Throughout human history one group has enslaved another. You would be hard pressed indeed to find a single ethnic or national group that has not at one time been slaves. Almost without a single exception slavery spawns a desire for freedom and through out history one of the most famous, enduring revolutions of slaves is told in the story of Spartacus. Spartacus was a Thracian who rose up as a revolutionary around 73 BCE and assembled an army of gladiators against the oppression of Rome. This tale was told by Stanley Kubrick in 1960 featuring the famous performance of Kirk Douglas. Now, the USA network has revisited the source material, a novel by Howard Fast and this tortured story of rebellion, power and love once again is told.
This time around the chosen medium for telling the story of Spartacus is the ever popular mini series. For such sweeping novels as this one this affords more time for character development than the limited two or three hour film. Here there is more back story presented than with the famous film by the same name but the production does fall short of its predecessor. Now that does not mean the mini series is without merit, after all the bar was set pretty high by the likes of Kubrick and Douglas, two of the best Hollywood film has ever produced. The USA mini series has to therefore be considered as a completely separate work not as a remake.
Rome at this time was already in the throws of complete decadence, although nominally a republic the power of a few rich families still dominated the political and social scene, maintaining a rigorous caste system that controlled the lives of most of the known world. At the top where the rich and powerful, men like the praetor Marcus Licinius Crassus (Angus Macfadyen) who was the riches man in Rome and whose old family lines made him almost untouchable in the senate. Here was a man that though nothing of impressing women by hiring gladiators to fight to the death for an afternoon of personal amusement. In contrast we have Spartacus (Goran Visnjic). a freeborn provincial from Thrace who had served in the Roman army and was eventually sold into slavery only to find himself in training to become a gladiator. Naturally we need a love interest for such a tale and here we find that criteria met by Varinia (Rhona Mitra), the beautiful young woman that was raped and kidnapped by Roman troops and sold as a slave to the owner of the gladiators. After resisting her first night with her new owner she is held down by two men as he rapes her and eventually passes her on to amuse the gladiators the night before a big fight. Of course she is given to Spartacus who tells her to sleep alone in the corner and eventually they fall in love, okay, I am certain this is no where close to anything historical but this is the USA network not the History Channel so accept it for what it is, entertainment.
So many people demand historical accuracy that they loose track of the fact that the enduring themes in history can make for excellent story telling without having to be a history lesson. Themes like love, freedom and survival stay with us for just that reason, we are entertained. Here the important thing is the contrast between Spartacus and his Roman captors. Spartacus is far nobler at heart than any Roman. His word is his bond, he wants only one thing, to take his woman away from the evils of Roman influence and live in peace. The Romans shown here appear to feel that they are the only human race around. They look upon the other nations almost as breeds of animals. The Thracians are good with short swords; the Jews are clever and good at strategy while the Africans are perfect for net and trident work. Listening to the slave owner’s talk about these men was almost like a discussion of breeds at the American Kennel Club. It was this condescending attitude that eventually fostered the atmosphere of the revolt. They didn’t see the slaves as people and underestimated them, not realizing they trained these men to be the most effect killing force possible. Train a group of physically fit men to kill and take away all fear of death and the natural result is a revolt.
Goran Visnjic is perhaps best known as the moody doctor in ER. He plays Spartacus almost as the ancestor of this character, dark, foreboding and so full of angst. Although Spartacus is a natural leader Visnjic presents him as a reluctant general of the new slave army a man that learn to kill all too well. He is also presented as a man of untarnished honor, most emotionally displayed with his unwillingness to take advantage of Varinia. Even thought this was millennia before women where seen as human equals to men his Spartacus was apparently the first truly sensitive man. Rhona Mitra is beautiful and talented. Now seen in the new Boston Public television show here is typifies the strong, independent woman. She stands by her man constantly afraid that he will die to amuse the heinous Romans. At times the acting was a bit on the soap opera side but over all it worked in this venue.
Romanian born director Robert Dornhelm does a good job at pacing this mini series, he intermixes the action we all demand with a love story. Of course much of the staging and use of camera angles is more for the television than a film; he doesn’t quite make full use of the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This seems to be a concession to affiliates that would show this feature in full screen mode. Still, as mini series goes this one is worth a watch as long as you temporarily forget about the 1960 classic film. Dornhelm worked very well within the constraints of having to present the story where the scenes had to be worked in between commercials. This artificial timing is difficult for a lot of directors but Dornhelm handles it well.
Universal does well in the DVD presentation of this series. The anamorphic video is completely without defect and really shows each scene perfectly. The Dolby 5.1 audio is a better re-mix than most mini series are afforded. The rear speakers are typically used for ambience but do come to life a bit more for the fight scenes. Some deleted scenes are added as extras providing the usual Universal policy of giving you your money’s worth.