Spartacus: War of the Damned Review
Spartacus ... is not my name!
"Spartacus ... is not my name!"
And so we come to the end of one of the most outrageously adrenalized, supremely visceral, highly erotic and downright entertaining shows ever to bludgeon its way across the television screen. Spartacus: War of the Damned closes the saga begun so audaciously in 2010 with the tragically now-deceased Andy Whitfield scooping the title role in grand, bloodthirsty style, bringing to life and, ultimately, death one of the most iconic chapters in history. But the confines of the "small screen" proved no match for the epic passion and carnage that coursed through three-and-a-half seasons of athletic death-dealing, political skulduggery and ferocious backstabbing, lushly and lustily depicted against a backdrop of tyrannical excess.
Spartacus and his rebel army are now relentlessly pursued by the Roman politician-cum-legion commander, Marcus Crassus, who intends to succeed where Gaius Claudius Glaber failed. Although he seeks to escape with his followers far from the vile clutches of Rome, Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) must contend with the treacherous aid of nefarious pirates, the insatiable hunger for revenge of his once-trusted second-in-command, Crixius (Manu Bennett), and the ever-closing circle of Roman legions. Crassus (Simon Merrells) has troubles of his own, but he refuses to make the same mistakes that his arrogant and foolhardy predecessor made. He’s far more cunning than that.
Events will spiral out of control and much blood will be spilled. The two armies will eventually meet in a fierce and unforgiving battle that will finally see the desperate outcome of the rebellion. And history will be made in the visually pulverising and emotionally heartrending style that legions of fans have come to adore from a show that refused to follow any rules.
Executive produced by Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert, Spartacus could have gone either of two ways. The buoyantly happy-go-lucky whimsy of Xena: Warrior Princess, or the giddily gory and chaotic taboo-smashing of The Evil Dead. That they chose the latter was the ace up their collective sleeve. After Deadwood and Rome gave us grittier, more down-to-earth illustrations of bygone times, and the fantastic Game of Thrones made its stunning debut, it was a cinch that the true story of gladiator-slave Spartacus and his rebellion against the might of Rome would need to hammer home its message with full-throttle vigour and the type of ribald dialogue that would stun the senses just as much as the stratospheric sex and violence. Thus, taking a no-holds-barred approach, Starz and Anchor Bay unleashed a retina-scorching power-play that was visually influenced as much by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Zack Snyder’s 300 as it was by historical faithfulness.
Fronted by British leading men (Andy Whitfield in Season 1, Blood and Sand, and then Liam McIntyre in Season 2 and 3, Vengeance and War of the Damned) and lensed down-under with a beefed-up cast of predominantly Antipodean actors, the show made extensive use of CG to embellish the ancient world and to provide comic-book zeal to the always jaw-dropping savagery on endless display. The cast were required to disrobe fully and frequently and to indulge in as much debauchery as they did duelling, and the show pulled no punches in its presentations of all forms of sexual orientations and fetish. But the characters and the writing were so persuasive and their intricate, treacherous and limb-strewn paths so compulsive, that the show took on an addictive quality that made it irresistible.
With an expletive-filled script that meshed Shakespearean idiom with gutter-bile, and rousing, chest-beating sermons with wickedly manipulative verbal snares, there was a muscular pentameter to it all that made each episode deliriously quotable.
Not only would original Spartacus Kirk Douglas’ eyes would pop out if he clapped them upon the extreme sex and violence that saturated the show from start to finish, but that iconic dimple in his chin, too. This was boldly mature fare despite adhering to the giddy, gawdy extremes that were the province of naughty schoolboys.
When in Rome ... bring on the baddies!
As badboy Marcus Crassus, Simon Merrells is fantastic. Hard-faced and unwavering, he has his Roman imperator regularly train as aggressively as his foes in the hopes of meeting his nemesis in battle. He looks a little bit like a sturdier, more robust version of actor Steven Berkoff, and he holds the screen with cruel intensity. But the remarkable thing about the show is that we are privileged to see deep beneath the hard shell of even the grimmest character, and Merrells conveys the inner passion and incalculable personal grief of Crassus with an incredible combination of both severity and subtlety. With a hero as charismatic as Spartacus, you just have to have an adversary of equal measure. And there is certainly no lapse in the tension whenever we stroll over to the Roman encampment. In fact, things just get meatier and more devious. The rebels have a code of honour and a newfound sense of nobility. The Romans, in stark contrast, are pitiable oafs entwined in distrust and bureaucracy and, as such, both incredibly stupid and profoundly dangerous. Their rules and stern discipline turn even the most trivial of reprimands into something to make the blood curdle.
The punishment of Decimation (episode 4) – in which the survivors of a Roman legion, who turned and fled when our Sparty bore down upon them, including Crassus’ own son and once aspiring leader, Tiberius (Christian Antidori) – sees defenceless, lottery-losing scapegoats slowly beaten to death in front of their commanding officers and the surrounding army ... and it is utterly horrendous to behold, depicted as it is with the time-honoured stylistic device of slow-motion, close-up barbarity and strong emotional pay-off. Crassus’ relationship with his loving servant-girl, Kore (Jenna Lind), is the crux of this powerful man’s crusade, and it is impossible not to feel for him, the villain of the piece, when this bond is horrifically threatened from the inside.
After the endlessly amusing machinations of Battiatus in Season 1, and the erroneous self-belief of Glaber in Season 2, it is only just that Spartacus butt-heads with a worthy opponent.
But, for me, the breakout star of this season is Todd Lasance, who brings a salty and ribald young Julius Caesar to life with impetuously cavalier derring-do. Looking for all the world like Chris Hemsworth’s Thunder God, Thor, he cuts a swathe through the rebellious hordes whenever he has the opportunity, seeking out their star-player, Gannicus (Dustin Clare), at every turn. Lasance gets to portray a man who is tantalisingly on the brink of leadership, himself, yet frustratingly held in-check by the domineering attitude of the wrathful Crassus. His stint as a spy in the ranks of Spartacus is a fabulous concoction that keeps you on guard as he watches his own people being butchered, powerless to intervene, and brokers deals with Spartacus’ most trusted, and the confidence of the man, himself. There is a terrific gleam of battle-eagerness in his eyes whenever he leaps into the fray, and he is certainly as skilled and blood-hungry as any of the gladiatorial warriors he goes up against. But this testosteronal arrogance is tempered by terrible consequences that force him to re-evaluate his place in Rome’s grand scheme, and his decisions during some intimate, yet game-changing moments are far-reaching in the characterisation of a man who would, years later, assume overall command as Emperor. It is doubtful that you have ever seen Caesar depicted quite like this though. With some weird perversions – whores and vein-opening a rather unsavoury combo for ecstasy – but a quick and cunning mind, it comes as a nasty jolt when we see how others seek to bend him to their will. Lasance is excellent as Caesar.
And as the lecherous, cruel-hearted Tiberius, Antidori excels with youthful rebellion. He has his reasons for turning evil, of course. This is a show that never fails to examine cause and effect.
Manu Bennett once again brings anger to bear as the ever-enraged Crixius, Sparty’s blood-brother from the days of Battiatus (John “Jupiter’s Cock” Hannah). Sporting longer hair and wilder eyes, his fury against their oppressors now reaches zealous heights. The perpetual war-monger in the camp, you just know that he and Spartacus are going to have to battle each other almost as much as they do the Romans. With Spartacus now invested primarily in saving his people and taking them to a sanctuary far beyond the reach of Roman steel and whip, such a “weak” strategy naturally galls the Gaul. Their escalating conflict is achingly upsetting to watch ... because we totally understand both points of view, and we know that the rebel army is infinitely stronger with them both acting as one. Bennett’s brute force is just as potent as ever ... but even he may bite off more than he can chew.
Daniel Feuerriegal’s Agron annoyed me at the start of Vengeance, furiously pummelling Roman skulls and bathing in blood with over-egged euphoria. Yet as the season wore on he became an important lieutenant to Spartacus and a much-valued character. In Damned, he is better again, gaining vigour and depth by virtue of his own loves and losses, his own doubts, and his fierce commitment to the cause. It would be a hard heart indeed that didn’t break during some of his more vital, climactic scenes, his shield improvised to allow him to fight on whilst nursing horrific wounds, and his last-minute courage is an edge-of-the-seat flash of fateful intervention.
But of all the gladiatorial rebels, one stands the equal of Spartacus in glory. Gannicus. Oh God, Gannicus. The Kenickie to Sparty’s Danny Zucko. The one that every red-blooded, heterosexual male fan of the show longs to be, and every red-blooded, heterosexual female longs to have. As Gannicus, the insipidly named Dustin Clare excels. He is the superstar of the arena. Never defeated, he earned his freedom in the glorious prequel season and was sought out for the greater cause in Vengeance by the Spartacus he had never met in the ludus … all the time carrying the burden of an affair his uncontrollable libido refused to shy away from. Now, sans such guilt, he regains that ultra-cool posture and swirling, grinning machismo to essay deeper emotions and greater heroism. If ever there was a man who could tear himself from the cross and ride through Rome, smiting a dozen at a time and swigging jugs of wine on the hoof, then this is the guy. Although there is talk of a spin-off involving Caesar, which I would long to see come to fruition, I would demand to see an additional Gannicus crusade even more. Well, as most ardent fans will already know, that is hugely unlikely to happen this side of the afterlife ... but Gannicus, far more so than the ever-angry, ever-bitter Crixius, epitomises the glory and the lust and sensationalism of the show. And Dustin Clare manages to rein-in that lisp that seemed to worsen in Vengeance, honing his soft, slow vernacular to a confident purr, and effortlessly stunning the crowds with every act of chiselled, flamboyant heroism. Given far more to work with than previously – his romance with the stunning Germanic uber-vixen, Saxa, going through a crisis of conscience and affairs of the heart once again proving to be Gannicus’ wholly understandable weak spot. His renegade rampage through the streets of the re-captured Roman city, saving two women in the process and laying waste to multiple foes in a do-or-die mission to escape back to Spartacus is a clear standout in a season that is stuffed to the gills with such exploits.
Deadlier than the male.
Warrior-woman Saxa (Ellen Hollman) is my poster-girl of the show. I would be tempted to say that Anna Hutchison, as Roman lady-turned-rebel-sympathiser Laeta, is the most outright sexy (as she proves during a nude sequence that surprised many people when it revealed a stupendously curvaceous body that her puppy-fat face bore no indication of sitting atop), even surpassing the impressively tanned and leggy Mira (Katrina Law) from Vengeance. Both women are excellent actresses, who get put through the wringer. But Laeta is the one who forced to re-evaluate her status in life with the most soul-changing repercussions.
As Crixius’ moll, Naevia, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who over from Season 1’s Lesley-Anne Brandt, brings almost as much spit, sweat and blood as Bennett does. Savage, feral and completely unmerciful. She makes Saxa look positively shrewish by comparison, her rage as toweringly unquenchable as that of Crixius. To be honest, this pairing begins to get a touch too cloying, but this is partway deliberate. Something terrible has to happen to them to compound all our belief in the ideals of both Crixius and Spartacus, and Naevia becomes the tormented eye of the storm once everything goes pear-shaped. Addai-Robinson has such an angry, scowl-born face that I shudder just thinking of it. But she fits into the raw and festering wound of Crixius like a heated blade, sealing it yet searing it with mutual pain. As relentlessly hard-faced as she is, you can’t help but suffer her agonies right alongside her.
Added to this venomous cauldron of wild women is the pure and naive allure of the young Sibyl (Gwendoline Taylor), who falls for the roguish charms of super-warrior, Gannicus, after he slays her despicable master. Once again, the show stuns you by revealing someone who appears to be a very young girl ... as a seductively formed provocateur capable of swaying even the mighty Gannicus from his chosen path.
The show’s writers, with Steven S. DeKnight and Brent Fletcher taking the lion’s share of the episodes, ensure that the series is brilliantly structured so that we are constantly wowed by set-piece battles, hair’s breadth escapes and impressively intimate sparring in either rebel or Roman camp. Twists and turns continually derail and thwart, and the driving thrust of the drama never becomes samey. Even though we know what the outcome will be, there is enough going on in the murky shadows of the steamy romances and devious dirty tricks to keep us glued to the screen. When Spartacus and co gain a city, subjugating the remnants of the Roman population and twisting hatreds and morals so that they become the tormentors, our conviction is torn and toyed-with. The season then charts their infamous double-crossing at the hands of the vile Cilecian pirates, led by Axel Rose-lookalike Vince Colosimo, and their subsequent routing by Crassus and Caesar. The middle section then sees the ragtag army on the road again, only to suffer further traps and the non-negotiable rage of the elements (kudos goes to the grotesque yet still beautiful image of bodies frozen and sitting upright). And then, finally, the crucial parting of the ways that pre-empts the final glorious stand-off with Crassus and his endless legions. All along the way, alliances and allegiances are forged in blood and fire, only to be recklessly tossed-aside in moments of madness and traitorous snakes in the grass grimly revealed. The deep, dark psychology of such a conflict is no better illustrated than back in the camp of Crassus and his son. If the slave army are deemed savages, the story ever seeks to penetrate the masquerade of Roman society, puncturing their notion of civilisation and exposing their innate double-standards and total misconception of compassion.
“You’re a f*cking traitor!”
“No. I am a f*cking Roman!”
Cleverly, it is Caesar who comes across as the most humane of the Romans. His early scene of heartbreaking mercy towards a captive Roman woman used as a hidden sex-toy for the less noble of Sparty’s men is absolutely incredible, and a crescendo of poignancy amidst the chaotic free-for-all. Later conspiracies see him put his life on the line for values that he probably didn’t know he held, and this all serves the purpose of fashioning the backbone of a man who would, one day, come to rule. In a way, this is Julius Gaius Caesar’s origin story.
With stunning camerawork from Aaron Morton (who failed to bring such ingenuity and verisimilitude to lensing on the remake of Evil Dead), the show is incredibly cinematic and amazingly visceral. We have grown tired of the phrase “like a comic-book brought to life”, but it is perfectly in-tune with the visual energy of this particular show. Varying film-speeds enhance the clashes, and in spinning around the combatants in the middle of their athletic coup de grace, the camera paints a tapestry of balletic barbarism. And the gore ... well, what we can say about a show that manages to employ truly countless variations upon head-lopping, facial scything, mouth penetration, eye-gouging, throat-slitting, skull-crushing, brain-bashing and cranial excavating? Oh yes, other body parts are regularly hacked, gashed, sliced and removed amid welters of claret ... but it remains the noggin-violence that lingers most on the screen and in the mind. A stoning that opens-up a skull-flap is genuinely shocking, as is the sight of a visage frenziedly stabbed into a kaleidoscopic mess. Bodies are immolated and crucified in frames of picturesque cruelty. The CG works supremely well with the prosthetic makeup effects, the blood sprays no longer as over-the-top and silly as they were right back at the start of Season 1.
Play the Spartacus drinking game... and quaff your favourite tipple whenever our lads roar in huge-mouthed slow-motion as they charge eagerly into maelstrom after maelstrom, fearlessly in love with death and danger. Be warned, though ... you might not make it through a single episode without sliding to the floor with a big greasy grin on your face.
And what of the main man, himself?
Andy Whitfield will, for many fans, remain the definitive Spartacus, even over and above Kirk Douglas. But I have to say that Liam McIntyre really, really came to own the part and make it indelibly and uniquely his over his two-season tenure. Of course it was difficult for him and us to accept the new face of the rebellion after learning of poor Andy’s sad demise, and he did a brilliant job of winning the hearts and minds of audiences, as well as the ever-swelling ranks of his character’s rabble army, during the second season, Vengeance. But this third and final tribute to primal strength and honour is where he totally came into his stride and achieved miracles. Gaining nobility through action and words, and revealing greater depths and richness of character with each episode, he drove ever-onwards to give us, the mob, precisely what we wanted.
With more intensity than ever before, he faced down the madness of Crixius, the raging confliction of emotions when confronted with Romans whom he actually pitied, and delivered speech after clarion-call speech without such things ever once becoming boring. But his meetings with Crassus, who had come to admire this vigorous, magnetic enemy as a fellow warrior and tactician and not just as an upstart slave, are the catalyst to revealing the extent of McIntyre’s commitment to the character he had inherited. The final episode, which is a bonafide classic and a sure-fire statement of the will to fight to the death for a justified cause, delivers such passion and strength from everyone, but McIntyre manages to rise above all others with a performance of such pride and defiance and sheer physicality that I actually find it impossible to simply sit and watch it without attempting to join in. His final battle is playing right now in the other room as I write this, and I keep running back in to study how he tears through successive foes, his eyes cutting through them as easily as his blades, burning all the while towards his sworn enemy, Marcus Crassus.
The Kubrick production, from Dalton Trumbo’s brilliant screenplay, remains untarnished as a colossus of epic cinema, and Kirk Douglas is still the towering champion for several generations of filmgoers ... but its depiction of Spartacus is a very thematically stylised rendition that hails from the beginnings of the sixties revisionist movement. It was a socialist statement that made manifest a protest against burgeoning American foreign policy and ruthless nature of its own home discriminations. Hardly allegorical, it ditched the radical left-wing stance of original author Howard Fast and sought to demythologise the freedom-yearning Spartacus by showing his insecurities and self-doubts, his fear of, and loathing for subjugation, and his intensifying love for slave-girl Varinia and his people. Its underlying message is just as relevant now as it ever was. But audiences are much more sophisticated than that these days, and the irony of this is that to get the point across now we need the in-yer-face ferocity and moral-baiting of such graphic imagery to really hammer it home. On the one hand, the show’s screenplays are far simpler and more knee-jerk than Trumbo’s. But, on the other, they are precisely targeted for maximum effect. Nobody is innocent for long, and for the greater good, one must inevitably commit atrocity. Leaders come and go, and are frequently despised by their underlings who envy their power , but principles and values are always worth fighting for. Gladiator’s Maximus and the characters of Spartacus, Hercules, Achilles, Jason, Odysseus and Sparta’s Leonidas have names that live on far beyond their bearer’s demise, becoming the metaphor for honour and a just cause. For doomed heroism that, like a virus, is picked up by the next champion and passed on - a bloody baton of glory. In this season, you can see that Liam McIntyre understands this, both in terms of continuing the fabulous high standards set by Andy Whitfield, and with regard to the great name of Spartacus and the ideals that he held aloft.
All of his battles are magnificent, but his furious finale is a rip-roaring festival of blood ‘n’ snot. He cleaves through legions and, battered and covered in gore, powerhouses up a hill to confront Crassus in the arms of destiny. Like Mad Mel’s doomed exit in Braveheart and Crowe’s entry into Elysium in Gladiator, Spartacus’ final moments, in combat and in anguished, yet resigned acceptance of Fate are amongst some of the most moving that I ever seen. But, man, he goes out in style. Look at that head-butt! And just look at the terrifyingly deadly glare on his blood-soaked face. Nobody can ever doubt McIntyre’s devotion to the role.
“You would have us run?”
“I would have us live!”
Alex North composed one of the greatest and most beloved motion picture scores when he painted his musical canvas for Kubrick’s classic. His love theme for Spartacus and Varinia has become immortal, and many other composers have attempted their own “take” on it over the years – many of which can be heard on the definitive CD boxset that Varese released a couple of years ago. But the TV show is certainly no slouch when it comes to lending voice to the Thracian’s epic rebellion. Raimi-regular Jo LoDuca delivers some impressive anthemic themes, a plethora of provocative and exotic motifs, more stirring action cues than a thousand enraged warriors could hurl a spear at, and wraps them all up in a seductively atmospheric and highly distinctive aura of sinuous and baroque expression. LoDuca scored all the seasons of Spartacus, but his best work appears here in the final chapter. Much of his unique sound has grown from seeds planted in his superb score for Les Pacte Des Loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf), what with the ethnic instrumentation, soaring solo vocals and massed choral barrages. For Damned, he increased the size of the choir, with Grecian voices, and tapped into the cruel destiny that would greet many of the characters that we had grown to love. There is passion, there is beauty, and there is clamorous, frenetic bestiality, indomitable imperialism and hypnotic tribalism. In short, he perfectly captures the essence, the character and the heart and soul of the saga, and its rich smorgasbord of unstaunched personalities.
It is unfortunate, but inevitable that people compare Spartacus to Game of Thrones. (Unsurprisingly, Rome is never mentioned in the same breath.) But even if they are both lavishly fantastical, morally complex and devoutly explicit in flesh and language, and they each contain a cavalcade of glowering scenarios and larger-than-life personalities, they are poles apart in terms of their psychological DNA and sheer breadth. I am not, for one second, about to claim that the quality of the writing and the dialogue in Spartacus compares in any way to that of Thrones, because it doesn’t. Thrones is a different and far grander beast, juggling many facets of feudal scheming and fateful conundrums in the air at any one time. Spartacus, although just as powerfully inventive and certainly as memorably shocking and gripping, is much more comic-book in tone, and deliberately so. Its aspirations fall no shorter, and it has the benefit of historical authenticity to back it up in its broader strokes, but its morals are more clear-cut, its motivations more fundamental and its conflict far more black and white. But, when you look back upon the entire story you cannot help but admire how the writers have stringently avoided the sort of repetition that were the hallmarks of such episodic TV skirmishers like the vintage Zorro or Planet of the Apes or even Robin of Sherwood and maintained a tight grip on narrative and character at all times
Game of Thrones may be the more “intelligent” and “witty” of the two and it is clearly, and understandably the critical darling (and its third season is proving to be the best one yet). But, of the two shows, both of which I am happily obsessed with, I found that I looked forward to, and enjoyed each episode of Spartacus the most. And already I miss it terribly, even though it is a show that I could happily watch over and over again. And surely will.
Testament to how damn good a show has been is when you feel a sense of grief that it is all over. This is how I regard the phenomenal and breathtaking quality of Spartacus. I just cannot praise this show enough. The Kirk Douglas film is one of my all-time favourites, but it still pales when compared to the colourfully dramatic and thoroughly rousing and exciting depiction of the same story served-up from the other side of the world. The makers don’t shy away from their illustrious heritage either. Watch for the terrific way in which they pay homage to the famous “I’m Spartacus!” sequence from the 1960 classic. And, even though characters have been stretched-out, heightened and lent grandeur, and battles much elaborated-upon, the story is still fairly faithful to the truth. Downplayed by Roman writing for centuries, so as not to inspire other slave revolts, Spartacus was a much greater threat to their society than is often made clear. Although outrageously stylised and full of cinematic gusto, this series attempts to put his war into sharper context.
Warrior. Slave. Gladiator. Freedom-fighter. He was all those things, but this is the show that reveals the humanity and the inhumanity of his crusade with the greatest passion and detail.
“Do not shed tear. There is no greater victory than to fall from this world ... a free man.”
Absolutely awesome, Spartacus, the entire TV epic, gets my highest recommendation.
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