Updated: Feb 13
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Producer/actor Kirk Douglas plays Roman slave Spartacus, who leads a revolt that eventually spreads over half of Italy.
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“SPARTACUS: 60th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital copy, 1960, PG-13 for battle sequences and sensuality; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: The carryover featurette, “I Am Spartacus,” a conversation with the late Kirk Douglas
KIRK DOUGLAS was a tender 98 when he sat down five years ago for “I Am Spartacus,” the featurette highlighting this sweeping epic. Sadly, the legendary actor died earlier this year just before COVID-19 changed our lives.
His career started in the 1930s, first as a professional wrestler to help pay his tuition at St. Lawrence University in New York. Eventually, he got a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and debuted on Broadway just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. “Spring Again” shut down a few weeks later and Douglas signed up for the Navy. After the war, he quickly transitioned to Hollywood, launching a career that spanned from 1946 to the early 2000s.
Looking straight into the camera, his voice altered by a massive stroke he suffered in the 1990s, he says, “I am Spartacus.” And who’s to doubt him? Douglas made over 90 movies, “but I don’t think anyone will remember 10 of them. I think I can remember 10. But the one everyone remembers was ‘Spartacus.’”
(1&2) Spartacus is sentenced to death after biting a Roman guard. (3) But, his life was spared by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), a broker of gladiators and trained by Marcellus (Charles McGraw) a former slave, at the gladiatorial academy. (4) Slave woman Varinia (Jean Simmons) meets Spartacus in his room.
The film received six Academy Awards nominations, winning for supporting actor (Peter Ustinov), cinematography (color), art direction/set decoration and costume design. Strangely, Douglas, who gave the performance of his career as the Thracian gladiator who leads an army of slaves against the Romans in the Third Servile War, wasn’t even nominated.
Douglas, who also served as executive producer, admits it’s difficult to make an epic like “Spartacus.” “We had so many problems. I had to fire the director,” he says. Universal Studio had insisted on Anthony Mann, who’d helmed a number of successful James Stewart Westerns for the studio (including “Winchester ‘73”), plus the crowd-pleaser “The Glenn Miller Story.” But after two weeks of arguing with Douglas and others, he was paid in full and let go.
Stanley Kubrick was playing poker when he got the call from Douglas to take over. The timing was good: The 30-year old former Look magazine photographer had just been fired by Marlon Brando during the production of “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961). Douglas and Kubrick had previously worked together on the anti-war film “Paths of Glory” (1957).
Kubrick was known as a perfectionist and demanded numerous takes from his actors. He was so disagreeable with actress Sabina Bethmann, hired as Spartacus’ love interest Varinia, that he fired her and replaced her with Jean Simmons, the British actress who had co-starred with Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s big-budget Western, “The Big Country” (1958).
(1) Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his wife Lady Helena (Nina Foch), and her brother military leader Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall) and his new wife Lady Claudia (Joanna Barnes) visit Batiatus' (Peter Ustinov) gladiator academy. (2) The visitors select Spartacus, Draba (Woody Strode), Crixus (John Ireland) and Galino (uncredited) to a fight to the death. (3&4) Spartacus and Draba are paired off.
Douglas’ production partner Edward Lewis hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (“Roman Holiday”) to adapt Howard Fast’s 1951 novel. Trumbo had been convicted of contempt of Congress after appearing in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and spent 11 months in a federal penitentiary. The screenwriter’s involvement, however, eventually became an “open secret,” and as the premiere neared, Douglas says, “I made the decision to give him back his name. The blacklist was broken.”
Trumbo’s attachment to the project attracted an all-star list of British actors to play the Romans, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Ustinov.
Douglas recalls that Kubrick wanted to eliminate one of the film’s most memorable scenes—when all the former slavers stand up and say, “I’m Spartacus.” A huge argument ensued. “Of course I was also the producer,” he says, “and the producer always wins.”
The role, he adds, was one of his favorites, right up there with “Lonely Are the Brave,” a small Western he produced and starred that was made two years later.
“Any actor is gratified if he has a picture that endures.”
There’s no doubt about that. “Spartacus” premiered on October 6, 1960, in New York City, and is still considered one of the best: It’s No. 81 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films.
(1) Spartacus starts a gladiator riot and fights Marcellus. (2) The gladiators overtake Batiatus' academy, which leads to a full-scale slave revolt lead by Spartacus. (3&4) Spartacus and his army overtake the garrison of Rome. (5&6) Marcus Publius Glabrus faces the Roman senate, which Crassus gets up and says that Glabrus has disgraced Rome and let the senate pronounce his punishment.
The 4K disc also includes original black-and-white interviews from the movie set with Ustinov and Simmons, deleted scenes, B-roll footage from the gladiator academy set (which shows Mann and Ustinov as well as sword-training for Douglas), and newsreel footage from the premiere in London.
In the 2015 carry-over featurette “Restoring ‘Spartacus,’” film preservationist Peter Schade puts the film among the top 10 in Universal’s library. “It’s a film with tremendous scope and deals with themes of slavery and repression,” he says. “Spartacus” was especially timely during the Civil Rights movement, and is just as meaningful today.
The original Super-Technirama 70 camera negative (2.20:1 aspect ratio), which was exposed horizontally at twice the size of traditional 35mm, was scanned at 6K in 2014. The condition of the film elements was rough, says restoration project manager Seanine Bird. Scenes were then repaired and each frame was cleaned up.
The output resolution was 4K, which provides a washing of super-fine natural film grain—while the 4K disc extracts a higher level of that grain that enlarges during the few composite shots. Overall, the 4K upgrade provides superb clarity, especially the wide shots and its cast of thousands and the bonus facial and costume details.
Film preservation experts Robert Harris and Jim Katz, who had worked closely with Kubrick during “Spartacus’” analog photochemical restoration in the early 1990s, were brought in as consultants with the color toning. Good call. You can see why cinematographer Russell Metty won the Oscar. The art direction and costumes are also striking.
4K Ultra HD vs. Blu-ray
The mid-tones and highlights are more defined with the 4K version. Plus, the added clarity on Kirk Douglas' face and costume are obvious.
(1&2) The slave revolt increases with the young and old. (3) Varinia is pregnant with Spartacus' child.
The HDR toning is a major difference compared to the previous HD version, as the mid-tones and facial toning are more natural and darker. The Blu-ray now looks too bright.
Since the three-hour-plus hour film is forced onto a 100-Gigabyte 4K disc, along with all of the extras, the overall bitrates are not at the level we had hoped. Most of the scenes are outputting from 40 Megabits per second to 60 Mbps, which is acceptable but not desirable.
When Sony recently released the 4K disc of “Lawrence of Arabia,” which runs nearly four hours, the film was split onto two discs, using the intermission as the changing point. The bitrates with “Lawrence” run between 65 Mbps to the upper 80s. The intermission for “Spartacus” would’ve been a sweet spot for a second disc.
The eight-channel DTS-HD soundtrack from the 2015 restoration continues to provide excellent sonic tones from highs to low bass, allowing Alex North’s Oscar-nominated score to shine. The separation in the dialogue is excellent. The new DTS:X upgrade for your height speakers is used sparingly and really doesn’t provide any real audible difference. I spent some time with my ear to the height speakers and just once in a blue moon did I hear any music cues or sound effects.
Still, Universal should be saluted for a job well-done. We can only hope they stay the course as they prepare the upcoming 4K Hitchcock Collection (“Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “Rear Window,” “The Birds”) and soon after that the “Back to the Future” collection.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1-3) Spartacus and his army battle Crassus and the Roman soldiers. (4) Antoninus (Tony Curtis) yells, "I'm Spartacus."
(1) The surviving slaves from the battle are crucified. (2) Gracchus (Charles Laughton) provides the articles of freedom for Varinia and her son. (3) The final farewell.