Gladiator was, to today's generation, the ultimate gladiator film. Action scenes of man to man, hand to hand combat; close-ups of blood and sweat; and a mystical spiritual subplot to give the film depth. Russell Crowe provided just the right amount of hunk status and acting ability. Well, ladies and gentlemen..."you ain't seen nothin' yet" if you haven't seen Spartacus! Made in 1960, with a fine literate script by Dalton Trumbo and a huge cast, this telling of the gladiators' revolt that inspired the Russians in their own revolution is as fine a film today as it was when first released, and the Criterion Collection DVD extras make it even more tempting.
Kirk Douglas first read the story as a novel by Howard Fast and sought to bring it to the screen as the first major production of his newly formed production company. He fought the Hollywood blacklist by hiring banned writer Trumbo, and giving him screen credit under his own name. Blacklisted writers were working, but hiding behind pseudonyms. Douglas decided that the writer should get the credit he deserved. This led to a controversial opening, but eventually to the restoration of several reputations.
The script is lucid and adult. It contains issues that shocked 60's audiences. The subtle homosexual advances of Laurence Olivier's Crassus toward the young slave Antoninus (Tony Curtis) was just one example. Douglas' own Spartacus is a powerful, animalistic slave, rescued from sure death in the quarries only to be placed in the equally dangerous gladiatorial school run by Peter Ustinov, who gives an entertaining and scene stealing performance as Batiatus. Spartacus rediscovers his humanity in the love which he develops for Varinia (Jean Simmons), a slave girl given to him for one night's pleasure as a reward. It is this love, and the sense of honour which comes with Spartacus's new discovery, that leads to the gladiators' revolt and the single most serious threat to the Roman Empire.
Based on the true story of this revolt, but structured as a historical love story, Spartacus manages to maintain the serious themes of slavery and man's ongoing struggle for dignity while showing a couple dealing with love and freedom where they have only known lust and discipline. Stanley Kubrick may have felt that his intentions were dulled in the editing, but the film that remains is still a remarkable testimony to his vision.
The sweeping scenes of battle are mixed with intimate scenes of the slave army realizing the liberty of living free, family life unencumbered by masters with whips, or chains and bars, and certain death in the arena. The scenes of political maneuvering (especially with Charles Laughton and Olivier) are masterpieces of acting. The supporting cast, including Nina Foch, John Gavin (as Caesar), Herbert Lom, and Charles McGraw, is excellent. Woody Strode as the Ethiopian gladiator is superb. Only John Ireland's weak and indecisive Glabrus strikes a sour chord.
The film is beautifully presented on Criterion's DVD, using 1991's reconstruction. The sound is tremendous; Alex North's score is thrilling. And the extras are well worth the extra money they cost. You can buy just the film, on DVD, and that is a bargain; but if you are a film buff listen to the treaure trove to be found in the Criterion set: audio commentary by Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Howard Fast, titles' designer Saul Bass, producer Edward Lewis and restoration expert Robert A. Harris; extra Alex North compositions; subtitles for the deaf; and a demonstration of the restoration. And that's just disc one! On disc two you'll find deleted scenes; promotional interviews from 1960 with Ustinov and (the lovely) Jean Simmons; a 1992 interview with Ustinov; film of the gladiatorial school where they taught the actors to fight; original Saul Bass storyboards; and much more. Hours of fun and excitement.
The story is thrilling and moving. The film is beautiful and well acted. The DVD is used to maximum effect in this wonderful presentation of a film classic. Spartacus is the ultimate gladiator film, Russell...eat your heart out!