Well like any film buff worth their weight in geldings I am of course a huge fan of the original, best, and eternal Kubrick Spartacus, starring Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, and an extremely emo Kirk Douglas.
And, like any tired lonely schoolteacher whose husband is in Paris, I am of course a huge fan of randomly putting on Starz shows I’ve never heard of when I’m home trying to unwind myself enough to fall asleep of an evening. So this explains how I find myself deeply entrenched in the visual and aural quagmire of “SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND.” Specifically, I have watched six episodes.
The eponymous fighting fellow is played by this guy Andy Whitfield, which, who is this guy? If I’m honest I will tell you 87% of why I keep watching this show is just the mug on this guy.
I don’t get how you even have a face like that. What is that, it’s like square yet round, macho yet tender, gentle yet unyielding, funny yet sad, plus a little bit of Asian or something. It is truly an amazing face–pictures can’t capture it, it must be seen in all its delightful range of motion to be comprehended. I know you think I am being snide but I am being 100% sincere. It’s weird because even though he mostly just stands around looking like that, or alternately the other half of the time he’s screaming and getting blood pushed violently out of his face in slow motion, he somehow manages to be expressive and compelling using his face parts. He also does a lot of this:
(During these parts he’s doing what his dead wife told him to do before she got naked-captured by those damn dirty Romans, which is to close his eyes and do what the gods tell him to do. Apparently the gods want him to kill an incredible shit-ton of human beings for no reason)
The story is told with lots of really over the top strange CGI effects, like not just the fact that fully half of each episode is just heavy metal music and intensely slow-mo jets of blood and flayed-open faces/internal organs, but also weird sequences where, like, cartoon leaves fall gently down around a person as they stand against a CGI sunset on a soundstage barefoot in the snow picking fake persimmons off a weird fake tree. At times it really looks like Twilight of the Ice Nymphs or something, like what the heck is going on in these crazy ancient times? I approve of this technique in my BLOOD AND SAND. If I’m going to see BLOOD AND SAND, then I want to see it in hypercolor and in slow-mo, and preferably more often than not it turns out somebody was just dreaming the whole time (actual thing I wrote in my notebook: “all anybody does on this show is have sex. Surely if you’d just been raped 100 times you wouldn’t immediately start—oh wait he was dreaming: her head just exploded).
I have given it serious thought and I really do think it is the most violent thing I have ever seen on film. The amount of slow-mo gore and screaming and intense viscera-ripping sound effects and dudes getting crucified with their eyes gouged out and various body parts lopped off is pretty non pareil. It almost becomes soothing. There are also more boobs per capita than anything I’ve ever seen, including porn. So, take that as a recommendation or a warning, as you see fit.
The plot is what you’d expect, and involves something something Romans something something Thrace something something betrayal sold into slavery wife-naked-capture-rape-terror. Spartacus (not his real name–he is nameless and the show reminds us a lot that it has been arty enough to withhold his name from us (“THAT IS NOT MY NAME” etc. “YOU HAVE NO NAME SLAVE”)) abandons his oath to help the Romans win their war against some sort of devil people, so in repayment some shitty Roman steals his wife and condemns him to die in the arena, like, buddy, you just made a SERIOUS ENEMY, did I mention the mug on this guy? Don’t fuck with a mug like that. But then instead of dying as expected, Spartacus kills the gladiators who were going to execute him, and the crowd loves it! So he gets to live, and this guy who runs a faltering gladiator school buys him and starts training him to become a gladiator. Many training montages ensue, just like Karate Kid but with more forcing people to lie face down in sand you just peed on.
Spartacus then spends five episodes scheming to get his new master (played by the AWESOME John Hannah, why doesn’t this guy win every award on the earth? Remember him delivering that Auden poem in “Four Weddings and a Funeral?” Come on!) to buy his wife back from the vindictive rape nightmare thrust upon her by that Roman guy. Then the wife turns up but all bloody and dead, and his reason for living is extinguished, so then he’s like “well fuck it I guess I’ll be a gladiator after all. And you know what, I’m gonna be THE BEST GLADIATOR I CAN BE.” He’s basically like “well, life goes on.”
I really wanted someone to give him props just for managing to even locate his wife in the first place. Nobody even had last names back then, and anyway, he did it all from this emo basement prison filled with naked men. So she arrived dead–it’s still pretty amazing he got her there at all. Nobody pointed this out! Nobody gave him a slap on the back and said “I kind of can’t believe your scheme was even this successful.”
It’s going to be annoying when he immediately gets a new love interest, but I guess that’s show biz. Also raise your hand if you think he will end the series crucified like Kirk Douglas did. Also I forgot to tell you there is a part (post wife-death) where he holds up a sword and screams “I….AM…..SPARTACUS” and I completely died laughing. THAT’S NOT HOW THAT LINE’S SUPPOSED TO WORK!
So yeah, slow-mo fountains of blood. There’s awhile where he somehow shames himself and then has to go fight in “the Pit,” where it’s basically Fight Club except you die at the end, and some of your opponents are, like, wearing the cut-off faces of the people they killed just before you, held onto their actual face by a fairly complex-looking series of hooks and chains. It is only here that Spartacus begins losing hope. This man has an iron will. I kept thinking of Julian Jaynes arguing that none of these people were actually conscious.
I consider myself somewhat of a seasoned old salty dog, but even to me there is an astounding amount of full-peen nudity plus bouncing boobs galore, including those of LUCY LAWLESS. There is lots of faux “ancient Roman” dirty talk (“do you know that the sound of your footsteps is enough to moisten my thighs”) and gratuitously-un-commented-on homosexuality. BECAUSE OF ROME. I obviously appreciate all these things.
Anyway it basically turns into a soap opera, where John Hannah and Lucy Lawless are trying to become upper class but their damn gladiators keep not being awesome enough. Lucy Lawless is having an affair with one of the gladiators, which is awkward because he’s actually in love with the slave girl who has to stand there and watch them do it seventeen thousand times a day. I really like this guy too, he’s got a great face, albeit not Whitfield-caliber.
Needless to say, everyone’s bod is smoking hot and tight as hell, except all the gross old men who actually run society, but what else is new, amirite ladies
In conclusion there is a lot of pathos, though nothing on the level of Tony Curtis reciting that poem to Kirk Douglas in the meadow.
(Also sidenote: Can you believe there really were gladiators? It’s honestly so gnarly. “Now I’ve seen everything”)
There is also a sociopathic evil scheming bitch character.