Last spring, Stanley Kubrick’s moving epic about a rebellious Roman slave was resurrected in theaters with all its original battle-scene gore and ancient- Rome venality intact. Now you can see the same restored, full-length cut of Spartacus in two simultaneous cassette releases. A letterboxed edition preserves the movie’s wide-screen imagery by shrinking it to fit between black bands above and below the picture; a cropped version blows up the picture to fill the TV screen, lopping off the sides. They’re both compromises, but which one compromises less?
The answer depends on whether you’re more interested in huge arcs of history or small moments of humanity. Letterboxing makes it easier to follow Kubrick’s elaborate choreographing of the slave revolt led by Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and a batallion of fellow gladiators against Roman commander Crassus (Laurence Olivier). The proscenium sweep of senate chambers, the chess- piece moves of platoons across vast fields, the terror in the gladiators’ split-second reactions when soldiers rush at them from far ends of the frame — all this comes through beautifully.
Unfortunately, letterboxing obscures something crucial to the movie’s evocation of scale: a sense of shared intimacy with the characters. Only the cropped version, with actors filling the frame, really brings out the simmering resentment beneath Peter Ustinov’s fawnings as a slave trader, and the twitch in Olivier’s sneer when he confronts his sly nemesis, Gracchus (Charles Laughton).
Too bad the good-guy casting doesn’t hold up as well under scrutiny. Douglas and his warriors, fine when fighting, become bland ciphers when they have to suggest nobility, and Tony Curtis seems utterly wrong playing Antoninus, ”singer of songs.” He’s a mangler of words, crying out a Brooklynese ”Spotticus!” and reciting ancient tales set ”lawn ga-go.” But Jean Simmons, as Spartacus’ wife, Varinia, smoothes over the laughable moments. She’s full of quiet outrage, a walking icon of the slaves’ plight. When she speaks tearfully in the finale, above the strains of Alex North’s romantic score, she makes it a four-hankie weeper — no matter which format you watch it in. Still, stick with the cropped cassette if you want to see the impact of political upheaval played out on faces and not just landscapes. Letterboxed version: B+ Cropped version: A-