Based on the historical novel by Howard Fast, Spartacus tells the tale of the former slave who led the Third Servile War (73-71 BC) in rebellion against the Roman Republic. Fittingly, the film's creation is rooted in rebellion as well. It was initiated by actor/producer Kirk Douglas when he didn't get the lead role in Ben Hur and rejected the offer to play the villain Messala. Douglas also hired screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a member of the Hollywood Ten, and allowed him to be credited in defiance of the blacklist. Director Anthony Mann was fired from the film shortly after production began, and Stanley Kubrick, who had previously worked with Douglas on Paths of Glory, was brought in to finish the job.
Like many films of the time, it opens with an overture, part of Alex North's impressive score. Spartacus' defiance is immediately apparent as he bites one of his captors shortly after being introduced. He is sold to Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who trains gladiators at an encampment. All men who please Batiatus are given a woman for the evening. Varinia (Jean Simmons) is placed in Spartacus' cell, but he has never been with one before and since he won't perform as Batiatus watches, she is taken away and given to another. The next day during breakfast, Spartacus briefly inquires if she is all right and a bond begins to form.
The wealthy Roman Senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) stops by and his life becomes intertwined with Spartacus. At the behest of his female companions, Crassus requests to see a fight to the death. At first, Batiatus resists due to the loss of revenue and the effect it will have on the trainees, but a price is finally reached, and the film presents a memorable fight sequence between Spartacus, armed with sword and shield, and Draba (Woody Strode), armed with a trident and a net.
After the fight, the trainer Marcellus (Charles McGraw), who has been antagonizing Spartacus the entire time, taunts him further with news that Crassus bought Varinia and left with her. This is too much for Spartacus and he snaps. He attacks Marcellus and his fellow prisoners follow suit against their captors. Together they take over the camp, which sparks an insurgency among the slaves in the surrounding areas. In Rome, the Senate not only has the external conflict of the slaves but also an internal one as Gracchus (Charles Laughton) battles for control with Crassus.
History plays out and eventually the rebellion is thwarted. In the movie's most famous scene, a nod to the Hollywood Ten's troubles with the HUAC, Crassus tells the defeated slaves if they identify Spartacus they will not be punished. As Spartacus begins to open his mouth, declarations of "I am Spartacus!" ring out in solidarity.
Kubrick's Spartacus is a good, swords-and-sandals epic from the latter stage of the classic Hollywood era; however, it shows signs of why the system would change before the decade was over. The film is slightly bloated, running over three hours and is filled with long takes. The acting is traditional as opposed to natural and at times Douglas and some others are a little stiff. The American accents don't sound right for the period. The love story and Crassus' bisexuality are awkward in their revelation and execution. The action scenes are good, and the massive formations of people gathered that obviously aren't CGI are very impressive. However, while likely accurate, slightly puzzling are scenes wherein the slaves attack rolling flaming logs down a hill and no one tries to get out of their way.
Universal's Blu-ray disc is disappointing, especially in contrast to the out-of-print, two-disc DVD set from The Criterion Collection. The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer suffers from digital enhancement. The image is sharper, and grain and dirt specks have been removed, but only to the detriment of other aspects of the picture. Textures have been smoothed over, most notably in single shots with Simmons. The style of the time was to use a soft focus on actresses but in conjunction with the digital noise reduction, her skin appears unnaturally smooth in close-ups in Spartacus' cell. Color rendering is adequate, although in some scenes the actor's tan skintone tends toward red. Shadow delineation is subpar and darkness engulfs quite a bit.