I bought this 2004 TV miniseries largely because it stars Luka from ER, a man who can recite Hamlet in Croatian and is pretty nifty with a sword (what can I say, I have strange tastes). It also has James Frain in it. Yum. And much to my surprise, it’s actually pretty good! It’s very, very cheesy, but still… pretty good. It has a sense of humour, which helps.
The opening scenes make it clear that the series is telling Varinia’s story, more than Spartacus’, which is a good idea – watching the Kubrick film, I found myself wondering why the film kept going and going after the slave army was defeated, but here there’s more of a sense that it’s not over until we know what happens to Varinia and the baby.
The script is, as I said, very cheesy, but it also contains some really nice elements and fun touches. I particularly liked the script’s use of lines from other things, like the comment that Caesar is ‘every man’s woman and every woman’s man’, which comes from Suetonius, Caesar, 52 (Curio apparently once said Caesar was ‘every woman’s man and every man’s woman’), and was also featured in the original novel I, Claudius, and there were some Shakespearian phrases scattered around as well. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. There’s no ‘I’m Spartacus’, though the line is turned around quite effectively in a weird hallucination/daydream thing of Crassus’.
The series is well structured, with a nice sense of passing time, and starting with Spartacus about to be crucified for attacking an overseer and rescued by Batiatus makes it rather nice and symmetrical, coupled with Varinia coming back to her village at the end to make a circle of the whole thing. However, Varinia having her baby during the final battle, more or less at the moment of Spartacus’ death, is spectacularly cheesy, and I actually found I missed Kirk Douglas’ gazing down at the baby from the cross, unhistorical as it was.
This series is based on the same novel as the Kubrick film, so has some of the same tics, like Batiatus shopping for gladiators in a mine, and an effeminate Crassus (though no snails and oysters are mentioned). However, I love the scene in which Batiatus points out the craziness of Crassus’ request that he waste the lives of his gladiators on a private show and makes him pay an absolute fortune for it.
The series’ approach to the novel’s Christianising is interesting. For a substantial section of the series, Spartacus repeatedly insists that he does not believe in any gods, to the puzzlement of everyone around him, and it almost seems as if Christianising has been replaced with excessive and, for the ancient world, extremely unusual, atheism. However, at the end of the series, writer Robert Schenkkan had perhaps returned more closely to his source material. Spartacus, Nordo and Gannicus are killed in the final battle while Jewish character David is left to be crucified – of course. He even gets stabbed in the side while on the cross, declaring ‘I will be back’. Subtlety, thy name is not Howard Fast. With no Spartacus or Antoninus (who doesn’t exist in this version) it’s David who is left to be crucified last and see everyone else die before him – he becomes the audience surrogate without Spartacus, and although the Christian message is not presented overtly, as it is in the Kubrick film, it certainly seems to make a reappearance once the hero is dead.
There are some odd character moments; I'm not sure Crassus would give an expensive gift to anyone, he liked to hoard money, not spend it! But Crassus’ brutality against the actor’s slightly camp delivery makes a rather nice tension, and I like the scene where he can’t bring himself to kill Varinia and the baby. I actually felt rather sorry for Crassus when Pompey and Agrippa stripped him of his glory, though this sympathy is mitigated by the brutal crucifixion of 6,000 people, obviously. I felt even sorrier for Agrippa when Pompey and Crassus were made consuls. It’s also interesting that we see our heroes crucify Crassus’ friend, which while it doesn’t justify Crassus’ actions does go some way towards explaining them. Spartacus and especially Crixus are much less straightforwardly heroic here, even than in Blood and Sand, murdering several innocent and slightly-less-innocent people along the way.
I like the way the Spartacus story is tied very firmly to the end of the Republic here. Agrippa freeing all his slaves is a bit daft though, I don’t think anyone did that until Christian ascetics in the fourth century (not that Christians were against slavery in general, but ascetics did sometimes free all their household slaves so they could all live together in a sort of proto-monastery).
The actor cast as Crixus is very tall! The character works well, in a Little John sort of way (and actually looks like he might be a Gaul, possibly Obelix) but I have to confess, I miss Manu Bennet. One thing the series does very well, which so many similar stories have a problem with, is that it does a really good job of creating clear, distinguishable characters for Crixus, Gannicus and the fictional Draba, David and Nordo in a very short space of time, partly through casting actors with different looks and builds from each other, and partly through basic but memorable characteristics (initially-mute Jew, young fellow Thracian, Little John!). We also get some more fun and games with pronunciation; Spar-ta-coose sounds quite nice but T’rashan (Thracian) just sounds weirdly Irish.
While never gory or horrific, the violence in this series is affecting, especially the several rapes of Varinia, while the scene of Spartacus taking down Draba’s body is sweet and nicely done. The dreams are a bit gorier, especially the one of Crixus’ death, which is also a real event.
There are, it has to be said, some oddities on display here. It’s not made clear exactly how the slaves manage to defeat a bunch of Romans in tortoiseshell formation, and I can only assume they’re carried through on sheer enthusiasm. I have a suspicion that Visnjic’s hair was under contract to ER as it’s certainly not gladiatorial – not that I’m complaining about that, necessarily. The Gauls’ blue war face paint is fine historically, but does inevitably remind you of Braveheart. Crixus’ turning-into-the-monster moment is accompanied by the Wailing Woman on the soundtrack, of course. Varinia, once again, drives south to get to Gaul (she’s been taking navigation tips from me). And I especially like the scene where our heroes sit around discussing strategy without their shirts on. As you do.
This was Alan Bates’ last performance, as Agrippa. He’s very good, of course. His last line, as Agrippa falls on his sword, is ‘remarkable’, which seems a pretty good cinematic epitaph to me.
As you can tell, despite the fact that this is not prize-winning television, I really quite enjoyed it. Though I should add that the trouble with Spartacus dramas is that, inevitably, they’re really depressing. I almost wanted to turn off halfway through, before it could all go horribly wrong. And I can’t ignore the possibility that my fondness for this is entirely due to the fact I would happily watch Goran Visnjic strip paint, especially if he took his shirt off to do so. Still, if it’s a choice between this and Imperium: Augustus, I’d go for this any day.