If you're a fan of the movie "Spartacus", this is the version to get; the Universal DVD is as bare bones as they get with just the movie. The Criterion version looks great. The facelift the film received help return much of its luster. Kubrick later disowned his version of the epic Hollywood Sword & Sandal genre, but Kubrick brings much of his sensibility to bear; the fight sequences and epic vistas bring to mind Kubrick's work on Paths of Glory and 2001. True, this isn't a complete Kubrick picture; Kubrick had nothing to do with the screenplay and Douglas had all but cast the picture in collaboration with director Anthony Mann (dismissed after butting heads with Douglas one too many times).
Is it Kubrick's finest film? Well, frankly no it isn't. It's an interesting mishmash between Kubrick's detached, ironic style and Hollywood glitz. Spartacus is Kubrick for people who don't care for Kubrick's detached style. It doesn't measure up to Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001 or A Clockwork Orange although it does compare favorable to the much darker Paths of Glory.
Kubrick stated that his intent at the time was to subvert the cliches of the genre. As a result, Kubrick manages to reinvent a genre that was in danger of becoming a parody of itself. As a collaborative effort, Spartacus is a great piece of entertainment and far more sophisticated than almost everything else that came out of Hollywood at the time.
The transfer is beautiful with much of Kubrick's bold use of color restored. The strong acting of most of the cast has always been a virtue of Sparatcus. The soundtrack has been meticulously transferred to 5.1 and Alex North's beatiful score has never sounded so sweet, tragic and powerful before. The audio commentary is the same one that was on the laserdisc version. It provides additional understanding about the complexity of making an independently produced project like Spartacus. Kirk Douglas' bold decision to produce the film himself (with Universal-International distributing)was a leap of faith in both the material and the talented director.
The second disc is stuffed with supplements that are found nowhere else.There's two older interviews with Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons plus one that Ustinov did in 1992 for the laserdisc edition. It's delightful and he shares a number of funny stories about the picture. There's also a text overview of Kubrick's career and his involvement with the picture. Included also are sketches Kubrick made for the motion picture (artistically they're nothing special but they do provide insight into Kubrick's role in the visualization of the film). Included are some vintage newsreels and a promotional film originally made but unfinished for Spartacus that gives us a glimpse behind the scenes. The promotional film is missing it's soundtrack (in fact, it might have been lost if not for the forsight of a private collector) and has much from North's score. We also get to glimpse at Saul Bass' wonderful title design sequence.
Criterion has been both praised and criticized for their DVDs and laserdiscs before. While they tend to be expensive, this is the complete package. Occasionally Criterion will release a package that isn't up to their usual standards. Spartacus isn't one of them. Robert Harris (Harris restored the film along with Vertigo)evidently was also involved in the transfer to DVD. If you want a spectacular transfer of the film, loads of extras about the making and background of the project from those involved, this is the set to pick up.
***October 2015 Update***
Universal's 2010 release of this film on Blu-Ray was a piece of garbage. My review below was made on a 52" screen.I've since created a projection room in my home and watch on a 100" screen. The flaws of that 2010 disc are so glaringly obvious now that it defies belief that Universal even released it.
Well, Universal has gone back and restored Spartacus from a fresh 6k scan of the 35mm Technirama color separates. They've cleaned up the print of dirt and scratches and color corrected the whole film. They've created new 5.1 and 7.1 channel HD audio mixes.
In short, the results speak for themselves. Detail is superb. Individual grains of sand, facial pores (which were almost entirely absent in the 2010 craporama), skin creases, very light film grain, it's all here. And it's blissfully free of any evident DNR or edge enhancement. Colors pop but not unnaturally so. Black levels are strong and stable but not crushed. In a word, superlative. In more than one word, ravishing, transporting, reminds the viewer of how magical watching a movie can be.
I am bumping my rating up to 4 stars. But I can't in good conscience go with 5, because of the history. Universal owes its customers an apology, if not a refund for the travesty they foisted upon them in 2010. I doubt we'll see any of it (they have not replied to my customer service query about a refund or disc exchange). But this disc is at least a good start.
NOTE TO CUSTOMERS:
Do not under any circumstances buy the 2010 edition of this movie. The 2010 edition is easily distinguished by the cover art - it is marked on the top with "50th Anniversary Edition" (I can't imagine a worse insult) and at the bottom with the words "The Perfect HI-DEF Movie Experience" (HAHAHAHAHAHAAAA...). The edition you want is marked on the top by the words "Restored Edition." Amazon should stop selling the 2010 edition altogether, but as of today, there is still a link at the top of this page to choose it, for a few dollars less than this one. DON'T!
I've been letting this one sit in my collection for a few months before I let loose on it. This is one of my personal favorite movies. In the "swords and sandals" genre I think it is among the finest - it has a stirring story, a wonderful sense of scope, a great soundtrack, and a set of truly exceptional performances, including screen greats such as Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Kirk Douglas. Although it doesn't display the sort of technical mastery that Kubrick would assert on his later films, there is still a certain Kubrickian something to the direction, as well. Certain camera moves, certain lingering shots, certain compositions. All told, it's a great movie and a great representation of the 1950-60s "epic" motion picture tradition. At 3-plus hours, it always remains brisk and entertaining, and it's a movie I frequently revisit because of its richness and replay value.
But then we get to this transfer. Having owned the Criterion DVD edition of this film, I was well acquainted with its look and feel.
This Blu-Ray transfer has been stripped of all natural film grain. As such, a level of fine detail is missing from the image, one which has been compensated for by the application of edge enhancement (quite noticeable on the tall iron bars frequently visible in the gladiator school) and an artificially boosted contrast.
On the plus side, the image *is* more detailed than the Criterion DVD. Interested viewers ought to search "spartacus dvdbeaver" in order to see that site's comparison between the Criterion DVD and the Universal Blu-Ray. You should be able to note that several of the comparison shots show that mid-sized details are much sharper. But fine details such as film grain are gone. It should also be rather apparent that colors have been juiced up for this release as well - Kirk Douglas was always a bronzed sort of guy, but he looks like he spent a few too many hours in the tanning salon for this release. The most revealing comparison is the shot of Douglas being painted to show "kill zones" by his instructor. Details on the instructor's uniform like his metal buckles are clearer. But check out the high contrast areas such as the metal bars in the lower left - there is practically a double image made of edge enhancement halos. The flesh tones also are hot and unrealistic. Facial details at this distance look waxy.
The irritating aspect of Universal's thought process is that there was apparently a fresh, restored celluloid interpositive from 1991 that could have been re-transferred at only nominal cost. Instead, the studio went with the cheaper option of using the inferior early-90's HD transfer of that interpositive, a transfer that Richard Harris (who oversaw the 1991 restoration) has called flawed in the extreme, riddled with noise. This noise was washed away with DNR, and then compensated for with edge enhancement.
So in the end, this is sort of a textbook case for a poor Blu-Ray transfer. Sure, it looks slightly better than a DVD. But it is obvious that we're missing so much more that we could have seen. I'd call this comparable to decent cable television HD. Smooth, compressed, pleasing to the uncritical eye, but unsatisfying to those who wish their movies to look like they were shot on film, not on a computer.
The audio is quite nice. The DTS soundtrack presents the booming music score quite well, and the voice acting always comes through well. Extras of course fall short compared to the Criterion release, which had an entire extra disc to its credit. But we do get deleted scenes, some classic interviews and newsreels, some behind the scenes footage, and a trailer. Had we not known of the Criterion DVD, I think most would be pleased. But the lack of commentary and the lack of a comprehensive making-of documentary are glaring. A movie like this cries out for a discussion of writer Dalton Trumbo, Kubrick's tension with actor-producer Douglas, the Hollywood blacklist, and the many elements that slipped past censors of the day.
As it stands, I can't go above three stars, here. The movie is undeniably great. Those who enjoy historical epics will find a lot to love. But the video transfer is significantly flawed (though perhaps not fatally so). That makes this an "average" home video purchase at best.
This is a stopgap. I think it's worth buying at a low price, in order to have a version of this film in high definition. But we can only hope that either Criterion gets the rights back from Universal and does their usual respectful job, or the powers that be at Universal pull their heads from their rears and decide to treat this classic the way it deserves to be: with a fresh, modern HD transfer from film elements that will give us a truly filmic presentation of a great flick.
on July 7, 2001
Long before Russell Crowe picked up his sword and battled corrupt Roman emperors, Kirk Douglas showed him the way in "Spartacus". This epic 1960 film still ranks as one of the best performances in Douglas's distinguished career, and it marked his second collaboration with famed director Stanley Kubrick. Even more than "Gladiator", "Spartacus" is based on a real historical event, although it greatly exaggerates the actual history. Spartacus was a Roman slave in the first century AD who became a gladiator for the Romans, but then escaped and formed an enormous army (estimated at anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000) of freed slaves and gladiators. For the next year this army, under Spartacus's leadership, terrorized the Italian countryside, until they were finally trapped and destroyed in battle with the still-powerful Roman Army.
As an old-fashioned Hollywood epic, "Spartacus" doesn't disappoint the viewer - there are epic battle scenes, high drama, and some great acting by several Hollywood legends. Interestingly, the film's producers felt that the contrast between the slave-gladiators and their corrupt Roman masters would be given greater contrast if they cast British actors (Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton) as the leading Roman characters, and American actors as the slaves (Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons). All of the actors listed above shine in this film - Olivier simply drips with menace and hypocrisy as the great Roman General Crassus, who will stop at nothing to crush the slave revolt and bring the entire Roman Empire under his personal control. Laughton is delightful as Gracchus, a fat and somewhat corrupt, but also clever and freedom-loving, Roman Senator who loathes Crassus. Gracchus tries desperately to keep Crassus from becoming a dictator and destroying the freedoms of the Roman Republic. He fails, but nonetheless emerges as the sole Roman hero of the movie. Peter Ustinov steals every scene as the bumbling and craven owner of a gladiator training school who rescues Spartacus from certain death and makes him into a gladiator, then reluctantly helps Gracchus gain one last "victory" over Crassus by stealing Crassus's new love interest (and Spartacus's former wife) and taking her to freedom.
As for the slaves, Douglas is superb as Spartacus - if the real Spartacus had been as noble and heroic as Douglas's character, then Roman history might have been very different! (Historically, the real Spartacus and his slave army could have escaped from Italy, but instead went on a wild looting and stealing spree across the Italian countryside, thus eliminating any moral advantage they had over their corrupt Roman masters, and also throwing away their chance to gain permanent freedom. This led many sympathetic Romans to join the fight to crush the slave revolt, which was done, brutally). Jean Simmons portrays Spartacus's "wife" (they're never legally married) as a strong and honorable woman; and Tony Curtis is the cultured and well-educated, but also tragic slave of Crassus who escapes and becomes like a son to Spartacus. The scene near the end of the movie where Crassus forces the two men to fight to the death is especially poignant. In many ways this is a movie ahead of its' time - it delicately but still decisively suggests that Crassus was bisexual and had a strong sexual interest in Tony Curtis's character (which caused his character to escape from Crassus' estate). In terms of scope, emotional impact, and visual splendor it's hard to top this film. Anyone who's interested in the golden age of Hollywood films and enjoys watching some legendary actors in their prime will love "Spartacus"!
on June 10, 2010
Great movie. Horrible, horrible blu-ray. Maybe the worst blu-ray disc I've seen. Do not buy, wait for a recall. It's so blatantly awful even non-cinephiles will notice.
Here's the main problem: most all the film grain and fine detail have been completely wiped out in a clumsy attempt to remove video noise. Which begs the question: so what's the point of owning it on blu-ray?
What's worse is that it didn't have to be this way. But I guess this is what happens when an indifferent media conglomerate has complete control over a masterpiece. Check out Robert Harris's (the man who restored the film years ago) extremely negative review of this blu-ray on the web. I thought maybe he was overdoing it a bit, but no. It's even worse than he says. If you have the Criterion DVDSpartacus - Criterion Collection, just hang on to it for now.
on October 14, 2015
When Universal released "Spartacus"(1960) on Blu-ray for the first time for it's 50th Anniversary in 2010, there was a universal(no pun intended) outcry because of it's less than stellar presentation. Complaints by fans, customers and reviewers were so numerous that many thought they'd never see a true representation of the film in their lifetime. What a difference five years makes. Universal's new 2015 restored version of "Spartacus" should put all that to rest once and for all. This new restored version is simply stunning and Universal deserves credit for finally giving one of their most famous(and valuable) films from it's library the respect it deserves. According to the information that appears on screen at the end of the film "a 2015 4K digital restoration from a 6K scan of the 1991 reconstructed version supervised by Robert A. Harris" was used for this new Blu-ray presentation. I saw the 1991 reconstructed version in 70 mm when it played at one of the Cinerama theaters in San Diego and remember being very impressed when I walked out of the theater. When Criterion released the standard DVD some years ago I immediately bought it and this has been my go to copy for years. That's all changed now with this new 2015 Blu-ray. One thing that viewers will notice right away is how Russell Metty's Oscar winning cinematography dazzles the eye. Colors are sharp and vivid with even the smallest details very prominent. This is very apparent in the art direction, set decorations and costumes all of which won Oscars that year. Metty, who photographed "Touch of Evil" and "The Misfits" during his long career with Universal, had disagreements with director Stanley Kubrick during filming and his insistence on using natural lighting during nighttime scenes(campfires, torches, etc.) conflicted with Kubrick opinions on how the film should be photographed. The results are very apparent now in this restored version with the faces of the actors taking on a more natural glow(mainly yellow) from the flames of the torches inside tents that make the whole scene more authentic than using the studio lighting that Kubrick preferred. Daylight scenes are another wonder and just pop off the screen. Greens, reds, blues, yellows are not only striking but vivid in every scene((Bitrate: 23.49). Since the 1991 reconstruction was used for this new restoration there are still some soft scenes where close-ups are not as crystal clear as other portions but these scenes are few and do not detract from the overall presentation. The story of a slave rebellion(under the leadership of Spartacus) against their Roman masters in 73 B.C. is engrossing from beginning to end. Director Kubrick wisely keeps the whole film focused on the love story between Spartacus(Kirk Douglas) and Varinia(Jean Simmons) and the love they have for each other despite all the events that surround them. The final battle between the slaves and the Roman legions is heartbreaking but leads to a very satisfying ending that proves that love and hope can bring about change no matter what. Douglas and Simmons get great support from Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis and Peter Ustinov(who won an Oscar). "Spartacus" is 197 minutes(Aspect ratio: 2.20:1) and contains the following subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish. The Audio(DTS-HD MA 7.1 English and DTS French 5.1) is another highlight and free of any noise artifacts(hiss, pop, crackle, etc.) with Alex North's music being especially prominent. Special features include: I am Spartacus(9:39) a 2015 interview with Kirk Douglas; Restoring Spartacus(9:00); Four deleted scenes(7:41); Archival Interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons(6:00); Behind the Scenes footage(5:10); Five vintage newsreels(4:59); an Image gallery and the original theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray disc itself is housed in a standard and solid Blu-ray case(not an eco-cutout) and comes inside a cardboard slipcase for added protection. Universal's restored version of "Spartacus" is long overdue and is a must own for any home film library. It comes highly recommended.
Well, call me a romantic but I still love this picture. Yes, it's a bit dated in technique, and it was restrained in its depictions of sex and violence and adult themes by the Hays office (the official Hollywood censor board). And it has a bit of Hollywoodness in its love story and presentation (music etc.), but it also had heart and it strived to evoke a spirit of rebellion and defiance of oppression that moved me way back when and still does today.
And I don't give a tinker's damn what Howard Fast's, Dalton Trumbo's, or Kirk Douglas's for that matter, politics were...it's a helluva an entertaining movie!
Stanley Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann after production began. He had decried the film and script because it wasn't the one he would have written, but I think he did a good job just bringing this effort off and he was able to tone down or eliminate much of the Hollywoodisms. The matter-of-factness of Varinia's having to offer herself, the icily calm and detached way Olivier dispatches Woody Strode like an animal, though he is unnerved by the meaning of the attack. These are Kubrickian touches.
In the extra goodies in this Criterion effort, we discover that it was a very difficult shoot with everyone fighting with everyone. You had 4 major egos at battle: Kubrick, Douglas, Olivier & Laughton...each with his own ideas about what was or wasn't important. Would have been nice to have Stanley's comments, but we do get Douglas, Fast, & (most amusingly) Peter Ustinov's recollections.
All that is interesting, but beside the point. Why I love Spartacus is: the great Gladiator school sequence; the genuine warmth and relaxed sexiness of Douglas & Jean Simmons (lovely & luscious)together; the depiction of Rome at its height of power and the nice interplay between the corrupt but true democrat Laughton and the haughty and superior Olivier, whose lust for order and power is a far more sinister corruption; the wonderfully flawed & human Ustinov and the affection and warmth of his scenes with Laughton (much of which he wrote and they worked out together); great battles; and finally, the haunting image of the road to Rome decorated with the crucified remnants of Spartacus's slave army.
This last is why I return to this movie again and again. When the slaves lose, as they had to lose fighting against the awsome power of Rome, and the defeated remaining men standup and claim they are Spartacus knowing crucifixion will follow their gesture; and, Spartacus too goes to the cross but swears to Crassus over the dead body of Antoninus (Tony Curtis) "he'll be back and he'll be thousands"....well, it gets the blood moving. I love defiance in defeat.
And the last scene, with Varinia holding up his son to the silently dieing Spartacus saying "he's free" may be Hollywood corn to some, but it was just that small note of hope that makes movies emotional experiences rather than academic exercises to me. You can have the razzle dazzle of Gladiator, I will take the emotional heart of Spartacus any day. There is still something thrilling & uplifting in watching someone go down to defeat with chin raised (cleft and all) in defiance. Probably 4 to 4-1/2 stars, but will always be 5 to me for sheer entertainment.
on October 7, 2015
I watched this film when I received it last night.
And was totally blown away by the color contrast and detail in the film.
I couldn't believe my eyes.
Wow the picture quality was so gorgeous.!
It almost looked like a brand new film.
And all of the special features from the original God awful Blu-Ray of this film are also all ported over.
Along with a new Kirk Douglas interview and a feature on restoring this film.
I think this is one time that Universal pictures deserves kudo's fore their Awesom restoration and Blu-Ray transfer of this film.!!!!!!!!!!
Thanks Universal pictures and great job.!!!!!!!!
This is the version any fan of the film wants to get
on October 6, 2015
Up until now, the very fine Criterion DVD edition of "Spartacus" was the best home entertainment version available, despite the fact that it lacked the ultra-sharpness that is only possible with a Blu Ray release. After the shabby Universal Blu Ray that has been available for several years now, I felt I had to reserve judgement about their new restoration until I sampled it myself. Anyone interested in super sharp, clear, clean versions of such classics as this spectacular epic, should waste no time getting hold of this new disc. Although a closer look at the entire film might reveal a few minor flaws, this restoration looks so superb that it dazzles the eye, wonderful vibrant color, clean, rich audio, an extremely satisfying accomplishment.
on May 8, 2001
I have reviewed this film at length, with links available under external reviews at the IMDB; however, I want to encourage readers to check out the Criterion Special Edition for the extras. The best feature on the 2nd disk is an interview with Peter Ustinov where he tells some of the background "dirt" behind Sparatus--hilariously scrunching up his face and immitating the great Charles Laughton to tell us about the ego wars that Laughton conducted with Sir Laurence Olivier.
Then by all means turn on the main commentary to hear original author Howard Fast (fired from writing the screenplay by Douglas for being too slow) absolutely rip into Douglas for his acting. I had to recue it to make sure I heard some of these criticisms correctly--far different fare than the usual promotional tone of most commentaries. The others offering commentaries are uncensored in their criticism as well, so count this as the most honest and refreshing commentaries on the market!
on October 7, 2015
THIS is the ONE, folks!! THIS is the SPARTACUS to BUY!!!!
The re-restoration by Robert Harris and company has resulted in one of the most stunning blu-ray releases yet! It's difficult to believe that this film is now 55 years old!! The picture and sound quality rival the best of today-- and the content is, of course, superior to just about every film made since. Keep your Criterion dvd set for the extras and commentaries (or buy it as a supplement for the same reason) and you will have insight into what makes a great motion picture!!