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 61: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

I think it’s reasonable to hold the things you love when you’re a teenager to a different set of critical standards. People who got into Star Wars back when that was first out can sometimes be unreasonably dogged in defending it, even though, well, it’s not really all that good (the first one has a sort of camp enjoyability to it, I’ll admit). Life of Brian comes from that same era, and even features a short sequence that nods towards the recent popularity of that aforementioned space-set blockbuster, and needless to say it was a common fixture on the television during my formative years, at which time I found it to be pretty great — though I always liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) more myself. I haven’t seen any of the Python output in decades, though, so it was interesting to revisit this foundational text as part of my Criterion-watching project, and for all that I want to say it’s still a shining beacon of 1970s British comedy (and maybe it is; I don’t know much of the era’s competition), it has sadly not aged all that well for me. Sure it’s always worthwhile to take aim at misplaced religious zealotry — something that I’m sure we’re all aware continues to be relevant today — and Brian takes some good shots at this kind of small-minded thinking by having its not-very-Messianic figure hounded to his death. However, it’s still ultimately a group of middle-class Oxbridge graduates being sophomorically silly about the Bible; I don’t believe that’s a case for any kind of censorship, it’s just not always as funny as it thinks it is (and these lads, particuarly Terry Jones, playing women continues to grate). Still, there remain some classic comedy sequences, the best of them skewering po-faced 1970s socialist groups, as in the ‘what have they ever done for us?’ debate chaired by John Cleese’s Reg (of the People’s Front of Judaea, not to be confused with their mortal enemies the Judaean People’s Front), or an ‘action’ committee he chairs near the end. I suppose one’s reaction to this is dependent on the level of nostalgia you cling to around the Pythons, but I do honestly wonder how the kids of today find this stuff. Ultimately, it feels very much of its era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Jones | Writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam | Length 93 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 November 2015 (and many times at home on VHS, Wellington, in my youth)