Release Date(s)1960 (May 25, 2010)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: C-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 filming of Spartacus, a job he took over from Anthony Mann at the behest of Kirk Douglas, is one of the pantheon widescreen historic epics of the 1950s and 1960s.
Its story of a Roman slave revolt led by gladiator Spartacus (Douglas) has sweep and majesty, yet retains an intimate feel in its development of the relationship between Spartacus and the slave Varinia (Jean Simmons) who bears his child. The film never surrenders to false heroics and bears an ending that invokes both sorrow and inspiration. An impressive cast that also includes Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis subsumes itself to the story very effectively.
The film’s original three-hour-plus length was cut for re-release, but later restored in a well-documented 1991 restoration effort by Robert Harris. That restoration has been the basis for four home video releases of Spartacus – two on DVD and two in high definition. On DVD, the 2000 release by Universal was quickly superseded by a 2001 release from Criterion – a version that Harris has endorsed as addressing the film’s colour timing and image density correctly. In 2006, Universal gave us an HD-DVD version that offered a strongly saturated image, but little else of merit. The image looked dirty at times with annoying digital artifacts and wavering colour intensity.
Now we have 2010’s Blu-ray version from Universal. It definitely looks better than the HD-DVD in terms of cleanliness, sharpness, and perhaps even heightened colour saturation, but digital manipulation is evident with some loss of high frequency detail. The problem is not as egregious as on Patton, for example, but it is noticeable on a 115” screen. It appears that rather than commission a new HD transfer, Universal has tried to manipulate its old master with digital tools. In some respects it has been successful, but in others obviously not. The studio needs to take a page out of Warner Bros.’ book when it comes to releasing the classics on Blu-ray. Nothing but a proper new transfer is acceptable.
If you have the Criterion DVD, I’d stick to it as your go-to version on Spartacus until Universal does the job properly on Blu-ray or gives the job to Criterion. The Criterion DVD also continues to have much the best of it when it comes to supplements too, including an audio commentary by producer/actor Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass that the Universal Blu-ray lacks.
- Barrie Maxwell