The story of Spartacus is one steeped as deeply in legend as it is in legitimate historical accounts. It is a classic tale of the disempowered rising against those who deprive them of all means in an often desperate battle for freedom against seemingly insurmountable odds. Such a bid usually proves to be futile in its initial action, but often resonates throughout the history of mankind, defining the world and its people as we know it today.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the creation of producer Steven S. DeKnight, debuted on the STARZ network on January 22nd, 2010 in the standard cable-issue 13-episode run. Conceived as much as a dramatic character piece as blood-thirsty and violent spectacle, in its first season Spartacus succeeds in bridging the gap between stylized violence-porn and acute dramatis personae.
Though the journey of Spartacus from Auxillary Soldier to Gladiatorial Slave to Revolutionary is the primary plot line, it is balanced with the subplots of slave-master Batiatus and his wife Lucretia’s ambitions and dangerous gambles for greater position and power, the backstories of Spartacus’ fellow gladiators, the current movements of the Roman Empire, the city of Capua, and each individuals relationship and view regarding the Roman Pantheon. All of this, however, slips briefly into the shadows when the viscerally brutal combat of the Capuan Arena is displayed, all a distant memory as the blood, bowels, and limbs of unfortunate combatants are flung to-and-fro for the entertainment of the mob.
Spartacus makes no excuses for its apparently ripped visual style, its harder moments directly tapping the super-imposition chroma key techniques utilized by Zach Snyder for 300 and its softer moments taking a direct cue from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Despite this, the selections are positively delivered, as they merely form a visual foundations as the production team strives to adjust the style to meet their own unique vision.
Extensive use of wide-angles beautifully captures the splendor and violence of the Arena while tight and long-depth scenes deliver all the bravado, intimacy, anguish, and machinations of the characters. This is extremely effective in establishing that the pretentious and blood-thirsty actions in the Arena seek to dehumanize us while honest human behavior knits us all together as a people. This technique flows through the entire series, never too obvious or extant, but just on the fringe, made all the more palpable by the performances of its esteemed players.
Happily reported, there is not a single weak performance in all of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Each role seems carefully crafted for each actor, all of which pull off their respective roles with relative ease and obvious enjoyment in their work. While Andy Whitfield (Spartacus) is mentioned in press statements as the lead actor, the excellent work of the whole truly makes this an ensemble piece, no actor higher or lower than any other.
Whitfield delivers both steep emotion, power, longing, wisdom, and brutality with minimal effort. His portrayal of a man battling both the hand that suppresses him and the desire to resign his effort rings true with any person who has ever found themselves between a rock and a hard place. The character’s turmoil is made all the more real by the sublime performances of John Hannah (Batiatus) and the lovely Lucy Lawless (Lucretia).
As the power-ravenous master of Spartacus and his fellow gladiators, Batiatus and his scheming wife Lucretia run the Ludus (school) with an iron fist. Respect for those working beneath them is a rare and valued privilege often earned with the blood of those who oppose the House of Batiatus and its rise to power. Surrounding them is a stable of accomplished actors who together compose an elaborate portrait of humanity surviving amidst the rubble of their own destitute lives. Each individual views their lives as supremely different though their stations remain irrevocably the same. Peter Mensah as Doctore (trainer) and Manu Bennett as Spartacus’ gladiatorial nemesis Crixus both shine in what could have been single-dimensional roles. Each brings both humility and range to their parts further broadening the already vast scope of the show.
The supreme highlight of Spartacus: Blood and Sand is, of course, the bloody action sequences deposited into the Arena for the entertainment of the masses. A staple of the Roman Empire, a city would raise capital and individuals would garnish wealth, public stature, and political standing by hosting contests and games at local arenas. The city of Capua, home to our heroes and villains, was no different. Not only were trained gladiators forced to fight in these Arenas, often to the death, but criminals, traitors, and prisoners-of-war were often thrown to the mercy of the Arena, executed for sport to the roar of the crowd. While such actions are considered barbaric when compared to the standards of today, it is made of note in Spartacus that such activities were highly publicized events that attracted great amounts of capital for the Empire.
Such spectacles were handled fairly, as even a condemned man was allowed to fight for his life, weapon in hand, for a chance at regaining his honor through a glorious death or survive to forge a new life as a gladiator. With no limit of excess in its epic displays of carnage and death, it can be argued that Spartacus shows 300 how its really done. It is, without a doubt, a blood feast that must be seen to comprehend. Spartacus succeeds in its realistic depiction of gladiatorial weaponry, armor, individual fighting styles, team battle tactics, and even the constant daily training and conditioning slaves endured to become the masters of death.
Also of mention is the unabashed and prolific sexual nature of Spartacus. While pervasive and bordering on pornographic, sex in the show is handled in the context of the time period. Overt nudity, both male and female, open sexual promiscuity, homosexual relations, and the homoerotic/sadomasochistic nature of the gladiator are all viewed with the same eyes and respect as intimate monogamy, the sanctity of marriage, and political positions of power. While displayed as a grandiose gesture to the proclivities of ancient times, it is not fairly stated that such activities were deemed acceptable by all standards as long as they did not limit or deter a person’s own ambitions, intelligence, or understanding of the world.
Those who indulged too frequently could merit themselves as infami, a social title unsuitable to merit anything more than what their own devices could afford them. For some, such scenes will border on the excessive and for others they will plunge headlong into promiscuity, but they are all tastefully displayed for what they are, the personified passions and desires of a people governed by an autocratic society where survival depended upon securing position, profit, power and sometimes even love by any means necessary.
As with any piece based upon history, there will be historical inaccuracies, but unlike the Frank Miller-penned 300, where inaccuracy often gave way to outlandish myth and the supernatural, DeKnight takes careful aim to ensure as much historical accuracy as possible in Spartacus. As most of Spartacus’ early life is unknown or rooted in myth and rumor, liberties must be taken to create a story that both flows accurately and remains entertaining.
By consulting with two Spartacus scholars, the production team has ensured that all individual names, locations, houses, and titles remain untouched. Even the way characters speak hearkens back to the rhythm and stature of Latin where certain affirmations and conjugations did not yet exist. Some personal ranks, armors, a character’s background lineage, and the movement and position of the Empire during the time have been changed, but the impacts are minimal and usually committed solely to enhance the background plotting and visual flair of the show.
With all due respect to Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic, DeKnight’s creation is the closest dramatization of the real Spartacus anyone has achieved, boldly blending linear reality with boundless artistry.
I know this is the “Bad” section, but after much review, this is all I could find wrong with Spartacus…and it’s not even that wrong!
Though I first approached Spartacus: Blood and Sand with some trepidation, fearing a cable ready rehash of 300 intent on cashing in on the public lust for CGI-escapist brutality, I found myself ambushed by an intelligent, emotional, and resonating storyline that sells itself through what the public demands. Like the orators of the Byzantine Empire, who delivered justice through capitalistic sport, the creative minds behind Spartacus: Blood and Sand have succeeded in selling me their wares by packaging them within something I wanted to see.
Blissfully, I found the hidden agenda far sweeter than I anticipated.
I give this season a 9.5 out of 10
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Created by Steven S. DeKnight
Executive Produced by Steven S. DeKnight and Robert Tapert
Andy Whitfield as Spartacus
Erin Cummings as Sura
John Hannah as Quintus Lentulus Batiatus
Lucy Lawless as Lucretia
Peter Mensah as Doctore/Oenomaus
Manu Bennett as Crixus
Rated TV-MA for: Graphic Language, Adult Content, Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Graphic Violence
Spartacus: Blood and Sand is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix.