Universal’s restoration of Stanley Kubrick’s 4x Oscar-winning film Spartacus arrived this past week on 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray. The new 4k edition celebrates 60 years since debuting in 1960 and features 12 additional minutes that were cut out of earlier edited versions. Spartacus is available in a standard 2-disc 4k Blu-ray edition and Limited Edition 4k SteelBook, both with a 1080p Blu-ray copy and code to redeem a Digital Copy via Movies Anywhere.
Spartacus is an epic film that won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Peter Ustinov) and was nominated for two additional Oscars including Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Alex North). The film also stars Laurence Olivier stars as Crassus, Jean Simmons as Varinia, and Charles Laughton as Gracchus.
But the lead in the movie is Kirk Douglas, who not only played the role of the Thracian slave Spartacus but also directed and produced the film under his company Bryna Productions. Stanley Kubrick, as the story goes, was not the original director but was hired by Douglas after the producer fired the original director, Anthony Mann, following the first week of shooting.
Here’s a review of the restored video presentation of Spartacus on 4k Blu-ray, a film that was so influential for many movies that followed it and still remains one of cinema’s most incredible accomplishments — looking and sounding better than ever before on this 4k print.
There is nothing wrong with your Blu-ray player! Spartacus starts off with the title “Overture” and 4 minutes of pure black screen with musical composition by six-time Academy Award nominee Alex North. Then, leads into dramatically-lit credits that begin the visual presentation. On the digital version, the “Overture” is introduced with a title and image of Spartacus, that way younger viewers who may not have seen the film don’t think the stream isn’t working correctly.
For a film that’s 60 years old, Spartacus is still every bit worthy of its merits. It’s the story of a slave turned gladiator who becomes more likable, and therefore more powerful, than even the infamous Roman general Crassus. It’s a story about a hero who rises then falls, but is never forgotten in the eyes of those who defeated him.
Looking back, one of the more powerful moments in the film is when Spartacus and Draba (Woody Strode) are waiting for their first fight and listening as Crixus (John Ireland) battles his opponent. With the camera focused on Spartacus and Draba, all you hear are the sounds of clashing swords and grunts from the gladiators. It’s like you are in the holding cell with them, experiencing their quiet anxiety and fear.
Of course, the battle with the Romans is truly spectacular. Who would have thought that many people could have made it onto a set? To create that scene 8,000 soldiers from the Spanish infantry were used as the Roman army. Cameras were set atop towers to capture the immense battle. The action, shot over 60 years ago, looks just as good as any films that followed Kubrick’s work including those of contemporary directors like Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone.
There were all kinds of arguments between Kubrick and Cinematographer Russell Metty about how to shoot the scenes, as well as between Kubrick and the production company about how many shots were to be set up every day. In the end though, Metty won an Oscar for his work on the film while Kubrick distanced himself from the production that he felt he didn’t have enough control over.
For the 60th Anniversary Edition of Spartacus, the original large format negatives from the 1960s were rescanned in 6k and restored and color corrected in 4k. It’s exciting to see this new restoration because Spartacus was shot on Super Technirama 70 film, allowing twice the width of traditional 35mm movies.
On 4k Blu-ray, Spartacus is presented in 2160p resolution at 2.20:1 aspect ratio with HDR10 for expanded color range. There is a noticeable improvement in detail in the shadow areas, partly because of the new scans but also because HDR can expand the color depth to allow more detail to be visible in dark and light areas. 4k Blu-ray can also make use of 10-bit color while Blu-ray’s capacity is 8-bits. There are subtle improvements in the range of values shown in the more dramatic shots — either interior or at nighttime — which tend to have more directional light and therefore more shadowed areas.
One of the most beautiful shots is when Spartacus and Varinia (Jean Simmons) are reunited and ride off under the setting sun (1:16:33). This gorgeous scene that only lasts seconds must have been one of the colorists’ favorite images to work on restoring.
Another shot to look for is when Spartacus fights Draba (Woody Strode) for the first time (0:47:30). He is sliced across the chest by Draba’s trident spear and the blood has never looked so realistic as it does in 4k resolution.
The final battle scene between the Romans and the army assembled by Spartacus (2:30:00) is one the most visually stunning moments of the whole film. The colors of the cloaks of the Roman army, green grass defining the Spanish plains, and the bright orange fires set by the former slave army to run back the Romans are all vibrant in HDR. In 4k, we are able to see more details revealed by the incredible camera work and Oscar-nominated editing by Robert Lawrence.
The 4k Blu-ray presentation of Spartacus provides audio in object-based DTS:X built on DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. The DTS:X on the 4k Blu-ray is an improvement over the last Blu-ray edition printed in 2015 which, funny enough, offered an upgrade to 7.1 channels from 5.1 channels. Dialogue in Spartacus is strong and crisp, especially in the scenes shot in a film studio rather than in Spain.
The battle scenes provide a strong mix of ambient happenings (swords clashing, horses whining, etc.) and shouts of soldiers over the triumphant musical score. Wearing headphones to watch Spartacus definitely flattens things out, so a multi-speaker system without much noise interference (leaf blowers, air conditioners, screaming kids, etc.) is the best way to enjoy this movie.
It’s yet another beautifully restored film with a crappy looking movie still for the disc home screen. We’ve seen the same quality in 4k disc presentations of Braveheart and Gladiator. Guess it doesn’t really matter though, as the disc interface is not why we bought this film. The home screen lets you choose from Play, Chapters, Setup, Bonus material (more on extras below), and Language (represented by a globe). And, for some reason, this Universal title is one of the few 4k Blu-rays that let you resume play after stopping. Maybe it’s just our Sony 4k BD player that doesn’t like to resume, because a printed disc can’t hold any additional memory, right?
On both the 4k Blu-ray and Blu-ray there are plenty of extras to indulge in, although all were previously released. “I am Spartacus: A Conversation with Kirk Douglas,” “Restoring Spartacus,” Deleted Scenes, Archival Interviews, Behind-the-Scenes Footage, Vintage News Reels are among the bonus pieces. May we suggest the “Restoring Spartacus” short that explains in more detail the steps to bring this film to such a high-quality 4k version? The 4k Blu-ray and Blu-ray are exactly the same in terms of extras.
Without a doubt, Spartacus on 4k Blu-ray is a must-have for your Ultra HD Blu-ray collection. Watch it in its entirety once (there is a built-in intermission if you need a break from this 197-minute marathon), then jump back to specific scenes to really take in more of the details that have been revealed in 4k. And, as DTS:X is built to work with any speaker configuration and system that supports DTS-HD, you can experience the new mix that takes advantage of object-based audio and its ability to move sound in many directions.
3/5 (Previously released)
Spartacus is available in a standard 2-disc 4k edition that sells for $19.99 (List: $29.99) on Amazon, and Limited Edition 4k SteelBook priced $19.99 (List: $22.99) at Best Buy.