Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spartacus


The Criterion Blogathon is an event examining the films within the Criterion Collection, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at the host sites.

from my DVD collection

I first collected Criterion DVDs back when I worked video retail, in the late 90s-early 00s. It was my co-workers' fault. They were much bigger cinephiles than I was at the time. As my appreciation of movies grew - quality movies, not just whatever was playing at the multiplex that weekend - I began to notice patterns. One of them was that lots of quality movies being released on this new format called DVD were under the Criterion label, and they were the ones my co-workers talked about a lot.

I remember going to the Virgin Megastore for them, either in Times Square or Union Square. Virgin was one of my favorite hangout spots in the 90s because I could buy CDs, DVDs and books there, and often did. I also supported smaller, independently-owned record shops and bookstores, but Virgin had a section specifically devoted to Criterion DVDs, which held a big appeal to someone like me, who was getting an on-the-job education in classic cinema at work.



DVDs in general were beginning to take off during this period, so it was a great time to work in video retail and be a film fan. Once I understood the advantages DVDs had over VHS tapes - namely, the special features - Criterion slowly gained a special value for me. At Virgin, I would go through the Criterion section of the home video department, looking at the titles, one row after another. The foreign films were a mystery to me, but certain covers would catch my eye. The Old Hollywood titles were more enticing, and I thought it was classy of me to occasionally pick out a Preston Sturges comedy or an Alfred Hitchcock mystery for my collection. 

Most of the Criterions I bought, though, were more contemporary: films by Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson, stuff like that. I remember how thrilled I was to get Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy as a Criterion, and while I eventually learned that the audio commentary was taken from the laser disc (remember those?), that didn't matter, since it was still new to me. So I consider Criterion to have played a role in my cinematic education.


Now seems like a good time to talk about the Criterion DVD of Spartacus. Currently playing in the art house circuit is a biopic of Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of, if not the best-known victim of the Hollywood anti-Communism blacklist.Trumbo was hired by the film's star and executive producer, Kirk Douglas, and according to the liner notes by film historian and author Stephen Farber:
...Douglas helped to destroy the Hollywood blacklist by allowing Trumbo to use his own name in the credits for Spartacus....[Media gossip columnist] Hedda Hopper denounced Douglas for hiring Trumbo, and the American Legion picketed the movie's Los Angeles premiere. Douglas's cheeky response was to hire Trumbo to write two more movies.
I don't recall when I bought the DVD, but I probably got it at Virgin. Let's talk about the extras.


The Spartacus Criterion is actually two discs. The first disc is the film itself. You know the story: Roman Empire, slave revolt, "I am Spartacus," etc. This is the 1991 restoration, which brings back a fair amount of material that was cut in 1967 due to censorship. Robert Harris was the guy in charge of the restoration, which also included inproving the color, and there's a short video that gives you an idea of how they worked with the original negatives to make the transfer to DVD more presentable. There's also Trumbo's original scene-by-scene analysis and supplemental music compositions by the film's composer, Alex North. 

Here are quick summaries of the audio commentary:
  • Harris, the restoration expert, talks about the restoration process, plus the original screenplay and certain scenes that didn't make the theatrical cut. He talked about what he called "large-format color films" like this one and how time is having its way with them, to the point where one can't make a print of them anymore. This was recorded back in the early 90s. By contrast, he also talked about the joy a properly-presented film can bring to an audience, especially a young one.
  • Douglas talks about the production process as much as his time on the set. He discusses Trumbo, naturally. My favorite quote from Douglas, which is quite illuminating given his background as the son of immigrants: "I've always been drawn to the underdog because I've always considered myself an underdog."
  • Producer Edward Lewis goes further into the behind-the-scenes stuff. Before Stanley Kubrick stepped into the director's chair, Anthony Mann was slated to direct. Indeed, the opening scenes where we first see Spartacus, breaking rocks in the mountains and biting the leg of a Roman overseer, was all lensed by Mann. He either quit or was fired two weeks or so into production. Lewis says Mann quit because of the difficulty he had in working with so many star egos who were also experienced writers and directors. Douglas says Mann was fired because Douglas didn't think Mann was the right fit - and of course, Douglas had previously worked with Kubrick on Paths of Glory. Lewis also talks about the right-wing resistance to Spartacus within Hollywood.
  • Howard Fast, the blacklisted author of the original Spartacus novel, seems to be of two minds about the film adaptation. He praises Douglas the producer for getting the movie made, but disagrees with several choices Trumbo made in the screenplay. For example, Fast calls the infamous "snails and oysters" scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis Hollywood's idea of decadence, as opposed to the real thing. Also, Fast doesn't seem to like Douglas the actor.
  • Graphic designer Saul Bass, who also designed the opening credits sequence, and did some storyboards and location scouting, talks about a variety of production and post-production aspects.
  • Actor Peter Ustinov, who won the Oscar for his work here, shares his memories of dueling Brit divas Olivier and Charles Laughton, as well as his thoughts about what Spartacus means to him. He's easily the funniest commentator.


Perhaps the highlight of the second disc of Spartacus is a short documentary called The Hollywood Ten, in which Trumbo and the other blacklisted and convicted writers, producers and directors have their say. A narrator introduces the men, one by one, and then they talk about the House Un-American Activities Committee and why they defied that group's directive to rat on their colleagues, who may or may not have been Communists. I didn't like that they all spoke from a prepared script, though. It would've been nicer to have gotten their individual perspectives in a more candid setting. Perhaps this was done out of expediency; maybe getting all ten of them in one room wasn't easy. Don't know. Still worth seeing as a historical relic of the times.

There are several deleted scenes from the film that are kinda interesting, but like most deleted scenes, they don't add much in terms of additional context. There are also a ton of stills and promotional images.


There are behind-the-scenes interviews with Ustinov and Jean Simmons, plus another interview with Ustinov much later in life. He is witty, erudite and great with accents and impersonations. (His Laughton is especially good.) Seeing him in this context makes me want to check out some of his other films. There's also a brief biography of director Kubrick.

There's a fine short, set to North's film score, depicting training for scenes set in the gladiatorial school. We see Douglas, Woody Strode, and others learning how to fight more or less like Roman gladiators, using wooden sticks in place of swords. Everyone wears black Spartacus shirts, which makes them look like a regimented army or something.


There's newsreel footage featuring Douglas and other cast members on set and at premieres. In one we see Douglas present Curtis with an award given him from a film magazine. The original trailer is also available.

There are storyboards by Bass and Kubrick, although the former's are far more detailed and interesting visually. Among them, we see a sequence during the big battle at the climax where Simmons' character wanders off to have her baby. In addition, there are pages and panels from a Spartacus comic book adaptation. Some of the likenesses are close to the real actors, others are more generic.


There's also a transcript of the letter the MPAA wrote to the Spartacus production team after seeing an early cut of the film, in which they point out all the things they wanted changed or deleted. Much of what they objected to sounds expected: Simmons' skinny-dipping scene, the "snails and oysters" scene, etc., but there are other things they mention that really didn't make the theatrical cut, so it's well worth looking at.

There's something for every cinephile's tastes within the Criterion Collection, and within this Spartacus double-disc, there's much worth exploring. Still, perhaps the most significant aspect is the restoration of the film itself. Even on my laptop, the movie looks spectacular, and credit must go to Harris and his team for going the distance in making this epic film look the way it should.

12 comments:

  1. Rich, this is an amazing post. Your enthusiasm for, and your descriptions of, this Criterion set is infectious. Where's my credit card! I'm buying one right now!

    Thanks for taking the time to share the extras and your impressions with us. And thanks for joining the blogathon!

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  2. Thanks! I just figured the way to go for a blogathon about Criterion DVDs was to review the DVD itself.

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  3. Yes, this is great! I have not delved into the Criterion and recently purchased the studio release, which I understand has different extras. This is a great analysis of a release that is harder to come by.

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  4. Harder to come by, eh? That's too bad. This should be on Blu-ray at the very least.

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  5. Fabulous, and I hope, no I know, you'll have some people looking for this release now. Sometimes it's hard to know what's "new" to say about a movie like this, but your approach is super and I really enjoyed and learned new things. Thanks for joining us and bringing such a great post to the event.

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  6. Thanks a lot. Once I go back and add the pics and links, though, this'll look like a proper post.

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  7. Peter Ustinov should have provided commentary for every film ever made whether he was involved in the production or not. Definitely sounds like a standout in your film collection.

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  8. It had been such a long time since I listened to the audio commentary for SPARTACUS that I had forgotten how enjoyable he was in it. In his second interview, he tells a funny story about a pair of little old American ladies who mistake Laughton for Burl Ives - complete with accents and imitations!

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    Replies
    1. Oh my gosh! Next weekend when Gavin is watching "Rudolph" (and he will be watching "Rudolph"), I'll be imagining Laughton as Sam the Snowman.

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  9. Christmas specials come on earlier and earlier these days!

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  10. Love your review of the film, and your memories of your relationship with Criterion as well. Bare bones is just fine when the writing is this good.

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  11. I'm glad you think so. Stop by anytime.

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