and excerpts from Dalton Trumbo’s testimony before HUAC.
Restoring Spartacus – (9:00, 1080p) (NEW FOR THIS BLU-RAY) – This featurette covers the work done for the new picture and sound restoration. Peter Schade and Seanine Bird of Universal’s team are interviewed about the process of transferring and cleaning the movie. One nod is appropriately given to Robert Harris for his work here as well.
The rest of the special features are carried over from the 2010 release. My notes for them follow:
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.
Digital Copy - The packaging includes an insert with instructions and a code for streaming and/or downloading a digital copy of the new edition of Spartacus.
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.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Spartacus has finally received the attention and the good Blu-ray release we had all hoped to see a few years back. The new Restored Edition is a marvel of picture and sound, and a reminder of just how good a film restoration can look. At the same time, I continue to have issues with the surprisingly skimpy collection of special features, particularly when we know that Criterion’s release has superior materials that could have benefited everyone here. In spite of that, and in spite of my issues with the way the earlier release was handled, I am pleased to Highly Recommend this one for purchase. Just be very careful which edition you’re purchasing.
Reviewed By: Kevin EK
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