One of the greatest epics in cinema history at last gets the 4K UHD treatment, and the spectacular video transfer is well worth the wait. Spartacus may not have nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination in 1960, but in 2020 it stands as one of the best Ultra High-Def presentations of a classic movie to date, thanks to a sublime Dolby Vision and HDR rendering of the 2015 restoration and upgraded DTS:X audio. Director Stanley Kubrick's captivating 197-minute chronicle of a historic slave revolt in Ancient Rome is packed with spectacle, romance, pageantry, dramatic confrontations, and magnetic performances from Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, and Tony Curtis. You haven't really seen Spartacus until you've seen this dazzling, immersive 4K UHD edition, which renders all previous home video releases of this immortal film obsolete. Must Own.
On its surface, Spartacus seems like a typical "sword and sandal" spectacle. It's got gladiators, bloody battle scenes, sadistic Romans, brutalized slaves, a three-hour-plus running time, and a literal cast of thousands. Yet look deeper and you'll find elements that make director Stanley Kubrick's film a unique entry in a cluttered genre. Introspection and subtlety abound, serious issues like freedom, persecution, and political corruption are examined, and dimensional characters portrayed by some of the generation's most esteemed actors populate the drama. Exceptional direction, a literate script, gorgeous cinematography, and an opulent production design also distinguish Spartacus and help make this grandiose chronicle of a historic Roman slave revolt decades before the birth of Christ one of the greatest epics in Hollywood history.
It's also one of Hollywood's most successful restoration stories. Like a Roman ruin, Spartacus was in a desperate state of disrepair by the time film preservationist Robert A. Harris got his hands on the movie in 1991. His team brought Spartacus back from the dead, miraculously restoring the image and re-inserting four minutes of cut footage, while a 4K digital restoration in 2015 elevated the movie to state-of-the-art standards. The fruits of that second effort have now fully ripened in this breathtaking 4K UHD rendering of Spartacus, which now stands as the film's definitive home video edition.
Much more on the video and audio transfers below, but in the splendor of Dolby Vision and HDR, Spartacus scales new heights and provokes a more intense emotional response than ever before. The crystal clear images immerse us in the arduous life and Herculean struggles of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a downtrodden slave who's groomed to be a gladiator, then leads a daring, large-scale revolt that threatens the very core of the Roman Empire. Rival Roman senators Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Gracchus (Charles Laughton) spar over how to quell the rebellion, and their political bickering and gamesmanship ensnare a young Julius Caesar (John Gavin). The ravishing Varinia (Jean Simmons) falls in love with Spartacus, and Crassus' runaway slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) becomes his loyal disciple, but neither of them can halt the advances of a massive, bloodthirsty Roman army determined to put the renegade slaves back in bondage.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo weaves thought-provoking themes that reflect contemporary issues throughout the film. His literate script is packed with civil rights overtones, as the slaves fight for their freedom and strive for equality in a world run by privileged white men. It also contains thinly veiled allusions to the Communist witch hunt raging across America at the time and notorious blacklist that was a byproduct of it. A noteworthy casualty of the period, Trumbo spent time in prison for contempt of Congress when he refused to name names, lost his lucrative writing career as a result, and was forced to pen scripts under pseudonyms to survive. Douglas, who was also the executive producer of Spartacus, boldly decided to give Trumbo full screen credit for his screenplay, an act that went a long way toward ending the blacklist and bringing one of America's most shameful periods to a close.
That's only one episode in a production history that's almost as fascinating, colorful, and intricate as the Roman history depicted on screen. Douglas fired original director Anthony Mann early on and replaced him with Kubrick (with whom he worked a couple of years earlier on Paths of Glory), but the two clashed openly and often during the interminable shoot. Kubrick wanted more control, but Douglas kept him on a tight leash, prompting Kubrick to later dismiss and disown Spartacus. On the flip side, cinematographer Russell Metty was used to calling his own shots (literally and figuratively), but reportedly Kubrick, also an accomplished photographer, sidelined him and usurped control of the camera. That put Metty's nose out of joint, although he did end up winning the Best Cinematography Oscar...and possibly getting the last laugh.
And that's not all. Olivier and Laughton were bitter rivals and barely spoke to each other off screen; the original Varinia, German actress Sabine Bethmann, was replaced with Simmons before shooting began; and when he wasn't battling with Kubrick, Douglas repeatedly clashed with Trumbo over the script.
Amazingly, the stress and strain of such strife never shows up on the screen. Spartacus runs like a finely oiled machine. It's well paced (the 197 minutes may not fly by, but the movie is never boring), gorgeous to look at, performed with passion, and brimming with artistry. Kubrick takes the time to focus on the plights of both major and minor characters (and even extras), which lends the film emotional resonance, and allows us to drink in the spectacle and finely etched portrayals. It's rare that films as big as Spartacus contain so many affecting small moments, and many of those make greater impressions and provoke more visceral responses than the massive battle sequences.
This edition of Spartacus, like its 2015 predecessor, tacks 12 minutes of footage onto the film's running time. Eight of those comprise the movie's overture, entr'acte, and exit music. The remaining four minutes are made up of isolated deleted battle shots that the censors deemed too gory for 1960 audiences (including one shocking moment when Spartacus slices off a Roman soldier's arm with his sword), as well as a subtle yet highly suggestive bath scene between Olivier and Curtis that the censors axed due to its overt homosexual overtones. In the sensual exchange, Crassus presses his slave Antoninus on whether he likes oysters and snails. Antoninus says he enjoys sampling oysters when given the opportunity, but has never tried snails. Crassus says he has a taste for both, telegraphing his bisexuality to his slave (and expectation of future sexual favors from him) and the decadence and depravity of Ancient Rome to us. Interestingly, when the scene was reinserted into the film in 1991, the audio was lost. Curtis was still alive at the time and able to overdub his dialogue, but Olivier had passed away, so actor Anthony Hopkins, who was known to do a spot-on vocal impression of Olivier, was brought in to record his dialogue...and if I hadn't learned that bit of trivia, I never would have guessed the voice wasn't Olivier's.
Oftentimes epics with an esteemed cast feature hammy performances, as the actors try to grab the spotlight from their colleagues and make their mark. (The Ten Commandments is a perfect example.) Yet despite all the considerable thespian egos assembled in Spartacus, a true ensemble feel pervades the film. All the stars get their respective moments to shine and make the most of them, but there's no jockeying for position, no grandstanding that throws the movie out of balance. Douglas is a towering presence, as he should be, but keeps his oversized screen persona in check most of the time, a clever tactic that makes his explosions of rage all the more powerful. His introspective moments are deeply affecting, and he creates a wonderful chemistry with the radiant Simmons (one of my favorite stars of the period and a highly underrated actress), who files a disarmingly natural portrayal filled with warmth and passion.
Olivier consistently commands the screen with his finely etched, deliciously cold and calculating performance. His effective underplaying nicely contrasts with Laughton's typical yet always mesmerizing bombast. Curtis, Gavin (who would also play a pivotal role in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho the same year), John Ireland, and John Dall excel in key supporting parts, but arguably the most resonating portrayal comes from Peter Ustinov as a gladiator trainer/dealer who becomes torn between two political factions after Spartacus and his men bust out of his slave camp. Ustinov won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his colorful turn that masterfully mixes gravity with humor, and holds the distinction of being the only actor ever to win an Academy Award for a Kubrick film.
In all, Spartacus won four Oscars (Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Costume Design) out of six nominations, but Kubrick's epic stunningly did not receive a Best Picture nod. (It remains one of only three films to win the Best Motion Picture Drama award at the Golden Globes, but not garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination.) It was also 1960's top-grossing movie, and it's easy to see why. Though Kubrick forever rued and stewed over his lack of control, he nevertheless crafts a monumental, visually arresting, and deeply moving drama that celebrates character, conviction, courage, nobility, and the willingness to sacrifice, all in the name of advancing and enlightening the human race and securing for everyone the precious gift of freedom.
Sadly, it's a battle we're still fighting more than 2,000 years after Spartacus led his historic revolt and 60 years after Kubrick's film premiered. Yet this timeless tale reminds us how vital the fight is, and in this era of social unrest it once again strongly resonates. Yes, Spartacus is a spectacle on steroids, but it's the themes and ideas pulsating through it that make this epic, like its hero, immortal.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 4K UHD version of Spartacus arrives packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. The 2015 Blu-ray disc along with a leaflet containing a code to access a digital copy of the film are tucked inside the front cover. Both Dolby Vision and HDR10 presentations are included on the disc. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 and default audio is DTS:X. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 2015 restoration of Spartacus yielded a stunning Blu-ray transfer, but it turns out that admirable effort was just a warm-up for what is now indisputably the definitive home video presentation of this classic epic. In Dolby Vision and HDR, the restored Spartacus looks breathtakingly gorgeous, and the fantastic image quality remains consistent throughout the entire 197-minute running time. Part of the reason Spartacus looks so good is because Kubrick and cinematographer Russell Metty, who won an Oscar for his work, shot the film in Super Technirama 70, a now extinct format that - much like VistaVision - used a larger frame than traditional CinemaScope, resulting in a sharper picture with reduced grain. That's a match made in heaven for 4K UHD, and the sublime marriage helps Spartacus outclass other classics from the same period that have gotten the ultra high-def treatment.
Rest assured, the existing grain remains intact and lends this luscious 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer a marvelous film-like feel. Astonishing clarity allows us to drink in the tiniest details - the decorations on breast plates, fine stones in necklaces, the weave and minuscule knobs of fabric on burlap shirts and dresses, and the fine hairs on the napes of Douglas' and Olivier's necks. The long shot detail is especially impressive, making it easy to discern individual faces in several cast-of-thousands crowd scenes. Contrast is practically perfect. Both interior and exterior scenes appear beautifully balanced, with the well-defined contours of the sweeping landscapes enhancing depth and emphasizing the production's massive scope. The clarity is so good, the few exterior scenes shot on soundstages are glaringly obvious, but that's a price I'm willing to pay for such a dazzling rendering.
This transfer also quashes any lingering notion that Spartacus is a drab-looking film. The heightened color spectrum of Dolby Vision produces eye-popping hues, from the Roman soldiers' red capes and a horse's multi-colored tassels to a dreamy magenta sunset and the red, yellow, and blue paint the gladiator trainer smears across Douglas' chest and arms. The wide expanses of blue sky remain rock solid throughout and exhibit no noise or banding, and verdant greens add lush tones to the love scenes between Douglas and Simmons. Even the green pond scum is gloriously vivid.
Deep blacks anchor the image, but the nicely balanced whites are even more impressive. The white togas of the Roman senators, the sea of tiny white pebbles in the opening scene, a white gown Simmons wears late in the film, and a brief snow montage all look crisp and never bloom. Excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and even the film's darker sequences remain free of softness and noise.
Close-ups? I wish the razors I shave with could be as sharp. From Douglas' cavernous chin dimple and the flabby folds of Laughton's cheeks and neck to facial stubble, skin pores and creases, beads of sweat, eyebrows and eyelashes, and bits of dirt and grime, all the tight shots of all the men sport extraordinary degrees of detail. Simmons, as per Hollywood tradition, is photographed much more softly, but her close-ups are no less stunning, showing off her creamy complexion, alabaster skin, and perfectly aligned facial features. Simmons is a true vision of loveliness, even when wearing rags and appearing tired and worn.
Compared to the 2015 Blu-ray (a copy of which is included in this release), the 4K UHD picture is palpably bolder and more vibrant, with richer color, heightened clarity, more pronounced detail, greater depth, and truer flesh tones. Don't misunderstand. As classic movie Blu-rays go, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of Spartacus is 100% fabulous, but a five-star Blu-ray transfer just can't compete with a five-star 4K UHD transfer in any category, so if you're set up for 4K viewing, upgrading to the UHD edition of Spartacus is an absolute must.
Call me foolish, but I honestly didn't expect to discern much of a difference between the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track from the 2015 Blu-ray and the brand new DTS:X track that graces the 4K UHD disc. Well, I guess I'm pretty foolish, because from the moment the first majestic strains of Alex North's overture pour out of the speakers it's abundantly evident the DTS:X track significantly bests its predecessor. Fidelity and tonal depth are noticeably stronger and richer, lending the sound a more robust, nuanced, and full-bodied feel. Though surround activity remains faint, stereo separation across the front channels seems more pronounced and distinct, and the bolder aural presence overall produces room-filling audio that immerses us in the on-screen drama.
Highs sound brighter, the lows exude more weight, and a wide dynamic scale embraces all the tones in between, all without a hint of distortion. The screaming brass and potent percussion enjoy plenty of breathing room, while the .LFE channel outputs thunderous bass when dozens of horses gallop across the terrain and roaring flames burst forth. Sonic accents like clanking swords, fisticuffs, and claps of thunder are wonderfully crisp, as are subtleties like rain and footsteps. Dialogue also seems a bit more pronounced, better prioritized, and a tad clearer than on the previous track.
Though the audio alone might not be a reason to upgrade, if you combine it with the exceptional video transfer, it's a no-brainer.
All the supplements from the 2015 Blu-ray have been ported over to this release, and all of them - with the exception of the image galleries - are included on the 4K UHD disc. The galleries can only be accessed on the Blu-ray disc, which also contains all the other extras. While I'm not sure whether anyone would sit through a 197-minute audio commentary, I feel there needs to be one to properly document the film's production, assess its impact, examine its themes, and dispel any rumors swirling about the movie. That's the only glaring omission in this otherwise stellar extras package.
Color me gobsmacked. In the splendor of Dolby Vision and HDR and featuring an upgraded DTS:X soundtrack, the 2015 restoration of Spartacus dazzles the senses in a truly spectacular 4K UHD presentation that immerses us in the cruelty, violence, opulence, and pageantry of Ancient Rome like never before. Director Stanley Kubrick's epic account of a brazen slave revolt led by the film's eponymous character wields as much power as Kirk Douglas' intense portrayal and remains an absorbing and immersive film experience six decades after its premiere. Spartacus may not have been nominated for Best Picture back in 1960, but in 2020 it stands as one of the best 4K UHD treatments of a classic movie. This edition renders any previous home video release of Spartacus obsolete and deserves a prominent spot in every cinephile's collection. Must Own.