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NO PAN FOR PAN & SCAN

The 1991 Robert A. Harris restoration of Spartacus comes in both letterboxed and pan & scan versions, and the latter is more effective than youd expect, considering how technicians so often brutally butcher the basic widescreen visions. Masterfully transferred and sound coordinated, the pan & scan Spartacus actually intensifies the outdoorsy story of Kirk Douglass slave uniting his comrades to revolt against wicked Rome and appropriately magnifies the performers: Laurence Olivier, for example, has never been more magisterial, and Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton give genuinely splendid supporting performances. When the p & s zooms in on these three faces, youre getting very appreciated close-ups of the glories of togafest acting. (Stripped to the waist, John Gavin will give the ladies and gays an eyeful, just as he does for lusty Olivier.) No movie lover would ever recommend pan & scan over correct ratio, but without doubt this is easily the most carefully crafted butchery of an epic. Douglas is more tolerable than usual—maybe its the moral weight of slavery. Jean Simmons (who originally turned down her part) cant fully redeem that necklace Olivier gives her to wear but her beauty is transcendent. Shot mostly in California, using Hearsts outlandish Romanesque San Simeon, and portions filmed in Spain: economics forced executive producer Douglas and Universal to use the Spanish Army instead of Hollywood extras for the six weeks it took to film the battle scenes. Some of the sets—the gladiator schools sleeping quarters and Oliviers abode—are marvellously lit. Anthony El Cid Mann was originating director (having filmed the sun-baked opening sequence), replaced by Stanley Kubrick, who also found himself fighting with Douglas. Blacklisted Dalton Trumbo adapted Howard Fasts politically loaded novel, adding plenty of his own anti-fascist venom, though Kubrick openly condemned the “pretty dumb script” because, among other errors, it fictionalized Spartacus’s entrapment at Brundisium. (And Ustinov reportedly rewrote his and Laughtons scenes together.) The 1960 Spartacus, which had to forego the famous “snails” sequence as well as some dismemberment of bodies during the battle scenes, was re-released in 1967 with an additional 22 minutes of footage sliced away; the restoration runs 196 minutes. Considering all the troubles associated with filming, one is surprised at how decent an epic it turned out to be. Alex Norths love theme stolen by The Americanization of Emily. Oscars for best supporting actor (Ustinov), cinematography (Russell Metty, who walked off the set in anger over Kubricks interferences and eventual takeover of the camera), art direction and costumes. Richard Farnsworth and George Kennedy are uncredited extras; Yakima Cannutt without credit for some second-unit directing. Filmed in TECHNIRAMA.

The 2004 USA Network Pictures miniseries Spartacus, directed by Robert Dornhelm, and starring the handsome Goran Visnjic in the title role, is part Braveheart, part Gladiator—a blend of romanticized chivalry and valiant quest for freedom from oppressors. But Robert Schenkkans teleplay is substantially more faithful to Howard Fasts novel than the Trumbo version, while at the same time giving due tribute to Douglas. Filmed in Sophia, Bulgaria, and using Stargate Digitals services for special effects, this letterboxed presentation is a satisfying entertainment, with two standout performances—the late Alan Bates in the Laughton role of Agrippa and Ian McNeice a far less humorous Batiatus than Ustinovs. Less impressive is Angus MacFayens Crassus, but then, there will likely never be anyone in our lifetime to match the power of Olivier.

 

ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com 

Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.