Spartacus (1960)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis

Stanley Kubrick's story of a slave uprising in ancient Rome won four Academy Awards in 1960 and is still a marvelous sweeping epic that remains absolutely timeless. And yet, the film has been treated like an ugly duckling by Universal so far, never getting the real treatment this film deserves. It is now available on HD-DVD for the first time – but hopefully not the last – and I was eager to see if maybe Universal finally offers up a respectful treatment.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) has been born into slavery in ancient Rome and his life has been wasting away in the rock mines. One day, Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), the owner of a Gladiator school purchases him and lets his lanista turn Spartacus into a killing machine ready for the arenas.

One day the slaves kill their guards and break free from the school and quickly Spartacus bubbles to the top as their new leader. With hopes of freedom, Spartacus assembles tens of thousands of escaped slaves around him, building an outright army, spearheaded by fierce former Gladiators. They destroy every army the Romans throw at them but treachery catches up with them when they reach the shores of Southern Italy where they hoped to escape the country and into freedom forever.

The army of slaves now faces an even bigger army of Roman soldiers as General Crassus (Laurence Olivier) is determined to destroy Spartacus once and for all – but no only him but also the legend and any spark of hope he may have brought to the slaves of Rome.

Featuring a remarkable cast of superstars of their time, including luminaries suc has Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton, Herbert Lom and countless others, the film is not only impressive for its performances but also for its storytelling achievement. Atop of it all is the landmark that the film represents as one of the crowning achievements of its time by putting on the screen some of the largest scale live-action shots in movie history, featuring tens of thousands of extras. Masterfully shot and put together by Stanley Kubrick, "Spartacus" is a true movie highlight that captivates no matter how often you've seen the movie before.

I had high hopes for this high definition version of "Spartacus" but these hopes were almost instantaneously smashed when I put in this HD-DVD. Maybe I am simply spoiled rotten already, but "Spartacus" is nowhere near as great looking as I had hoped. After seeing the effort that Warner is putting into the restoration their classic films and witnessing them sparkle in high definition, Universal's presentation of "Spartacus" looks drab and lackluster by comparison. I understand that there are issues with lost elements surrounding this film and that many source elements are damaged and missing, but with today's technologies there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that this presentation could have been heavily improved upon. The transfer exhibits some real flaws, such as excessive grain in a number of shots and a definite lack of detail as well as almost constant coloration issues as the print is sometimes faded and or constantly colors shifts. All these are problems that can be addressed using today's digital technologies and have been corrected in countless other films.

While it is not a truly bad presentation, it surely is a bit of a disappointment for the fledgling high definition formats. I can only imagine how marvelous this film would look like after a proper restoration and a new high definition transfer. As it stands it is only average and ranges from very nice to muddy within a few minutes.

Audio is presented in a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus track but like the video, the audio is in dire need of a proper restoration. The track has a tinny and harsh quality throughout dating the film horribly. Audio tracks are provided in English, French and Spanish, complemented by the respective subtitle options.

No bonus materials are included on the release but for the first time on this disc I noticed a new feature that Universal has added to their HD-DVD releases. When you press the "Pause" button on your remote control a timeline will appear at the bottom of the screen representing the entire length of the film. A marker will indicate how far into the film you are, also accompanied by the exact time code. The same time line shows up when you fast-forward or rewind. I thought this is a nice and helpful feature if only to get a quick overview over how far into the movie you are at any given time.

Universal had the chance to really wow high definition fans with this release of "Spartacus" but didn't. "Near-lost" movie and damaged elements aside, with some serious TLC Universal could have created a markedly better presentation than this so despite my love and admiration for the movie itself, I can recommend this HD-DVD only half-heartedly.