by: Quintus Aurelius Orcus
Review: Spartacus (mini-series)
Release year: 2004
Directed by Robert Dornhelm
Based on the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, screenplay written by Robert Schenkkan
Starring: Goran Visnjic, Rhona Mitra
When most people think of Spartacus, they usually think of the movie with the same title, released in the 60ís starring Kirk Douglas, where slaves rebel against their Roman oppressors. One notorious scene is where it is asked who among the slaves is Spartacus; one by one, they stand up saying that they are Spartacus. A scene that went down in infamy, it is used on multiple occasions in other movies and TV shows. It's usually used when the protagonist is accused of something and a lot of people stand up stating that they are that person.
The miniseries is produced by USA Network, which has produced several well-known miniseries and TV shows like The 4400, JAG, Law and Order, Walker: Texas Ranger, Attila the Hun and many others. The duration of the miniseries is about 3 hours, just as with Attila the Hun.
For those who arenít familiar with the story, I will recap.
The story of Spartacus is one of a man who broke free, with his fellow gladiators and slaves, and ran rampant through Italy, with his slave army growing increasingly. He defeated several Legions of the Romans, mostly cohorts who stayed to control the Provinces and maintain order. Spartacus and his army even defeated a couple of Legions, real soldiers. Spartacus stroke fear in the hearts of Romans, because he became something they feared: a free man. His freedom wasnít given to him, he took it by force and that was something the Romans feared, but it inspired gladiators and slaves alike across the Roman Empire. He defeated a couple of Legions under Marcus Licinius Crassus, and even broke through Crassus' blockade. But at Lucania, Spartacus and his forces were intercepted by Crassusí army and subsequently killed. Spartacus died in that battle, although his body was never found. Those slaves who did escape that battle were slaughtered by the forces of Pompey who, along with Lucullus, was called back by the Senate to deal with the menace. Pompey returned to Rome, claiming victory of the battle Crassus actually won.
In the adaptation for TV, the miniseries resembles that of Attila the Hun where the lines of good and evil are not so clear with both the protagonist and the antagonist. Actually, with both miniseries, it is not so clear who the real protagonists and antagonists are. Both characters (Spartacus and Crassus) are neither good not evil: they stand within the grey area. In fact, the writer tries hard to convince the viewer that both men are human and have human strengths and weaknesses. Spartacus is however portrayed in a more fashionable sense, which means that he is supposed to be the good guy. At times, you donít get that feeling that heís the good guy. Heís more or less portrayed as an early communist, who fights against the wealthy Roman establishment by liberating the slaves. With Crassus, you can clearly see that heís a sadistic son of a bitch with his own agenda, but the writer will never try to make him come over as the stereotypical villain. No, heís a man of flesh and blood, with strengths and weaknesses. This whole miniseries is about those two men.
Of course, it wouldnít be Hollywood if they didnít put in a romance in the storyline. On numerous occasions, this doesnít really work: Pearl Harbor and Titanic, to name a few. It usually ends up destroying the whole storyline, but here it does work, just as it did in Attila the Hun. There are scenes which didnít come off as believable and look like pure Hollywoodism at its worst. I donít know everything there is to know on gladiators, but I seriously doubt that when a woman is given to a gladiator, the night before he goes into the arena, he would have refused sex with that woman. That is what Spartacus does when he first meets Varinia. We do know that Spartacus will live on, so we see that those two fall in love. This is to be expected from any Hollywood work. Varinia, played by Rhona Mitra, does play her part well. All actors in the miniseries come of as genuine. There are characters in the miniseries not throughly worked out, as they are background characters. So long as they are believeble, that is what matters.
There are some things I find truly Hollywoodish. For example, everyone believes in the Gods, but not the main character. I find that strange, for a Thracian not to believe in a deity or deities. Also whatís up with the reference, that the God of Israelites and Christians is better than any other deity? That didnít sit well with me, just blunt out stating that the God of the Jews is a deity of the individual and might be better suited for the people than the Gods his people and the rest of the world worshipped. Well thatís typical Hollywood for you. The other thing that bothered me is the customs of the Thracians that are described in the movie regarding sex. Spartacus says that in his culture, it's the custom for a man and a woman to be together when they are wed, not before. Thatís so damn frustrating. Like a gladiator of any culture would hold on to that custom, when he knows that he will most likely die the next day. Jewish gladiators, that I can believe, but not of Thracian gladiators. We already know not that much to say that this is true.
I would say that this miniseries is more than 90% historically accurate. At first sight, it does appear to be so. It is shown in the miniseries that the only way for slaves to become free, is for their masters to sign documents stating that they were legally free. In light of having heard of the recently published book of a journalist who went undercover to find out how it is like to live like she was part of the lower class US citizens. Since workers in the US are more or less treated as slaves, this movie could be seen as another way of saying; step up for yourself and what you believe in. Freedom is not only threatened by foreign powers or terrorists, but also by corporate companies trying to squeeze everything out of you until you are of no use for them. Than they fire you.
Personally, I really enjoyed watching this movie and it made me wanna watch the original, to compare them with each other, even though I have a strong feeling that both movies are not based on the same novel.
All in all, I give this miniseries a 9 out of 10.