Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

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Criterion Sunday 93: Black Narcissus (1947)

Having recently revisited my previously low opinion on Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, I’d hoped the same would happen for me with their big beautifully-coloured studio-bound epic of the year before. It’s an exoticist take on India, as Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, selected to run a new mountain outpost in rural India and swiftly despatched with a selection of other nuns, including the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The sets and filming is undeniably gorgeous, and there’s a lot of high camp to the proceedings, only heightened by that Technicolor. The fierce competition between Clodagh and Ruth largely takes place across their faces, with Mr Dean (David Farrar) stuck manfully in the middle, dispensing his sardonic advice about how best to get along with the locals. The film’s big misstep is in the whitewashing of Indian roles (with the exception of Sabu’s ‘little’ General), which may be a feature of contemporary filmmaking, but doesn’t make it any easier to watch, much though Jean Simmons in particular does her best to steal her scenes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons | Length 100 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 82: Hamlet (1948)

If Olivier’s 1945 Henry V was filled with brightly patriotic colours, Hamlet plunges us back into Stygian monochrome gloom, albeit very attractively shot. However, for such a canonical text of English literature, it’s very difficult to inspire a viewer (well, me) to any great excitement, and this feels like a dutiful adaptation of the original, if thankfully somewhat shorter. No doubt many generations of schoolchildren have been marched into this and left feeling bored and uninspired, which isn’t really fair to the play, which has much to like in its writing. However, no one comes off as particularly likeable or sympathetic, least of all its petulantly entitled title character, and it really needs a younger actor to make the drama work (Olivier here is older than the actor who plays his mother). Still, the film is not entirely without merit, and there are some fine supporting turns.

Criterion Extras: Absolutely nothing whatsoever, except for a short essay in the booklet. Still, it’s a fine transfer of the film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson | Starring Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons | Length 155 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 February 2016