Restored and re-released to movie theaters last year, "Spartacus," the 1960 film that gloriously ended the era of epic movies, seemed overwhelming. Reduced to the confines of home video, the film tends merely to whelm.
But now Criterion Collection, the gourmet laser disc label, comes forth with a three-disc "Spartacus" set (price: $124.95) that has attractions you couldn't get in a theater: fascinating anecdotal interviews with producer-star Kirk Douglas, co-producer Edward Lewis, visual consultant Saul Bass, novelist Howard Fast and, most illuminating and entertaining of the group, actor Peter Ustinov.
Ustinov gets an entire side to himself, a video interview taped at his home in Switzerland. He is also among the contributing voices in the running commentary on an alternate soundtrack you can listen to as you watch the film.
"This is Peter Ustinov, and I should be along at any moment," Ustinov says over one of the earliest scenes. When he does appear, as an unscrupulous yet somehow endearing slave trader, he encounters Douglas, as Spartacus, chained to a rock. Ustinov claims that the filming of this scene marked the first time he met Douglas, and that he didn't recognize him all scruffy and grungy.
Ustinov's prowess as a raconteur make his reminiscences the most intriguing. He talks about fellow actors Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton and their bitter dislike of each other, and how Olivier insisted on wearing a false nose that wasn't all that much different from his real nose. Ustinov thinks false noses helped Olivier feel safe.
Fast is cranky and amazingly picky about the film, which he doesn't like much. He hated the choice of Jean Simmons for the part of the slave who falls in love with Spartacus. Fast thought that, of all people, Ingrid Bergman should get the part. Douglas says he wanted Jeanne Moreau but that she refused to leave her boyfriend in France for the job.
As often happens with film scholarship, tales tend to conflict. Director Anthony Mann began the film and was replaced by Stanley Kubrick, then 31; estimates vary on how much of the film Mann shot (apparently, only the opening scenes in the desert) and whether he quit or was fired.
There is some dispute, too, about the scene in which Spartacus drowns the burly dean of the gladiator school in a kettle of soup; some say it was an actor, some say a stuntman, whose jaw was broken when it hit the edge of the kettle but who kept performing anyway until the director said "cut."
Although Kubrick helped supervise Criterion's recent release of his "Dr. Strangelove," he refused to participate in the "Spartacus" disc because, according to reports, he "hates" the film. He and Douglas clashed frequently, by all accounts. "Now," says co-producer Lewis, "they are anything but friends."
"Spartacus" was historic as well as historical. With Otto Preminger's "Exodus," released the same year, it marked the end of the Hollywood blacklist. Originally, Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten imprisoned for a year for alleged Communist ties, was to write the screenplay under a pseudonym (Sam Jackson) as was his custom for nearly a decade.
"I broke the blacklist," Douglas recalls. "I said, 'The hell with it.' " He insisted Trumbo's real name be used. As one result, the film was attacked by right-wingers like Hedda Hopper and John Wayne even before its release. Among the supplemental materials is a propaganda film made on behalf of the Hollywood Ten in the early '50s.
Mostly what Douglas hands out are bouquets. "Kubrick's a brilliant director," he says forgivingly. "Peter Ustinov is a brilliant actor," Laughton and Ustinov "are both brilliant actors," Jean Simmons "did a brilliant job," and Alex North's music is "one of the most brilliant scores ever written."
After all these years, he's still a proud papa.
And though the second two hours of "Spartacus" fail to live up to the first -- a great film becoming a good film as you watch -- it was something to be proud of. Even the dyspeptic Fast has to concede that as biblical-era epics go, this is "the only film which attempts at least to get to the essence of something" and not just fling pieties about.
Criterion's will be the only laser disc release of the film this year; MCA Home Video has postponed its until 1993. The wide-screen, "letter-boxed" presentation includes North's exit and entr'acte music and one of the most thunderous -- even frightening -- overtures ever. Cranked up to ballistic levels in Dolby Surround, "Spartacus" can sound nearly as gigantic in your house as it looked on the movie screen.
No, they don't make 'em like that anymore. In fact, they rarely made 'em like that even then.
PG, 1960, 196 minutes, Voyager Company's Criterion Collection, closed-captioned, $124.95.
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