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December 11, 2018


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Stanley Kubrick - 1960
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

Now at age 102, the star is truly a living legend.

There's a scene in the television series, The Sopranos, where Tony and his pals are watching Spartacus on TV. As played by the wonderful Joe Pantolioni, Ralph Cifaretto leaves the room, muttering something along the lines of, "Whoever heard of a gladiator with a flat top?".

I was nine years old, and saw Spartacus when it was still a newish movie. Even then I thought that Kirk Douglas had a strange haircut for a guy who existed in ancient Roman times. I was also disappointed that nobody in the commentary track even bothered to talk about the damn haircut, the most blazing anachronism in the film.

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A lot of stuff that went over my head over fifty years ago was understood better, and more deeply, when I saw the restored version on the largest movie screen in Denver. Some of it has to do with maturity. Some of it has to do with my time spent in film studies. And yes, I like this film enough not only to own it on DVD, but to get the version where various people involved in the making of the film chime in on the history of the production, as well as the history of the restoration.

The commentary is extraordinary with its conflicting stories and opinions. Howard Fast, author of the novel, has no problem criticizing the acting of Kirk Douglas, but grudgingly admits that if it hadn't been for the producer/star, the film would never have been made. That the making of the film took its toll on Douglas is clear from a look at his filmography - nothing made after Spartacus was on such a large scale or as physically demanding.

What struck me seeing Spartacus again is how much Douglas is actually not in the film. In his commentary, Douglas speaks highly of the acting of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, going as far as to watch them film a scene that he's not in, simply for the pleasure of viewing them perform. That one of the top Hollywood stars at the time, and one who also functioned as as very hands on producer, allowed the other actors to shine as they do in this film is evidence of a generosity of spirit in what could have easily been more of a one man show.

In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther's wrote about Spartacus that "it is pitched about to the level of a lusty schoolboy's taste." Maybe that explains why I was the almost perfect audience for this film when it was first released. And while my filmgoing in those years was still teetering between juvenilia and more adult stuff, I did make a point of seeing The List of Adrian Messenger and Seven Days in May when they came out. With the exception of Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons, most of the other actors meant nothing to me at the time, but paid some attention to Kirk Douglas. My attempt to see Lonely are the Brave was stymied by the absence of my parents, and a babysitter who refused to let me leave the house. By the time adolescence really kicked in, I had temporarily stopped paying attention to the "old" stars of Hollywood, mostly replaced by a new crew from England. That Spartacus is a film from my youth that I still feel affection for indicates how my own love of film has evolved to embrace oysters and snails, among other cinematic feasts.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 11, 2018 10:01 AM