Dr. Strangelove/Spartacus

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Dr. Strangelove: Warner Bros., original ratio of 1.66:1 & 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], French & Spanish Digital Mono, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 29 chapters, theatrical trailer, rated NR, 93 min., $24.98, street date 6/29/99.

Spartacus: Universal, widescreen 2.20:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Dolby Surround, subtitles: Spanish, single side-dual layer, 16 chapters, production notes, cast & crew bios, theatrical trailer, rated NR, 196 min., $26.98, street date 3/31/98.

Studio Line

Dr. Strangelove: Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull.

Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor-Peter Sellers, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, 1965.

Stanley Kubrick's classic black comedy about a group of war-eager military men who plan a nuclear apocalypse is both funny and frightening - and seems as relevant today as ever. Through a series of military and political accidents, two psychotic generals - U.S. Air Force Commander Jack D. Ripper and joint chief of Staff Buck Turgidson - trigger an ingenious, irrevocable scheme to attack Russia's strategic targets with nuclear bombs. The brains behind the scheme belong to Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound nuclear scientist who has bizarre ideas about man's future. The President is helpless to stop the bombers, as is Captain Mandrake, the only man who can stop them.

Spartacus: Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin.

Academy Awards: Winner of Best Supporting Actor-Peter Ustinov, Best Cinematographer, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design. Nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Scoring of Dramatic Picture-Alex North, 1961.

Director Stanley Kubrick tells the tale of Spartacus, the bold gladiator slave and Varinia, the woman who believed in his cause. Challenged by the power-hungry General Crassus, Spartacus is forced to face his convictions and the power of the Imperial Rome at its glorious height. The inspirational true account of man's eternal struggle for freedom, SPARTACUS combines history with spectale to create a moving drama of love and commitment.

Picture/Sound/Extras Dr. Strangelove (C-/C/F) / Spartacus (B-/B/D+)

And the Kubrick hit parade continues! Ever since most of his films hit DVD a few months ago, I've tried to work my way through them (or at least through the ones my local DVD rental store offers), so today we'll look at a couple of older titles, 1964's Dr, Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and 1960's Spartacus.

At this point in time, I'd surmise that DS probably maintains the better reputation of the two films; DS made #26 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 American films of this century, while Spartacus was nowhere to be found. However, I'm not terribly sure that I agree with that conclusion. To be sure, I definitely don't think that DS is a BAD movie, but I also don't think it's one that's held up to the test of time terribly well.

While I thought that DS was a pretty entertaining and occasionally amusing film, I also found it to be pretty dated. Critics frequently speak of the impact the movie had on its audience, and about how it was one of the first real public criticisms of the nuclear weapon policies of the day. I wasn't born yet when this movie was made, so I can't really relate to all of that. I know enough about history, however, to surmise what it must have been like, and I think I can understand that impact it must have made.

However, for the purposes of this review, I have to separate social impact from quality of the film, and the fact is that DS just doesn't do much for me. Without taking its social impact into consideration, I find it to be a good film but not one that stands out for me.

Probably the best thing about DS is the high caliber of acting. Most noted are the three performances Peter Sellers gives during the movie: he plays British Captain Lionel Mandrake, American President Merkin Muffley, and German scientist Dr. Strangelove. The latter is the only showy part of the three, but Sellers excels in all of the roles and he nicely displays what a chameleon he was; if you didn't know it was him, I doubt you'd recognize that the same actor played all three roles.

While all of the acting in the picture is good, I have to admit that I enjoyed George C. Scott's work as General "Buck" Turgidson most of all. Scott's not someone who's usually thought of as a comedic actor, so it's fun to see him let loose in that kind of role. He plays the part broadly but never goes too far; I can't say that his work was grounded in realism, but he manages to keep the character's excesses under control.

Overall, I hate to admit it but I must: Dr. Strangelove just leaves me cold. I don't dislike it, but I don't much like it either. I want to like it and I recognize the quality of it, but I just can't get interested in it. If you count yourself as a big fan of the film, more power to you, and I won't argue against you; I simply can't muster much enthusiasm about it. I think it's just so much of a product of its time that it doesn't stand up that well 35 years later.

Dr. Strangelove has actually seen two releases on DVD: it originally came out through Columbia Tristar in a nice keepcase, but it's now been issued in a snapper case under the auspices of ... well, still through CTS, but via Warner Bros. From what I understand, it's still under the domain of CTS, but it's been repackaged via WB. In any case, the DVD itself is apparently exactly the same.

DS is presented on one side of a single-sided DVD. It's shown in varying aspect ratios of 1.33:1 (fullscreen) and 1.66:1. Odd? Yes, but that's apparently how Kubrick shot it. To be honest, since 1.66:1 offers such a mild matte, the letterboxes scenes are almost indistinguishable from the fullscreen shots; I rarely noticed the changes, so it's definitely not a distraction.

Overall I found DS to offer a generally clean image. Flaws were observed mainly during special effects shots, which usually consisted of planes flying or bombs exploding. At those times, I saw lots of scratches, marks and spots. Other than that, I thought the picture was acceptable, although it seemed slightly soft and somewhat "flat." Both contrast and black levels were decent but not spectacular. The image is watchable but not terribly good, and I thought it deserved a rating at the low end of the average range.

The audio for DS is mono but sounds pretty good. At times it appeared somewhat strident, but it generally came across as fairly natural and clear. I didn't note any distortion. It's not great, but it's a very acceptable mix for a 35 year old movie.

No matter HOW old the movie is, the complement of extras found on this DVD is not acceptable. There's nothing here! No trailer, no biographies, no production notes - nothing! Boo!

I found Spartacus to be an uneven film but it seemed more interesting me than did Dr. Strangelove. Interestingly, it appeared to be less strongly a "Kubrick" film than any other I've seen; the director's signature style didn't really seem to be on display in Spartacus. Actually, I really didn't see much that differentiated it from other "epics" that were so popular in that time period; Spartacus stands up nicely aside pictures like Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia, but it doesn't outdo them.

Spartacus did manage to offer some parts that were very nicely done and fairly emotional. Its best scenes appear during the final third or so of the picture; one large final battle and the movie's emotional conclusion both worked tremendously well and stood out as the picture's high points. Other than that, however, I once again simply didn't see much that made the film stand out from the other movies typical of the era and the genre.

One interesting aspect of the film is how strongly the "good guys" differentiated from the "bad guys." Overall, I found our heroes - mainly Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, and Tony Curtis - to be dull and wooden; all of them made for pretty and attractive presences, but their acting wasn't terribly effective. (Especially in the case of the ridiculously miscast Curtis, who offers some terrible "singing" in his role.)

The villains of the piece, however, are all tremendously well-acted and vibrant. This is mainly because our chief bad guys are played by Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov (who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) and Charles Laughton; that's an awfully high-powered trio, and they acquit themselves well. There's simply a subtlety to their work that I found lacking among the protagonists; those characters seem to be cartoons whereas our villains appear as much more full-blooded PEOPLE. Ustinov may have won the Oscar - thankfully, he kept his occasionally overwhelming mannerisms in check - but I think Laughton did the best work here; his Gracchus really straddles the line between good and bad and makes for a very interesting character despite limited screen time.

Overall, I found the scenes that featured our antagonists to really be the only ones that kept me going. It's a LOOONG movie, and the parts that featured Spartacus, et al., frankly seemed pretty dull. Some of this may have been by design - you never really know with Kubrick - but I think most of the responsibility falls with the actors; they simply couldn't keep up with their competition.

I'm not quite as ambivalent about Spartacus as I am about DS, but it's close. I think it's a better film, but it's less consistent and since it's more than twice as long, it's much more of an endurance test. I loved the scenes with Olivier, Ustinov and/or Laughton, but most of the rest of the film bored me somewhat. Ultimately, it's a good film, but I don't think it's tremendously special.

The same can be said for Universal's DVD release of Spartacus: it's decent but not great. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and spreads across a single-sided, dual-layered DVD. Overall, I thought the picture looked pretty good, although it could be very inconsistent, something that's probably inevitable considering that the film's old and somewhat cobbled-together (more about that later). Some scenes look crystal clear, but many seem hazy and display oversaturated colors. If I had to pick one most consistent flaw in the image, that last one would be it; the colors often appear too "heavy." In general, the print itself seems clean, but marks and grain affect it from time to time. When one considers the film's history, I have to acknowledge that the image looks excellent in that regard and probably will never appear much better; in the real world, however, that translates to "pretty good but inconsistent."

Spartacus offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that's surprisingly robust for such an old movie. In particular, it displays an excellent front soundstage. Sounds pan across the front three channels very nicely and add greatly to the film's ambiance. Check out a gladiator battle about 45 minutes into the film; because it's presented from Spartacus' point of view, we actually SEE almost none of the fight, but we HEAR the combatants tussle across the three front speakers. Pretty cool stuff!

As far as the rest of the mix goes, the rear channels seem reserved for music and some VERY rare effects. The quality of the music in all five channels is really very good, but dialogue and effects sound lifeless and dull; you can understand speech, but it doesn't sound as natural as it should. Still, considering the very advanced age of the mix, it's very good.

Unlike Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus actually includes a few extras. Don't expect much, though. We get two theatrical trailers, some pretty good biographies for significant cast members and for Kubrick, and some nice production notes. The latter pieces of text discuss a little bit about the making of the film itself, but they generally detail the restoration of the movie that occurred in the early 1990s.

It's that last aspect of the movie that I referred to when I called Spartacus a "cobbled together" picture. From what I understand, after its premier in 1960, the movie essentially got butchered by the studio; the distributed cut of the film omitted more than a half an hour of footage we see in this version. Ala "Lawrence of Arabia", original elements were located and were reassembled into this version, which displays Kubrick's original cut of the film. So there you have it!

Anyway, the supplements included with this DVD of Spartacus are decent but unspectacular. For serious fans of the movie, you'd probably be better off waiting for the upcoming DVD release from Criterion; it'll cost more, but it'll also offer what appear to be some nice supplements.

When that happens, that release of Spartacus will unquestionably be the finest DVD of any Kubrick film. Of course, that title's not hard to claim, since the others have been pretty poor issues. Universal's current DVD of Spartacus probably is ALREADY the best Kubrick DVD on the market, though 2001 is about on the same level. Dr. Strangelove falls somewhere in the middle of the pack; it provides somewhat better picture and sound than many of the others, but it completely falters in the department of supplements. My advice? If you love DS, buy it, but everyone else may want to rent it first. If I wanted to own Spartacus, I'd definitely wait for the upcoming Criterion release, but I'm a supplements junkie; if all you want is the film itself, you should be very happy with the current DVD from Universal.

Related Sites

Current as of 8/20/99

Roger Ebert: On Dr. Strangelove: "Seen after 30 years, Dr. Strangelove seems remarkably fresh and undated - a clear-eyed, irreverant, dangerous satire." On Spartacus: "Seen three decades later in a lovingly restored version, Spartacus still plays like an extraordinary epic, and its intellectual strength is still there."
Stanley Kubrick: The Master Filmmaker--While the site might be spartan in design, you will find a great biography chronicling the director's career. I find the FAQ section to be particularly interesting.
The First Tribute to Stanley Kubrick--You won't find any in-depth analysis of Kubrick's films on the site, but you will be treated to a generous amount of picture and sound files. There're also some scripts and even desktop themes.
Kubrick Reference in The Simpsons--If you're a devoted Simpsons fan, here's a fun page that point out some of the Kubrick references in the Simpsons episodes.
Amazon.com--Purchase Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, and Stanley Kubrick Collection at 30% off.
Reel.com--Purchase Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, and Stanley Kubrick Collection at 30% off.

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