Stanley Kubrick’s ultra famous epic Spartacus tells of the story of a man named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) who decided to defy and lead an uprising against the Roman empire. Spartacus, naturally a slave, is beaten in early scenes for biting a guard’s leg after falling down. He is sentenced to death for this. Before his death, a man named Batiatus decided to train Spartacus as a fighting gladiator. As many now know, gladiators were trained for two reasons, the first being to fight to the death, and the second as … sense of amusement for the upper classes. After Spartacus witnesses one of his friends die, he decides to unite all the slaves in the hopes of rebelling against the Roman Empire. As Spartacus and his men gain more notice, more slaves from around the country join him and his men for the fight against the Empire. As this happens, Spartacus, unexpectedly, falls in love with a girl named Varinia who is a slave girl.
Spartacus has numerous positives and few negatives. First up, the acting is top notch. Kirk Douglas is fabulous as the slave man rallying up men across the country for one goal. He delivers speeches with such ferociousness and intensity that, sometimes, I could have seen myself wanting to join the rebellion. Speaking of rebellion, this is one of the most important aspects of the film. The idea of rebellion, especially in the Roman times, most certainly ended in death for a majority of those who decided to rebel against their rulers. One can easily see how excellent of an actor Kirk Douglas was (we see this in the actor his son Michael Douglas has become). He has a sense of power and intelligence in every one of his scenes easily stealing the show. The supporting actors, particularly Laurence Olivier’s performance as Marcus Licinius Crassus is just as good. Olivier, probably famous for his various retellings of Shakespearean stories, is simply magnificent here.
Kubrick is quite the visual director creating the Roman world in an excellent manner that literally brings this Roman world into our home. Every detail feels so accurate and correct that I simply fell in love with the film at hand (I’ve always loved Roman history so that helped). Spartacus, simply put, is a fabulous film that everyone, regardless of interest in Roman history, needs to see.
Presented in a 1080p, VC1 Encoded, 2:21:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Spartacus actually looks pretty good for a film of its length and age.
Colors are bright and vibrant as we get bright yellows and whites of the sand and dirt while the night sequences feature darker blacks that seemed a bit washed out (take chapter four where the blacks on the wall seemed to be almost bleeding down the wall instead of being placed there). The level of detail in color is nearly perfect here though. Take chapter eight, a beautiful outdoor sequence that fully showcases the lush greens, vibrant blues in the sky.
Now a possible problem some may have here is the obvious noticeable level of grain present in the transfer. Even though grain was present, I never once found it to be a problem, probably because one can expect a certain amount of grain from a film nearly 47 years old. Some may question that scenes like the bath sequence (chapter 9) look horrendous, but the scene looked just fine to me (at least when compared side-by-side to the SD DVD original release back in 2001). Speaking of a side-by-side comparison, I noticed more detail in the HD DVD version especially in the little things like the armor on Spartacus and the facial features on the soldiers.
Before I received this title, I had read that a few were calling this Universal’s worst effort to date. While the title certainly doesn’t cry ‘demo-material’, I was still very impressed with what Universal was able to do with the transfer especially considering the film’s length. This is a good sign that HD can handle longer films and still look good.
Given the standard Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 in either English or Francais or the optional Dolby Digital Plus 2.0, Spartacus sounds great, especially in the film’s principal battle sequence in chapter 14.
Dialogue is kept in check never becoming overly muddled (except in the battle sequences where some of the few words muttered can be hard to hear over the yelling and screaming of the soldiers fighting). Speaking of the battle sequence, this is really where the soundtrack comes alive. Even though the film is rather heavy in the dialogue field, the battle sequence give the front speakers a nice workout, as the clanging and banging of the soldiers’ swords sound great. I was also pretty surprised with the level of the bass in this sequence as well. The bass gave us a nice atmospheric experience to the battle creating a nice piece. The sub didn’t boom and shake, but added a good amount of background helping to complete the sense of the battle at hand. I also enjoyed the use of music by Alex North as the score, while never that loud and boasting, is the perfect volume to capture all the emotions of the themes in the film.
Again, while not screaming ‘demo-material’, Spartacus sounded great giving the audience a real sense of the brutality of battle.
This is the only real disappointment here from Universal. Absolutely zero features, unless you count ‘My Scenes’ as a feature, are present on this disc. Yes, I’m aware of the film’s length, but couldn’t Universal have included some extras on another disc? A true disappointment here.
Spartacus, simply put, is a masterpiece and is the true definition of excellent film making. This HD DVD release, while extremely absent of any features, still has fine video and audio given the film’s age. I’m going to recommend this title as an upgrade for current owners looking for a classic film on HD DVD. The rest of you, if for some reason you haven’t seen the film, are best left with a rental.