Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) was born a slave and raised a slave, but he holds a sense of freedom within himself. Soon he is sold to Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a man who trains slaves to do battle within the arenas, as gladiators. He is soon being drilled in the art of fighting and when he is prepared enough, he will sent to the arena to battle and more than likely, to die in front of the audiences there. But Spartacus has no plans to do that, so he stages a rebellion and as luck would have it, it works to sheer perfection. As he revolts against his owners, he is joined by many other slaves also, which gives them the power they need to make a break for freedom. As the band of rebels travels across the lands, they end up being joined by more and more escaped slaves, which means their numbers and power grow. But back in Rome, this rebellion has rooted a dividing mark between two leaders, the Republican Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and the military minded Crassus (Laurence Olivier). As the slaves close in on their homelands and freedom, the politicians plot to use the rebellion to their favor, but which side will win out in the end?
The original release from Universal left a lot to be desired, but the mistakes have been resolved here and a lot of new material has been added also. In other words, if you’re a fan of this picture and you have the original release, consider it time to upgrade and trust me, you’ll be pleased you did. But more about the disc itself later on, as it is now time to discuss the film for a spell. Of all the epic motion pictures out there, Spartacus ranks as my personal favorite and that’s impressive, as a wealth of excellent epics like Ben-Hur and The Robe were stacked against this film. It moves a slower pace, but never becomes dull in the least and in the end, the performances & musical score alone warrant seeing this one time and again. All the elements just seem to meld together here as the music is fantastic, the performances divine, the production design is superb, and of course, Stanley Kubrick’s direction is always effective. I give this film my highest recommendation with such a lush two disc release, there’s no reason to pass this edition by, whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer to the flick.
Although he is perhaps best known for his later works, I feel some of Stanley Kubrick’s finest works were delivered toward the start of his career. This was his eighth film and could have been a hurdle, but Kubrick tackles the massive scope well and nails the direction to perfection. He is given excellent writing and actors to work with of course, which I am sure made his task a little easier in the end. But he was a perfectionist and as such, I would wager he pushed himself and the crew hard to get things just right. That hard work pays off however, as Spartacus is excellent in all respects and stands as one of Kubrick’s greatest accomplishments. Other films directed by Kubrick include Full Metal Jacket, Killer’s Kiss, Eyes Wide Shut, Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange, Fear and Desire, and Barry Lyndon. The cast here includes Kirk Douglas (The Final Countdown, Seven Days In May), Laurence Olivier (Marathon Man, Hamlet), Charles Laughton (The Paradine Case, Island of Lost Souls), Jean Simmons (The Robe, Rough Night In Jericho), and Peter Ustinov (Death On The Nile, Stiff Upper Lips).
Video: How’s it look?
A few years ago Universal released a “restored version” of this film. In it, as the title would suggest, a meticulous restoration was performed with the help of noted historian Robert A. Harris. That was for the Blu-ray. But as the popularity of 4K has grown in the years since, it was time that this make the leap to the new format. And what a leap it was. This movie has never really looked its best on any home video format. Universal has gone back to the basics and has given us one of the most amazing restorations I’ve ever seen (the accompanying supplement documents the process) as they’ve done a frame by frame comparison. The new 2.20:1 HEVC 4K image is nothing short of perfection. Yes, there might be a few errors here and there, but considering the age of the film and what it looked like before – it’s amazing. I won’t document all of the usual things I say, trust me when I say that this looks marvelous. The Blu-ray still looks good, but the added color depth and detail on the 4K give this film an amazing look. I’ll leave it at that.
Audio: How’s it sound?
In addition to the video presentation, we’re treated to a new DTS: X soundtrack that really breathes new life into the film. Granted, it can’t hold a candle to today’s action-packed soundtracks, but considering where this came from – I’m duly impressed. Vocals are sharp and crisp and it seems that all of the issues plaguing the previous versions are, literally, a thing of the past. LFE are highly involved, the closing of the swords travels from the front to the rear channels, and I could go on and on…what an amazing-sounding track!
Supplements: What are the extras?
Nothing new has been added with regard to the supplements. The same ones that appeared on the previously-released Blu-ray are still present. And, guess what, that’s where you’ll have to find them as the 4K disc is featureless.
I Am Spartacus: A Conversation with Kirk Douglas – Mr. Douglas died early in 2020 at teh ripe old age of 103. Having said that, this interview is a very candid look at the ageless actor, his work on the film and even delving into some of the not so “golden” years of Hollywood. It’s a welcome inclusion to this new disc.
Restoring Spartacus – I love these. It’s no secret that the film has never looked that great on any home video format. The best it’s ever looked was via Criterion, but this version blows that previous DVD away. We’re joined by some of the people who made this happen and the process is detailed as to what it took to get this movie looking and sounding its absolute best.
Deleted Scenes – Three total, along with an audio only segment.
Archival Interviews – Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons are profiled.
Behind the Scenes Footage – Nothing too big here – just some rehearsal with swords.
Tony Curtis Honored
Sir Laurence Olivier Returns to Hollywood
Kirk Douglas Honored
Kirk Douglas Arrives in New York
Image Gallery – Images from the movie, some poster and artwork are all included.
The Bottom Line
Spartacus might seem a bit dated, but make no mistake – it’s a bona fide classic no matter how you slice it. It’s garnered a place on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies and rightfully so. This new 4K simply dazzles in both audio and video quality. Universal’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.