Spartacus (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Sep 08, 2020
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Spartacus (4K UHD Review)


Stanley Kubrick

Release Date(s)

1960 (July 21, 2020)


Universal Studios
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A+
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B-

Spartacus (4K Ultra HD)



[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Barrie Maxwell. The updated 4K Ultra HD A/V and extras portions are by Bill Hunt.]

Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 filming of Spartacus, a job he took over from Anthony Mann at the behest of Kirk Douglas, is one of the pantheon widescreen historic epics of the 1950s and 1960s. Its story of a Roman slave revolt led by gladiator Spartacus (Douglas) has sweep and majesty, yet retains an intimate feel in its development of the relationship between Spartacus and the slave Varinia (Jean Simmons) who bears his child. The film never surrenders to false heroics and offers an ending that invokes both sorrow and inspiration. An impressive cast that also includes Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis subsumes itself to the story very effectively.

The film’s original three-hour-plus length was cut for theatrical re-release, but later restored in a well-documented 1991 effort by Robert A. Harris, working in conjunction with Kubrick himself. That restoration has been the basis for several previous home video releases of Spartacus. On DVD, the 2000 release by Universal was quickly superseded by a 2001 release from Criterion—a version that Harris endorsed as addressing the film’s color timing and image density correctly. In 2006, Universal gave us an HD-DVD version that offered a strongly saturated image, but little else of merit. The image looked dirty at times, with annoying digital artifacts and wavering color intensity, and was widely panned by critics. That same mediocre transfer was re-issued on Blu-ray in 2010, for the film’s 50th anniversary. Fortunately, in 2015, Universal gave this film the proper 4K restoration it deserves for the digital age. The result was soon released on Blu-ray and was simply stunning. But that 4K restoration has never been seen on disc in its full glory… until now.

Spartacus was shot on 35 mm photochemical film in Technirama format using Technicolor Techirama cameras (converted from VistaVision) with Panavision anamorphic lenses. The 35 mm film was actually run sideways through the camera, allowing for a larger 8-perf frame size (twice as large as a standard 35 mm frame). The film was finished photochemically, then printed out to both 35 mm and 70 mm 5-perf film (for large format exhibition) at the 2.35:1 or 2.20:1 aspect ratios. By the time of the 1991 photochemical restoration, the film’s original camera negative had faded too badly to be used, so complete and partial color separation elements were employed instead. For the 2015 effort, Universal scanned what remained of the original camera negative, less Y layer, in 4K (6K sideways, but 4K perf-to-perf, using a Northlight film scanner) and was able to recover much of its detail digitally using a 4K workflow. They also accessed the full 3 records for some missing shots, as well as portions of the 1990 65 mm negative for those shots that had been created from 2 records plus a second run of a record with a different (incorrect) filter. The result of this effort was the creation of a new 4K Digital Intermediate, plus new master interpositive records printed back out to film. [Editor’s Note: Specific restoration details are per RAH.] The long-awaited Ultra HD release presents Spartacus at the 2.20:1 ratio at the original 197-minute length. The restored 4K image is stunning, with exquisite fine detail and texturing, and very light but organic grain levels. Both Dolby Vision and HDR10 high dynamic range are included (though the former isn’t listed on the packaging). The HDR grade is restrained in both cases, but more than enough to enrich the image with expanded contrast and more nuanced, natural, and accurate colors. Shadows are a bit deeper and more detailed, highlights are more luminous. This is a stunning image, certainly reference quality for this particular film.

Audio is included in a new English DTS-X lossless mix, which builds upon the 2015 Blu-ray’s excellent 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track (created from the original 6-track audio elements). The soundstage is surprisingly big and wide, and especially full-sounding when Alex North’s orchestral score kicks in. Dialogue is clear and clean at all times. The height channels add a lovely measure of vertical extension and immersion, while the surrounds are used mostly for atmospheric fill and music (though every once in a while you’ll hear the clash of swords and other effects ringing out from the rear channels). There’s good bass support here too. This mix offers a beautiful sonic match to the restored imagery. Additional audio options include Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese 5.1 DTS and Japanese 2.0 mono DTS, with optional subtitles available in English SDH, French, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese.

Universal’s 4K package includes the film on UHD and also the 2015 Blu-ray. Both discs offer the following extras:

  • I Am Spartacus: A Conversation with Kirk Douglas (HD – 9:39)
  • Restoring Spartacus (HD – 9:00)
  • Archival Interview: Peter Ustinov (HD – 3:01)
  • Archival Interview: Jean Simmons (HD – 3:49)
  • Deleted Scenes (HD – 4 scenes – 7:47 in all)
  • Behind the Scenes Footage (HD – 5:12)
  • Vintage Newsreels (SD – 5 newsreels – 5:00 in all)
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:45)

To this, the Blu-ray adds:

  • Image Galleries (HD – 5 galleries with nearly 140 images in all)

Restoring Spartacus details the effort to produce the 4K presentation, featuring Universal’s Peter Schade (VP of Content Management), Seanine Bird (Restoration Project Manager), and John Blum (Re-Recording Mixer). I Am Spartacus: A Conversation with Kirk Douglas is a retrospective interview with the legendary actor looking back at his work on this film and his memories of its making. As some of you know, Douglas suffered a stroke in 1996, so his speech is a little hard to understand (Universal has included English subtitles to illuminate his thoughts). But what he has to say is well worth listening to – it’s clear this role means a great deal to him. Douglas also talks about his brushes with the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. In particular, Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was hauled before Congress at the time, and Douglas claims that it was his hiring of the writer for this film that helped to break the blacklist. The deleted material includes the US and UK versions of the Spartacus Meets Varnia scene, as well as the 1967 Finale, and the audio recording of Gracchus’ Suicide, while the vintage newsreels are London Ovation, Tony Curtis Honored, Sir Laurence Olivier Returns to Hollywood, Kirk Douglas Honored, and Kirk Douglas Arrives in New York. The trailer is upconverted from window-boxed SD (from a previous DVD release). Note that the 4K package also includes a Digital Copy code on a paper insert.

It’s certainly been a long wait (and a bumpy road) to see Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus made available on disc in its fully restored and 4K glory, but that wait has now been rewarded. Fans of this film shouldn’t hesitate for a moment to make the upgrade to UHD. This is a terrific catalog release on the format and one that would surely have pleased even Kubrick himself. Highly recommended.

- Bill Hunt

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