Blu-ray ReviewThe film tells the tale of the rebellious slave Spartacus (Douglas) who leads a freedom revolt against the ailing Roman Republic and its generals. With an intelligent screenplay by, then, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (from a novel by Howard Fast), its liberal message of freedom and civil rights, highly relevant in the early 1960s, is still extremely effective and thought provoking today.
Compared to today’s fast paced, quickly cut, overlong pop videos that very often pass themselves off as movies, ‘Spartacus’ might seem to have a few lulls but it goes to prove that sometimes it’s worth slowing the pace to allow the audience to think about what is taking place before them. It’s a film that is truly worthy of the term ‘epic’, not only for the scale of the production, but for the magnitude of the story. I can imagine that some people will struggle to cope with the slower scenes, but if they hold out to the end, they too can’t fail to be impressed by the ability of the storyteller.
Blu-ray Picture‘Spartacus’ strides manfully on to UK Region free Blu-ray with a somewhat variable looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer framed in the 70mm widescreen aspect ratio of 2.20:1. The film was originally shot in Super Technirama 70, which is actually a 35mm process where the film is pumped sideways through the camera allowing a much larger than normal area of film for picture information. The version that has been transferred is the 65mm restoration print that was produced back in 1991 by Robert Harris and his team. One thing I will say is that the Blu-ray is better than the rather disappointing looking HD-DVD released a few years ago, but it’s not without its problems.
Some shots, most notably close-ups, look impressively sharp as you’d expect from a High Definition format. The only close-ups that don’t possess this amount of impact are of Jean Simmons where a soft focus lens or filter has been used to make the leading lady look better than real life. I’m not normally one to harp on about Digital Noise Reduction but I feel in the case of ‘Spartacus’ it needs to be mentioned as its use has had a detrimental effect to Ms Simmons close ups as well as some of the wider shots including the final big battle scene. The removal of grain and some detail has had the result of making some shots look not quite pin sharp. Combine this with some deliberately shot soft focus shots and it makes your eyes go funny as they strain to pull it all into focus. This was noticeable on a 7 foot projected image as well as on a 50 inch plasma screen. It’s also clear that the sharpening tool has been used to counteract some of this effect as on a few shots I noticed ringing around the edges of Roman columns and actor’s head outlines against the blue skies. There are still quite a few sparklies to catch your eye throughout the movie that you would have thought could have been removed in a digital clean up.
I think the problem is that we’ve become spoilt by some really nice restorations of late, so when we see one that was done quite a few years ago the difference really stands out. The depth of colour in the image is very good and it handles the wide range of skin tones very well. When we first encounter Spartacus as a slave he is almost black from sun exposure, but as the movie progresses we are treated to the Hollywood movie star tan against the paler British look of Jean Simmons. Contrast is generally good, albeit with a touch of redness in some darker shots which shows up on faces. Also in some of the night shots there is a lack of detail as the negative seems to have struggled to resolve shadow detail, but that’s due to the age of the film stock and not the transfer. All in all, we have the best version of ‘Spartacus’ yet in the Blu-ray, but it’s not quite as good as other movies of the vintage in terms of picture quality.
Blu-ray SoundThe audio on ‘Spartacus’ comes in a DTS-HD MA 5.1 flavour with a wide front sound stage. Only in the battle scenes did I notice much coming from the surrounds in the form of crowd noise. Directional dialogue seems to have been the order of the day, freeing it from its centre weighted shackles and causing me to look in the direction of the sound. The main stereo pair punch out Alex North’s strident score with great clarity while, thankfully, failing to drown out the crisp dialogue. Some rumble escaped from the subwoofer at various points but nothing to rival a modern day blockbuster. I think what has been done here is to give the film an audio lift without totally destroying the original intent and remaining respectful. That being the case, the soundtrack does its job well.
Blu-ray ExtrasDeleted Scenes (SD, total 8 mins) - We’re presented with four deleted scenes. The first two are of the sequence where Spartacus meets Varinia in both US and UK versions. There’s about 9 seconds less material in the British version but we have more print scratches. The 1967 Finale is a much lesser affair than in the restored version as an Editor seems to have taken his scissors to it to make it all happen quicker. The final clip is of Gracchus’ (Laughton) suicide which we only hear over a freeze frame of the interior of his villa.
Interview with Peter Ustinov (SD, 3 mins) - A young Peter Ustinov tells us in B/W what interested him about his role in Spartacus backed up by a clip from the movie. He also demonstrates his considerable talent for impressions.
Interview with Jean Simmons (SD, 4 mins) -This is one of those B/W open ended interviews as supplied to TV stations in the 1960’s, where local interviewers could have their own questions inserted into the gaps. We are introduced to her dog and her stand in before she tells us about her role in the movie as well as working with the other stars.
London Ovation (SD, 1min 44 s) - Princess Margaret attends the UK Premiere in London’s West End and meets the stars.
Tony Curtis Honoured (SD, 1 min 12 s) - Kirk Douglas presents the German Film Review Most Popular Actor award to Tony Curtis on the set of ‘Spartacus’.
Sir Laurence Olivier Returns to Hollywood (SD, 35s) - Kirk Douglas meets Sir Larry in a bit of PR puff.
Kirk Douglas Honoured (SD, 50s) - Kirk Douglas embeds his footprints and chin print in the pavement outside Graumann’s Chinese Theatre.
Kirk Douglas Arrives in New York (SD, 34s) - Kirk gets off the plane in New York prior to the movie’s worldwide release.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 mins 45s) - We’re told, on this scratchy old print, of the 4 Oscars by the enthusiastic Voice Over artist. They don’t make trailers like this any more.
Image Gallery - A collection of Production stills, Concept Art, Costume Designs, Saul Bass Storyboards, Posters and Print Ads
Blu-ray VerdictThat four time Oscar winner ‘Spartacus’ makes its Region free UK Blu-ray debut with a somewhat variable looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer of the 1991 restored version in the widescreen 2.20:1 aspect ratio. Better than the previous HD-DVD release, the transfer now suffers from the use of DNR which appears to have robbed it of detail and film grain in some shots. Good strong colour and contrast appeal to the eye. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track makes use of directional dialogue in the wide front soundstage with not much coming from the rears except in battle scenes. Alex North’s score is punched out by the main stereo pair. A brace of deleted scenes, archival interviews, vintage newsreel clips, an image gallery as well as the Academy Award trailer make up the extras. Kirk Douglas stars alongside Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons in the epic tale of the uprising of gladiator slaves as a young Stanley Kubrick directs. A moving tale, told well and in a leisurely manner.
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