This ain't your grandfather's Spartacus! What happens when HBO:Rome meets The 300? Some ass kicking action, that's what. Everyone remembers Kubrick's 1960 masterpiece starring Kirk Douglas as an impossibly idealistic proto-Communist leading a proletarian uprising against the establishment. And almost no one, fortunately, remembers a god awful made-for-TV-movie that aired on the USA network a few years back. Blood and Sand is neither of these things. It is adventurous and gritty, a tour de force of pretty people and special effects acted with raw talent and written with savvy.
Spartacus is a fantasy. Although, when all is said and done, it is not a gender specific fantasy. On the male side you have violence, sex and special effects. On the female side you have sweaty hunks, and the women who love them. And on both sides you have larger than life characters caught in a story of dueling fates.
But if it is fantasy, it is not a mindless one. The first two episodes do roughly follow a languid formula, and based on those episodes alone one is inclined to dismiss it (a mistake this reviewer nearly made). However, as the episodes progress the writing improves vigorously. The characters come to life, and the plot twists and turns, weaving the fates of the several characters into a blood soaked tapestry.
We are of course dealing with historical people, particularly in the figures of Spartacus and Crixus. There is no use worrying over the fates of these characters when they are thrust into perilous danger. We know they must overcome everything as their end points are fixed to a certain time and place. But how they get there, and what we feel for them, is another matter entirely. We see the birth of legends unfolding before our eyes. And where the minor characters are concerned, no one is safe. While Spartacus is based on history, there is more than enough unknown details onto which a writer's muse can fashion a fictional drama.
And that probably is what makes Spartacus ultimately better than HBO: Rome. In the tales of the latter days of the Republic, we simply know too much about the characters concerned. And when that series deviated from the sources, the historically minded among us wanted to choke the writers. Here, there is less at stake and more gray areas to work with. That is why the legend of Spartacus can claim a certain mandate from history while at the same time not finding itself overburdened with details that might constrict it.
But if Spartacus plays on the historical soap opera better than HBO:Rome, it also better manages than stylized special effects wrought to us by The 300. At first it takes a while to get used to. A sword grazes some flesh, and gallons of blood splatter everywhere, tempting one to chuckle. And then a sword slices off a limb or or a head, and one feels sick. But at some point, immersed in the might and majesty of an ancient Roman setting, and especially within the grime and glamour of the Gladiator's arena, the special effects paint the picture they are intended to represent. Against a green screen, enhanced with CGI, a surreal setting envelops the characters. It is more real than reality, a fabricated setting that makes our eyes bleed with every gaping wound doled out by the gladius.
Then too, flowing from the the writing and supported by the special effects, is the acting. This isn't Shakespeare, but it doesn't have to be. Andy Whitfield plays Spartacus not as Kubrick's revolutionary, but as an honorable but ultimately down-to-earth common man beholden to his wife and comrades. His pecs and biceps certainly help flesh out his onstage presence, but Whitfield otherwise assumes the title character convincingly as a good man caught in a horrible destiny.
But the real stars of the show are ultimately the scene stealing villians. John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are unforgettable as the scheming lanista and his equally opportunistic wife. When I first read the casting, I thought to myself "Oh, great, that geeky guy from The Mummy meets Xena: The Warrior Princess." But it works. Who knew either of them could act, once given the proper material? Where Peter Ustoniv played Lentulus Batiatus as an amoral if ultimately lovable social climber, Hannah plays the lanista as all slime and scales, scary despite his lack of a physical presence. If Ustinov deserved his academy award, Hannah deserves an Emmy.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand is an enjoyable 13 hour experience, with the DVD offering a few extras such as behind-the-scenes looks (apparently the male actors had to undergo a 6 week "boot camp" to learn how to be gladiators.) The main concern is the future of the show. If the season ending is anything to go by, two of the more important supporting characters won't be returning except in a prequel, and the series might suffer without them. Andy Whitfield himself is dropping out of the title role to fight a battle with cancer. While he ultimately may be recast, whoever gets the nod will have some big shoes to fill. Everyone stand up and shout with me as one. Andy Whitfield, You Are Spartacus!
Discuss and order this book online at Amazon