In a recent episode of “The Sopranos,” Joe Pantoliano’s “Gladiator” freak Ralphy trashed “Spartacus,” ranting that it isn’t a real gladiator movie. Perhaps not all the way through, but Ralphy was being unreasonable as usual; in the annals of Roman spectacles, there are few sequences more exciting and dramatic than the bitter struggle between Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in the private arena of Peter Ustinov’s gladiator school in the first act of Stanley Kubrick’s epic of a slave revolt against Roman rule.
The wake of “Gladiator,” in fact, reps an opportune moment for the release of the “Spartacus” DVD, for just as Ridley Scott’s Oscar winner rehabilitated a long-defunct genre, the pagan-era-set “Spartacus,” coming after a decade’s worth of religious-themed sagas, was generally received in 1960 as an intelligent refreshener of the epic form. Indeed, what stands out today, along with the physical force of the gladiatorial school and later battle scenes, is the uncommon sharpness of the dialogue and the high level of playing on the part of the great British trio of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton.
First and foremost, the 196-minute film, which was shot in Super Technirama 70, looks terrific, thanks to its basis in the 1990 restoration engineered by Robert Harris and James Katz for Universal. The supplementary materials are taken from the 1992 Criterion laser disc, and still represent a cornucopia of delights for the connoisseur. No fewer than five key participants — exec producer-star Douglas, producer Edward Lewis, “Spartacus” novel author Howard Fast, Ustinov and Harris — offer mostly illuminating and thoughtful observations on the alternate audio track, and there is much to discuss.
A primary subject is the film’s role in breaking the blacklist, by virtue of Douglas’ hiring of Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay, and the coincidental thematic content of victimized masses battling ruling class oppressors. Producer Lewis adds that, although “Spartacus” won four Oscars, it was hurt in the Academy Awards (having been shunned in the top categories of picture, director and screenplay) by a vigorous right-wing opposition campaign led by columnist Hedda Hopper and John Wayne.
While repeatedly ladling out backhanded compliments about how brave Douglas was in undertaking such a mammoth production, Fast bristles with prickly criticisms of everything from Douglas’ one-dimensional exhibitionism as an actor to the film’s historical dubiousness; writer also points out that the Communist Party, and Trumbo himself, had been among his book’s most strident detractors.
And then there is the still-mysterious issue of Kubrick’s abrupt replacement of original director Anthony Mann after 14 days of shooting. The matter is addressed at length, but remains murky all the same: Echoing a certain evasiveness in his autobiography, Douglas vaguely asserts that Mann just wasn’t working out (a claim forthrightly belied by the strength of the film’s opening minutes with the slaves in Death Valley, all shot by Mann), while Lewis goes so far as to suggest that Mann wanted off the picture because there were too many actor/producer/director/writers on the set (Douglas, Olivier, Ustinov, Laughton) and that the production was just too big for him (another dubious notion, given that Mann immediately went on to direct two of the period’s biggest and best epics, “El Cid” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire”).
But offering a possible key to the Mann-Kubrick conundrum is Ustinov, who in the course of his boundlessly witty audio track commentary and in a special accompanying video interview offers his suspicion that Douglas had always secretly planned to bring in the 30-year-old Kubrick, with whom he had worked so successfully on “Paths of Glory,” but needed a more experienced director to win Universal’s financial backing. In the face of any evident reason why the highly professional and accomplished Mann would ever be fired, Ustinov’s theory makes a lot of sense.
The highlights of the entire extras package are Ustinov’s often hilarious anecdotes, including a priceless account of the first read-through of the script, his brilliant impersonations of Laughton and Olivier, who couldn’t stand one another, and his revelation that Anthony Mann was raised in a San Diego-area nudist cult. Also valuable are Trumbo’s lengthy criticisms of an early long cut of the picture, some marginally interesting deleted scenes, some newsreel coverage of the shoot and openings, and John Berry and Paul Jarrico’s 1950 documentary, “The Hollywood Ten.”