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Details At A Glance

Category Drama Theatrical Trailer (1.85:1, non-16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0)
Production Notes
Cast & Crew Biographies
Rating pg.gif (1010 bytes)
Year Released 1960
Running Time 188:33 Minutes 
RSDL/Flipper RSDL (91:57)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region 2,4 Director Stanley Kubrick
Universal.gif (3614 bytes)
Columbia Tristar Home Video
Starring Kirk Douglas
Laurence Olivier
Jean Simmons
Charles Laughton
Peter Ustinov
John Gavin
Case Soft Brackley
RPI $36.95 Music Alex North
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384Kb/s)
German (Dolby Digital 2.0, 192Kb/s)
French (Dolby Digital 2.0, 192Kb/s)
Italian (Dolby Digital 2.0, 192Kb/s)
Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0, 192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9Yes.jpg (4536 bytes)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.20:1/2.35:1 (1991 Restoration)
Macrovision Yes Smoking No
Subtitles English
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

Plot Synopsis

    The main, and only, reason why I agreed to review Spartacus is that it is referenced in one of my favourite television shows (Herman's Head) and one of my favourite pieces of music (the Butthole Surfers' No, I'm Iron Man). One of the quintessential sword-and-sandal epics, Stanley Kubrick's film places itself above most of the pack by refraining from the Christian motif that reduces my enjoyment of such epics as Ben Hur. However, regular readers of this site will know that I am no fan of Stanley Kubrick, and poking holes in the way he adapts other people's writings to the big screen is one of my favourite pastimes. Although the theatrical trailer for the 1991 restored cut of the film states that Spartacus is unlikely to ever be surpassed, the simple truth of the matter is that I found Gladiator to be the better of the two films, and not just because of better special effects technologies. Stanley Kubrick apparently had no control over the script for this film, which he felt was too full of moralizing, and it is no coincidence that he kept full control over all of his films in the latter part of his career.

    Based on the novel by Howard Fast, Spartacus is the story of a man named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) who was sold into slavery at birth, and the film begins with him working at a mine in Libya. After he is beaten for trying to help one of his fellow slaves, Spartacus bites one of the guards on the ankle before being condemned to die of starvation as an example to slaves who might get similar ideas. I guess things got a little messy when the local inn stopped serving food. In any case, when gladiator trainer Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) arrives with a supply of gold to wave around, the masters decide to sell Spartacus to him for a tidy profit. From there, Spartacus is trained as a gladiator by a group of sadistic, uncaring creeps who aren't above rewarding their charges for their progress with prostitutes. Spartacus' progress as a gladiator is rewarded with Varinia (Jean Simmons), but he refuses to lower himself to the standards of those who would use him for profit. I'm sure you can figure out the rest of the details regarding the relationship between Spartacus and Varinia.

    When Spartacus grows tired of being abused for having a conscience, he turns upon his owners and leads the other slaves in a rebellion. As his army moves from town to town, its size swells as other escaped slaves join their ranks. This is met with mixed reactions from the powers that be in Rome, particularly senators such as Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier). The former is a republican who seeks to use the rebellion as a means to restore freedom and democracy to Rome, while the latter seeks to use the rebellion to further his imperialist cause. Soon, Spartacus sees his own triumph or failure as being secondary to a much greater cause: the abolition of slavery. This is where I am going to leave the plot synopsis, but I think anyone who has seen any entrant in this well-worn genre before or since can tell you what happens without needing to have seen the film before.

    Of course, the entire Christ theme has been done to death both before and since this film came out, and so the real question is not what the story is but how well the film does it. It seems that lately, a film cannot come out of the woodpile without some sort of basis in this popular fixture of Pagan literature, and the story suffers somewhat as a basis. The fact of the matter is that a film based on this legend cannot survive on its own merits unless it offers something completely new (e.g.. RoboCop) or does the story better than all other entrants in its sub-genre (e.g.. Gladiator). While Spartacus works well as a story about the posthumous triumph of the human spirit, I feel it is pretty much superseded by Ridley Scott's recent masterwork. However, if you want to see a classic piece of storytelling that stands as a good example of a well-worn genre, then this is worth a look.

Transfer Quality


    This film is forty years old and edited together from elements that had languished in vaults for at least half of that time, so what we have here is as good as can be expected.

    The aspect ratio of the original 1960 release of this film was 2.20:1, while thirty-five millimetre prints were framed in the ratio of 2.35:1, for reasons I can only guess at. This transfer is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and it is 16x9 Enhanced.

    The sharpness of the transfer is mostly impeccable, showing only half the film's age for the most part. The only shot that truly shows the film's age is at 12:30, where an abundance of scratches and film artefacts mar what should have been a beautiful exterior shot. Aside from this one lapse that appears to be fairly and squarely the fault of the source material, the transfer is sharp enough to look as if it were of a film shot in 1980 rather than 1960. The shadow detail is somewhat poor, but this can be overlooked since only about ten percent of the film takes place in anything resembling darkness. Low-level noise is not an issue in this transfer, but as I have hinted earlier, grain is slightly problematic from time to time.

    The colour saturation of this transfer is muted and dull in the same way that can be attributed to other transfers of films from this era, such as Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. This is simply a characteristic of the photographic process as it was in this era, and while the hues are represented in a functional way, that is probably the best thing that can be said for them. Having said all of that, you will not find any evidence of colour bleeding, oversaturation, or misregistration in this transfer. Just don't expect the same kind of lush, vibrant colour that can be seen in Braveheart or Gladiator.

    MPEG artefacts were not an issue in this transfer, although the grain and film artefacts in this transfer push the compression to its very limits. When these factors are taken into account, one can really say that Columbia Tristar Home Video and Warner Advanced Media Operations have pulled a very big rabbit out of a very small hat here. Film-to-video artefacts did not appear to be a specific issue in this transfer, with no shimmering immediately apparent, although some misaligned frames are apparent from time to time. Film artefacts are also a minor issue in this transfer, but aside from the aforementioned shot early in the film, they are much less of an issue than is normally to be expected for a forty-year-old film.

    This disc is presented in the RSDL format, with the layer change taking place during a natural fade-to-black at 91:57. Although it is a noticeable layer change, the placement could not possibly be better, even if there is an intermission after the next scene.


    Spartacus was originally presented in seventy-millimetre six-track and stereo audio, in contrast to what seems to be the norm for Stanley Kubrick's other films.

    As a result of the restoration work on this film, we are treated to a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, although this is faint praise because a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack with surround-encoding, also referred to as a Dolby Pro-Logic soundtrack, could have done the job just as well in my opinion. There are a total of five soundtracks in this audio transfer: the original English dialogue in Dolby Digital 5.1, with dubs in German, French, Italian, and Spanish rendered in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. I listened to the default soundtrack, the English dialogue, while sampling the infamous (and hilariously referenced in Herman's Head) "I am Spartacus!" scene in Spanish.

    The dialogue is clear and easy to understand at all times, which is vitally important for a film such as this one. There were no apparent problems with audio sync, even in the infamous bathing scene that had to be redubbed by Tony Curtis and Anthony Hopkins due to the loss of the soundtrack. It is a pity that Laurence Olivier had died before the 1991 restoration, but Hopkins does an admirable job of dubbing the scene in his place. Even this scene fails to turn up any serious problems with audio sync, even of the kind that can be blamed upon the production techniques.

    The score music is credited to Alex North, and does a good job of enhancing the onscreen action. The fidelity of the score music is somewhat lacking due to the recording techniques, but it acts as a powerful substitute to narration when needed. This is a competent and well-matched score without being anything of great value.

    The surround presence of the soundtrack is probably its most disappointing aspect, with just barely enough coming out of the rear channels to qualify as being discretely placed. The surround channels are used to support the music and some very quiet ambient sounds, but the soundtrack is very front-heavy and what does come out of the surrounds is so subdued that one has to press one's ear against the speakers to make sure they are actually doing something a lot of the time. The subwoofer was used to support the music and some sounds of battle, but there are long periods in which it is not used at all. When the subwoofer is called into action, however, it supports the rest of the soundtrack without making itself conspicuous.



    The menu is static, 16x9 Enhanced, and in the usual ugly, icon-laden style of Universal films that are distributed by Columbia Tristar.

Theatrical Trailer

    Presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with 16x9 Enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, this three-minute trailer is riddled with film artefacts.

Cast & Crew Biographies

    Biographies are provided for Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Oliver, John Gavin, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, and director Stanley Kubrick. They are readable and comprehensive, although not exactly the most interesting biographies you'll ever read.

Production Notes

    These production notes detail the amount of restoration work that went into the currently available version of Spartacus, and make it clear that bringing this classic to home video again was no easy feat. They are somewhat small in font, but are generally a pleasant read.

R4 vs R1

    It appears that Criterion are putting together their own edition of this film on DVD, complete with a commentary by unspecified persons, a scene-by-scene analysis, interviews, extra music, newsreel footage from the premiere, and a stills gallery. The release date has yet to be announced, but it goes without saying that the Region 4 version of the disc misses out on all of those extras. At a retail price of $49.95 US, however, the Criterion edition is obviously aimed at those who are barking mad about this film. The less highly specified Region 1 version distributed by Universal is more identical to our version of the disc, save for one important difference.

    The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on;

   Given what Universal's 4x3 transfers tend to look like, I'd stick with the local version of this disc.


    Spartacus is one of the better entries in the sword-and-sandals genre, presented on a good DVD.

    The video quality is very good for a film this age.

    The audio quality is good, but could have been better.

    The extras are basic.

Ratings (out of 5)

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 © Dean McIntosh (my bio sucks... read it anyway)
December 13, 2000 
Review Equipment
DVD Toshiba SD-2109, using S-video output
Display Samsung CS-823AMF (80 cm) in 16:9 and 4:3 modes, calibrated using the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built In (Amplifier)
Amplification Sony STR-DE835, calibrated using the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Yamaha NS-45 Front Speakers, Philips PH931SSS Rear Speakers, Philips FB206WC Centre Speaker, JBL Digital 10 Active Subwoofer