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"Spartacus" on DVD

Before Ridley Scott - Stanley Kubrick Did it, too

If you liked Gladiator, you'll love Spartacus - as long as you don't have a widescreen TV on which to watch it.

Spartacus is a true Hollywood epic in the grand, "cast of thousands" tradition. Starring Kirk Douglas, who was also the Executive Producer, and directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, it's the story of a slave trained to be a gladiator who leads a slave uprising against the Roman Empire and generally wreaks havoc on the established order of Rome.

And what a supporting cast to portray the glories, intrigues, and excesses or Rome! Laurence Olivier is the power-craving General Crassus who's anxious to destroy Spartacus and his rebellion - for a price. Peter Ustinov is the mealy-mouthed and cowardly owner of the gladiator school to which Spartacus is sold. Tony Curtis is the troubador slave eyed by Crassus who escapes the makes his presence felt with Spartacus' troops. Jean Simmons is the slave girl who becomes Spartacus wife until taken from him by Crassus. Charles Laughton plays Crassus' nemesis, a Senator whom you're never quite sure if he's a good guy or a bad guy.

The performances are terrific, though we found Curtis more than a tad miscast (not that he's enough to ruin the movie) and the Dalton Trumbo script, with its looks not only at the "huddled masses yearning to be free" but at the glory and the politics that was Rome, is wonderful.

The movie's epic scale is almost unbelievable, especially the climactic battle scene in which literally thousands of slaves and Roman soldiers face off on the Italian countryside. This scene would never be attempted today without the use of digital effects, yet here it is playing out in real time, with real extras, before Kubrick's camera.

Speaking of Kubrick, despite Spartacus being a marvelous film, it doesn't feel like a Kubrick movie. It's almost as if someone tied his camera down for most of the film, and his famous zooms and pans aren't nearly as much in evidence as in his other works. Then again, Spartacus isn't really considered one of Kubrick's films (witness Warners' "The Kubrick Collection," which starts at Lolita, ignoring Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and The Killing).

The DVD is of the version restored at the beginning of the 1990's, so it offers an additional five minutes cut from the original release, as well as the Overture and Entr'acte.

Picture quality would be fine if Universal hadn't ignored widescreen TV owners with this release. We kid you not: this widescreen epic that simply cries out to be viewed as large as it possibly can is letterboxed, with bars on both sides of the picture as well, on widescreen TV's - it isn't "enhanced for widescreen TV's," and that's unpardonable.

Another oversight is the chapter stops. If you want to skip past the Overture and Entr'Acte you have to fast forward rather than jump to the next chapter because they didn't put stops between the musical sections and the scenes following. This means that, if you jump forward, you miss part of the move. Duh!

Audio quality, which is billed as Dolby Digital 5.1, is fine.

Extras include production notes, cast/filmmaker bios, and the trailer.

Spartacus, from Universal Home Video
196 min. letterboxed (2.21:1)/ not 16x9 compatible, Dolby Digital
Starring Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, and Tony Curtis
Produced by Edward Lewis
Written by Dalton Trumbo, Directed by Stanley Kubrick


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Updated May 13, 2006