Review: Spartacus Blood and Sand Season 1 DVD

STUDIO: Starz/Anchor Bay | DIRECTORS: Rick Jacobson, Michael Hurst, others | CAST: Andy Whitfield, John Hannah, Peter Mensah, Manu Bennett, Mick E. Tarabay, Lucy Lawless, Erin Cummings
RELEASE DATE: 9/21/10 | PRICE: DVD $59.97, Blu-ray $79.97
BONUSES: commentaries, featurettes, enhanced digital effects, behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers; Blu-ray adds four “Directors’ Cut Extended Episodes”
SPECS: not rated | 640 min. | Historical action/adventure | 1.78:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/Dolby TrueHD 5.1

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Premium cable channel Starz’s original series Spartacus: Blood and Sand takes viewers on a journey through the violent and sexy world of Roman society and its landscape of brutal gladiatorial games, caste systems and decadent sexuality. The eye-catching, action-packed TV show presents itself in the form of a living graphic novel, filled with the kind of vivid images of bloody battles and sexual congresses that the form demands — the same style that wowed us in the movie 300. In other words, this ain’t your mom and dad’s sword-and-sandal epic.

Inspired by a real-life slave of the Roman republic who led a revolt in 73 BC that grew to more than 120,000 fighters, the Spartacus: Blood and Sand stars Andy Whitfield (Gabriel) as Spartacus, a Thracian warrior captured by the Romans and enslaved in a gladiator training school owned by money-hungry society climber Batiatus (John Hannah, The Mummy) and his wily wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess). Forced to fight daily for his life, while also trying to fend off the corruption and treachery that comes at him when he’s not in the arena, Spartacus rises against the tyranny of Rome to become the legend that fate has determined him to be.

The 13-episode series begins at a relatively measured pace, balanced out by its furiously stylized and bloody battle sequences. By the fourth or fifth installment, however, the narrative and characterizations begin to take control for the better, and the show starts to deliver a more well-shaped drama to fulfill its epic promise.

As it plays, Spartacus: Blood and Sand takes its inspiration and much of its visual vocabulary from the major gladiator films that preceded it, with the exception of, ironically, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus from 1960. The hyper-real graphic novel look of 300, the monstrous pit battles of Conan the Barbarian, the sexed up decadence of HBO’s Rome, the slow rise through the combat ranks of Gladiator — it’s all here. But Spartacus: Blood and Sand remains its own creature with a dedicated commitment to its own brawny and blunt but undeniably boisterous style of narrative and visual storytelling.

The special features offered on the DVD are equally muscular. There are a half-dozen enthusiastic featurettes on the TV show’s production, the standouts being one on the exhausting six-week boot camp the actors endured to firm up and learn how to spar like gladiators and another featurette on the deceptively easy-looking green screen production techniques used in the series — which we learn is produced wholly on a soundstage, outdoor scenes included.

Viewers who are looking for even more red meat with their red meat will undoubtedly enjoy the “Battle Royale,” a six-minute montage of the series’ bloody battle sequences set to a heavy metal score, as well as the disc’s enhanced digital effects (as if the blood-letting could get any bloodier).

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.