Why remake "Spartacus" and still not get the history right?
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 11/15/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The rationale for turning Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film "Spartacus" into a two-part television mini-series was that this time the production would be more faithful to Howard Fast's novel. Given that the Spartacus revolt is a part of Roman history it would make more sense to try and be more faithful to that actual history than a fictional novel, but that is going to have to wait for another day and it just might take a while for Hollywood to want to revisit this story. The chief attraction of Fast's novel, in contrast to the historical record, would seem to be the happy ending that is provided by virtue of Spartacus having a child who survives his death and is raised free.
What we believe we know about the real Spartacus is that he was born free in Thrace and may have served as an auxiliary in the Roman army in Macedonia. However, he deserted, lived as an outlaw, was captured, sold into slavery, and ended up being trained at the gladiatorial school of Batiatus in Capua. In 73 B.C.E. Spartacus escaped with 70-80 other gladiators and camped on Vesuvius, where they were joined by other slaves who ran away from their masters and began plundering and pillaging the region. Spartacus wanted to escape Italy by crossing the Alpus, but the slaves from Gaul and Germany wanted to stay in southern Italy and continuing the plundering and pillaging. That first year Spartacus and his men defeated a force of 3,000 raw recruits led by Cladius Glaber and then two forces of legionary cohorts. In 72 B.C.E. Spartacus had an army of approximately 70,000 slaves and the Roman Senate sent two consuls, Publicola and Lentulus, with two legions each against the rebels. Publicola defeated the Gauls and Germans, and Crixus was killed. At Picenum in central Italy, Spartacus then defeated first Lentulus and then Publicola, having 300 prisoners from the battles fight in pairs to the death. The slave army then moved north and defeated the proconsul of Cisalpine Gual at Mutina. With the Alps open as a way out of Italy, the Gauls and Germans refused to go, and Spartacus returned to southern Italy intended to try and cross to Sicily.
At the height of the revolt Spartacus had about 120,000 followers and the Senate sent Marcus Licinius Crassus with six new legions in addition to the four consular legions to defeat Spartacus in 71 B.C.E. Exactly how Spartacus died is not known, although it is believed he died in the battle near the headwaters of the Siler River. Six thousand of the slaves that were taken prisoner by Crassus were crucified along the Appian Way from Capua, where the gladiators had been trained, to Rome. Another five thousand slaves escaped and fled north, but they were captured by Pompey's army and the following year Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls.
Enough of the history lesson. The point is that the slave revolt was not as unified or as simplistic as it appears in either version of "Spartacus." Following the lead of Fast's novel, it is not the conflict between Spartacus (Goran Visnjic) and Crixus (Paul Kynman) that is at the center of the drama but the collision course between Spartacus and Crassus (Angus Macfadyen), who are such mirror opposites. You have the former slave who is uncomfortable with being declared the leader of the slave revolt and the rich Roman who is just begging to be put in command of troops. Then there is Varinia (Rhona Mitra), the wife of Spartacus, created by Fast from a reference in Plutarch to Spartacus having a wife who was a former slave.
I wondered about the casting of this version of "Spartacus" in terms of the ages of the actors playing the historic figures. Overall, they are slightly younger. The year the slave revolt was crushed Spartacus was 38 (Visnjic is 32), Marcus Licinius Crassus was 45 (Macfadyen is 41, but looks much younger), and Pompey the Great was 36 (George Calil is 31). Although Pompey actually enjoyed a triumph when he was 24, he was the exception and not the rule. Yet in this production it is like the junior executives are fighting over who gets to run the firm. No wonder a giant slave army is running around the Italian countryside for a couple of years and no wonder after watching this remake you will be more impressed with the performance of Kirk Douglas in the original.
Visnjic's Spartacus comes across as bored rather than brooding. Before a big battle his idea of strategy and tactics is to hope that maybe they will get a break and be able to win. I can appreciate the idea that it is better to die free than to live as a slave, but you should try to avoid rushing off to die. Macfadyen's Crassus is rather petulant. He wants to rise to power in Rome but is thwarted by the machination of Agrippa (Alan Bates), and he sees Spartacus as the key to every thing he wants. That explains why he postures like he really believes he can defeat the gladiator in one-on-one combat on the field of battles, and why he is fixated on Varinia. This guy cannot be in charge of himself, so how can he run the Roman Republic? Bates and Mitra turn in the two best performances in "Spartacus," which makes their supporting characters the two most interesting ones. Spartacus has been an idealized champion of the masses because he stood up to the Romans at a time when they were carving out their empire, but the idea that he was a sensitive guy who accepted gender equality is just a bit too much. Hopefully, the next time the story of Spartacus is filmed they will just go with getting the history right instead of being concerned with political correctness."
Decent History. Good Screenplay. Bad Acting. Poor
Octavius | United States | 02/24/2005
(2 out of 5 stars)
"This new rendition of 'Spartacus' provides a more accurate depiction of the Roman Slave Revolt that took place between 73-71 B.C. but is horribly lacking in script and acting: something to be expected from a TV miniseries I suppose.
Goran Visnjic as Spartacus simply fails to leave any memorable impression. His voice is so passive and unengaging, and his face so placid, that he hardly passes for a charismatic leader who commanded over 100,000 people. The character follows the positive comments by classical sources on the real Spartacus as having been a skilled commander and humane leader. There is little information on Spartacus however and really no information on his origins. Rome had been in an ongoing civil and foreign wars in which slaves were routinely used as auxillaries. Such auxillaries were commonly used to carry out indiscriminate massacres by their leaders such as Sulla or Marius because they were more expendable if popular sentiment became too hostile. Being an adult in these times, Spartacus may have been among such groups of men and not so much the saintly Marxist hero fighting for the laborer portrayed by Fast. As for Crassus, Angus Macfadyen is diappointing but the fault lies more with the screenplay and script. He plays Crassus as if he were a rich snob who's obsessed with power. Marcus Licinius Crassus was very rich but hardly a snob. Plutarch describes Crassus as affable and modest: a man who would talk to persons high and low with tact and politeness. Generous to others, he acquired influence by his vast wealth, being a court advocate, and giving loans without interest to important upstarts like Caesar from whom he could also ask for payment on demand (a traditional Roman practice seen as normal.) This often allowed Crassus to get political favors from the debtor instead of money: a valuable political advantage. Although he was avaricious, he was not a miser and kept his home open to any one who was in need. He was very much the precursor to the modern professional banker/bailbondsman all rolled into one: tactful, polite, generous, and accomodating enough to make you want to come back and do business again. As in the original 'Spartacus', Crassus' motives for accepting the command against Spartacus are portrayed as a sinister attempt at undermining the Republic whereas the historical facts do not support that conclusion. Crassus was ambitious just like every other patrician noble and, although his popular politics were akin to some of Caesar's, he was generally a conservative populist and his desire to crush the slave revolt was compelled by a true sense of duty. Historical sources give no indication that he sought to establish himself as a dictator such as with Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The primary motivation for his politics was his desire to outmaneuver Pompey the Great, his arch-rival, in the military and political spheres. Unlike Caesar who eventually shought permanent dictatorship, Crassus prefered a republican oligarchy as a political system and so was the main party in forming the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Caesar. All historical records show that the policies of Crassus at the time were typical of other moderate populists (e.g. restoring the power of the tribunes; including the equestrian order in jury selections; and later seeking to enfranchise northern Italy.) The film instead portrays the character as a dictatorial megalomaniac with a personal grudge against Spartacus.
The depiction of the campaign is pretty accurate in comparison with the original film. As the film shows, Crassus had encircled the slave army near Rhegium with an extensive rampart and Spartacus was able to flee only after a desperate and hard fought breach of the pallisade. Crassus then caught up with Spartacus' army north of Brundisium and finished off most of it including Spartacus. Pompey's arrival and gloating over the capture of 6000 fugitive slaves infuriated Crassus because he claimed that he had won the war while Crassus had only won the battle. As with his relative Lucius Licinius Lucullus who was commanding the war in Asia Minor, Crassus thought of Pompey as nothing more than a carrion bird who cirles safely above to later swoop down and feed on prey killed by others. His loathing for Pompey was probably another reason why he had 6000 slaves crucified from Capua to Rome along the Appian way. Spartacus' crucifixion and sight of his child is poetic license: Spartacus' body was never retrieved from the final battle and all accounts indicate that he died fighting. Another error is the presumption that Spartacus was from Thrace because he was nicknamed 'The Thracian.' This nickname most probably came from his training as a 'Thracian' gladiator where he wore limited armor using a short Thracian sword and a small circular shield. The book making him a son of Thracian slaves is pure fiction. The name Spartacus indicates instead that he was from Greece (probably Sparta) and perhaps even taken as a slave or auxilliary by Sulla in his wars against the Greek city states in the Mithridatic War 20 years before. He may later have been taken by Sulla to fight as an auxillary against Marius before the Servile War depicted in the film only to be enslaved/re-enslaved after Sulla had surpressed the Marian plebiscite. Such a scenario would explain his hatred for Rome and his keen knowledge of the sophisticated infantry tactics used by the Roman legions. His defeat of the Italian legions had also more to do with his skilled command of a large host fighting an ill-trained enemy with poor logistics. The Roman forces Spartacus initially fought were principally raw legionaires who had remained in Italy while all of the seasoned legions were committed to extended wars in Spain and Asia Minor under the command of Rome's best generals. At the same time, Italy was barely recovering from civil war and economically devastated. Under these circumstances, Spartacus' probable service as an auxilliary, the size of his army, and the poor military logistics in Italy would explain why he fought so triumphantly against antiquity's most powerful army for almost 3 years.
Although the film is more faithful to the historical events involving Spartacus' slave revolt, I found the original film to have a better script, superior actors (Douglass, Ustinov, Olivier, Laughton, McGraw, and Simmons), and a far more talented director (Kubrick). Finally, although claiming to be more faithful to the book, this min-series' communist undertones are interestingly far less pervasive than those Fast's novel or the original film."
M. Nikolic | 11/23/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I eagerly awaited this film. Spartacus is such an interesting personality from the ancient world that he definitely needs another look. And what do we get? A basic remake of the 1960 version with a few new additions.
There were some things I did like. I thought Goran Visnjic did a pretty good job of portraying Spartacus. Most of the rest of the cast also did a commendable job. It was filmed very well and I thought they portrayed most of the rebellion accurately. The movie was fairly entertaining as well. However...
Angus Macfayden is completely miscast. I really don't understand how he was cast as Crassus. Just completely unconvincing. I felt he overacted the entire movie, like he was trying too hard. It's really a shame too, because I thought he did an incredible job in Braveheart, where his lines seemed to come almost naturally. Not so in this movie.
For the life of me I cannot understand why they used Fast's novel AGAIN. Folks, this is not history. Fast is a historian-for-hire who makes up fantasized tales in order to sell more books. There are so many flaws with this book that I cannot even begin to name them all. Avoid it like the plague, and don't say you weren't warned!
The historical inconsistencies of this film are almost sickening. I understand that we have very limited sources on Spartacus (the only real source we have is Plutarch), but this doesn't mean you can just add things in there because you feel like it. I'm not a huge stickler for complete accuracy (I enjoyed Braveheart and Gladiator as much as the next guy), but this movie really goes too far. The character of Antonius Agrippa probably never existed, and if he did, it was certainly not in the form that this film portrays him. The ending of the movie made me want to cringe. Sorry to break it to you all, but there is no happy ending. Spartacus dies, his followers die, he never had a child and he was in fact probably never married. Yes, it's unfortunate, and we all wanted him to win, but that's reality folks. Why does Hollywood need to insult our intelligence by adding these contrived, happy endings? Complete and utter nonsense.
Marxist historians love Spartacus, and it's evident throughout this movie. Spartacus never wanted to conquer Rome and establish his own state. He wanted to get out of Italy, go back home to Thrace, and stay away from the Romans who enslaved him. That's all there was to it."
"Civilization Hangs on The Cross ~ If The Gods' Love You,
Brian E. Erland | Brea, CA - USA | 08/08/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"'Spartacus' the '04 mini-series starring Goran Visnjic (who?) as Spartacus leads a cast of even lesser known names in a surprisingly good retelling of the famous slave rebellion against Rome, circa first century BC. Almost three hours long, 177 minutes to be exact, the storyline is consistently enjoyable throughout and the allotted viewing time passes quickly.
Plot: A band of gladiator slaves rebel against their masters, first destroying the gladiator school and then the local garrison of Roman troops. As the slave army roams the countryside they attract more slaves to their cause and their numbers multiply. Repeated attempts are made by Rome to destroy the rebels but against all odds the slaves win victory after victory. That is until Spartacus plans for a sea escape are thwarted and all the might of the Roman Empire are summoned to squash the insurrection.
Surprises: I was surprised to see that two of my favorite scenes in the original '60 epic were not included in the mini-series. However, In spite of there absence the film doesn't suffer from their exclusion. This is all in all an excellent production that deserves to be seen.
Cast: Goran Visnjic does a masterful job at balancing the emotive, warlike nature of Spartacus with the more sensitive, cerebral longings of the legendary warrior, while Rhona Mitra as his love interest Varinia displays a much more aggressive, firey nature than we've come to expect from the original Varinia played by Jean Simmons. Rhona is absolutely magnificent! James Frain gives a fantastic performance as well in the role of David, Spartacus second in command. Also strong performances by Angus Macfadyen as Marcus Crassus and my daughter's favorite Paul Telfer as Gannicuc."
Wayne Klein | My Little Blue Window, USA | 11/15/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The big difference between "Spartacus" the TV movie and "Spartacus" Stanley Kubrick's epic from 1960 are tennis shoes. Why tennis shoes? It's rumored that if you look carefully at Kubrick's film some of the extras are wearing tennis shoes as they fight the Romans. While this version lacks tennis shoes, its brisk pacing makes it just as fast on its feet and Kubrick's film. "Spartacus" based on Howard Fast's epic novel gets a second epic retelling in this terrific television adaptation. While it lacks some of the visual splendor of the 1960 version starring Kirk Douglas, it makes up for this scale through the use of CGI visuals to represent the City of Rome and strong performances from the late Alan Bates, Goran Visnjic as Spartacus and Rhona Miltra as his love. Visnjic and Mitra both provide convincing performances as the two leads. Both are also closer in age to what I had envisioned the characters to be. When I originally saw Kubrick's original film, I thought both Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons were a bit too old to play their parts but both gave terrific performances in that film. Visnjic plays Spartacus as an ordinary man uncomfortable with the burden of leadership but willing to step into the fray since there was nobody else that could truly lead them. There's been some criticism that this isn't historically accurate. Well folks, that's why its called fiction. It's based on a fictional account written by the late novelist Howard Fast.
I prefer Kubrick's film because I'm a fan of his work (even if he later disowned the finished film)but I found this remake both entertaining and engaging. The contemporary pacing and performances may appeal to younger audiences who might find Kubrick's film to be too much a product of its time. Both are extremely good in their own unique way and both do much to try and capture the epic grandeur of the original story of Spartacus and Howard Fast's novel.
Although it's 20 minutes shorter than Kubrick's film, the modern pacing and convincing period detail of the production manage to convey much of the same qualities that made the original flawed film a classic. Director Robert Dornhelm's ("Anne Frank-The Whole Story", "RFK", "Echo Park" and "Rudy-The Rudy Giuliani Story") confident direction. Pulitzer Prize Winner Robert Schenkkan's ("The Quiet American") script stays true to Fast's novel but also introduces character moments that contemporary audience's can relate to without betraying the setting of the film. Interestingly Schenkkan's script focuses much more on the politics of anicent Rome than Kubrick's film. Usually that'll undo a film with as much action as "Spartacus" but that's not the case here.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks terrific with sharp colors, little in the way of digital blemishes and a crystal clear picture. The DVD has also been enhanced for 16x9 television sets which means that it'll fill the screen of your widescreen TV sets. Since it was shot in 1.78:1 with a more rectangular image (vs. the square image of 1.33:1 full screen films), this transfer should not only look exceptionally good on HDTV's but also there should be little to no picture lost as a result. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound mix is particularly rich with a lot of attention paid to detailed background sounds and a nice spread across the surround channels.
The only extras included on this dual sided (and dual layered at least on side one) disc are scenes that were deleted for the TV premiere. Since these have been integrated back into the main body of the film, technically speaking they aren't extras. My only real complaint is that, as usual, Universal doesn't provide anything in the way of extras (deleted scenes excepted) or a commentary track. I'd love to hear why the director and writer chose to emphasize some elements vs. others when compared to the original classic theatrical film.
A terrific adaptation of Fast's novel, "Spartacus" manages to reach an audience the way that the classic 1960's film might not. The swift pacing and more contemporary performances make this film a worthwhile investment for viewers who haven't seen the original. While it doesn't have quite the epic sweep of Kubrick's film, it does contain a number of marvelous performances and the sharp writing & direction make it a thoughtful film. The entertaining performances from Alan Bates and Ian McNiece more than make up for any lack of star power from the two leads. "