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 you’d expect, considering how technicians so often brutally butcher basic widescreen visions. Masterfully transferred and sound coordinated, this pan & scan actually intensifies the outdoorsy story of Kirk Douglas’s 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, you’re getting very appreciated close-ups of the glories of togafest acting. (Stripped to the waist, John Gavin will give the audience an eyeful, just as he does for lusty Olivier.) No movie lover would ever recommend pan & scan over correct aspect ratio, but without doubt this is easily the most carefully crafted butchery of an epic. Douglas is more tolerable than usual and Jean Simmons (who originally turned down her part) can’t fully redeem the necklace Olivier gives her to wear but her beauty is transcendent. Shot mostly in California, using Hearst’s 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 school’s sleeping quarters and Olivier’s abode—are marvellously lit. Anthony 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 Fast’s 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 confirmed rewriting his and Laughton’s 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 returns to 196 minutes. Considering all the troubles associated with filming, one is surprised at how decent it turned out to be. Alex North’s love theme stolen by The Americanization of Emily. Richard Farnsworth and George Kennedy are uncredited extras; Yakima Cannutt without credit did some second-unit directing. Filmed in SUPER TECHNIRAMA 70mm. (McVickers, opening 10/13/1960, 23 weeks.)
Oscars for best supporting actor (Ustinov), cinematography (Russell Metty, who walked off the set in anger over Kubrick’s interferences and eventual takeover of the camera), art direction and costumes.
Robert Harris never gives up. His first refurbs of 1960’s Spartacus and 1964’s My Fair Lady were less than stellar, and pretty dismal on DVD, but he knew it and openly said that given the money and technological advances he’d go back and do them right. He got the money and by 2015, he and his team spruced up Spartacus with fresh coats of colors and brought MFL back from the grave. With the former, maybe too much digital paint: now all the glass shots and the phony sylvan settings—especially those used for Kirk and Simmons—really stick out. And while movie lovers have long known Simmons was soft-lighted without excuse, now she’s bathed in it, sort of an aureole. And Kirk’s “before we die” speech on the eve of engaging the Romans on the battlefield is more than ever an “insert.” Which is to say Blu-ray can be hazardous to the compromises movie makers made. What always worked and now works better is Olivier’s Crassus. He’s the commanding presence, fitting since it’s the epic’s best role, and so fully working it there’s something vainglorious in the way he sits atop and rides his white horse. Though the 1960 censors demanded the oyster & snail sequence be cut, and since restored, it hardly matters—viewers need only follow Olivier’s hungry eyes and listen to Gavin’s Caesar ask a loaded question to know what’s going on. Previous to this specific refurb, a lot of us gave high marks to the lighting, primarily in the slaves’ quarters at the gladiator school. Some of the lighting effects are now stunning—all the illumination through the iron gratings, for example. Oddly, Olivier’s imperial digs don’t fair as well in Blu-ray; the sets border on the cheesy, and the dark red paint on columns and divides seems off. And that g.d. necklace he gives Simmons is still without flash; it lacks compliment, which may have been its owner/slave purpose yet its cut-rate caliber steals our attention. (The Harris team give the jewelry in MFL renewed bling.) The Italian Cypress Evergreens planted for the sets in California are grossly obvious; the dead piled on top of one another after Crassus defeats Spartacus in battle too carefully arranged to be convincing; more drama in the positioning of the Roman armies than in actual fighting. Outstanding are the large format 35MM horizontal pans of the opening sequence and scenes filmed in Spain.
The 2004 USA Network Pictures miniseries Spartacus, directed by Robert Dornhelm, and starring 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 Schenkkan’s teleplay is substantially more faithful to Howard Fast’s novel than the Trumbo version, while at the same time giving due tribute to Douglas. Filmed in Sophia, Bulgaria, and using Stargate Digital’s 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 Ustinov’s. Less impressive is Angus MacFayen’s Crassus, but then, there will likely never be anyone in our lifetime to match the chokehold of Olivier.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2020) All Rights Reserved.