Spartacus is the type of film they don’t make any more: when Gladiator came along and was hailed as a return to the days of Hollywood’s best swords-and-sandals epics, it was this film – along with Ben-Hur and Cleopatra – that people were referring to. But these days, it’s the kind of film that most people know by name but few have ever watched. They either will no longer touch it with the proverbial barge pole because it’s too old and cheesy, or else have a vague idea that they’ve already seen it during one of its endless Sunday afternoon reruns – but actually they haven’t, not really.
That’s a shame, because it’s a solid three hours of entertainment, still very impressive and completely watchable even 51 years after it was made. But it also doesn’t fit into the assumptions and expectations we’ve created in our minds for it. Yes, the “I am Spartacus” crowd scene is here as spoofed many times since, and so is the notorious bath house scene involving Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis alluding to homosexuality that was cut by the studio censors and only reinserted in a 1991 restoration. But the rest of it is almost certainly not as one misremembered.
For example, despite its length, the film really does paint in the broadest of strokes. There’s a couple of scenes set in the slave mines before a rapid switch to the gladiator training camp, but one Rocky-style training montage and a single fight to the death later and that’s all over, and Spartacus goes from a sullen slave to suddenly commanding an army roaring its way across lower Italy with little bridging or explanation.
The Roman politics are intriguing and involve some of the best performances – notably Oliver as the villain of the peace, responsible for pretty much everything that follows, and Charles Laughton as his chief rival. Strangely the sets they get to play on are the least impressive of the film – the Senate chamber would be scoffed at by the average local council these days, and the city itself is represented by a just couple of obvious matte paintings. There is nothing like the sheer spectacle that we get hanging out with Spartacus in the countryside with stunning outside locations and a cast of literally thousands, genuinely tramping up mountains and down hillsides with a jaw-dropping reality that still can’t be matched by today’s state of the art CGI effects for sheer physical presence.
There’s a couple of fine directorial touches from Stanley Kubrick in the film that catch the eye: the first is the way an earlier fight to the death is glimpsed only from Spartacus’ eye-view in a holding pen outside as he awaits his own combat, seeing the fight and the killing through the inadequate gaps in the wooden fencing. The second is an audacious scene showing the huge Roman army arrive on the battlefield and slowly march into positions and break into formations, all shown in real time over a five minute sequence from extreme long distance from the point-of-view of the rebel army, who are standing straggled along a hilltop waiting for battle to begin. These days the whole thing would be boiled down to a 30s fast-cut scene with multiple edits, but this is vastly more effective. As a representation of how it must have felt to be there, and in conveying the real mechanics of the Roman army at work, I’ve never seen better.
Such scenes absolutely demand high levels of detail to work, and the Blu-ray is very impressive. I’ve seen a 50th anniversary DVD of the film before and it doesn’t have anything like this detail, had visible print damage and was also swamped with very visible and distracting grain: this hi-res version has none of that. Some will complain that Universal have been over-zealous with the Digital Noise Reduction in tacking the grain, and that may be so, but I thought it was quite extraordinarily improved overall. There’s great contrast and some lovely vivid colour, although in the late stages of the film there’s some oddly ‘hollow’ blacks in the deep shadows that slightly lets the side down.
Overall I would thoroughly recommend the Blu-ray – as I would the film, for a glimpse of how big movies used to be like.