The swords and sandals epic has been a staple of cinema since its inception because of its ability to be a grand spectacle. There’s such a grandness to it that makes it nearly irresistible in film; the grand arena, the combat and the glory of ancient Rome have given it a grander mythos and given a map of inspiration for many a filmmaker. When it comes to television, however, the extraordinary cost seems to undercut many a series. Rome was one of the finer series on HBO but could only last two seasons partially due to the high costs of production. Hoping to buck that trend, Starz came up with a telling of ancient Roman Spartacus and the third Servile war with Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
Spartacus (Andy Whitfeld) is a Roman Army Auxiliary deserter captured and forced into a life of slavery as a gladiator. With thoughts of trying to find his wife Sura (Erin Cummings) on his mind, the best way to describe the series would be as a dramatic reinterpretation of history as we follow Spartacus from his roots as a champion gladiator to his eventual rise as leader of Rome’s most famous revolt. The first season marks the beginning of the journey, mainly chronicling his quest for information about his wife against his life learning to become a gladiator.
The thing that stands out most in the series is that it channels so much from recent films in the genre. Combining the scenery from Rome, the spirit of Gladiator and the violence of 300, Spartacus: Blood and Sand tries to channel all of these into one distinct narrative about a man who has been wronged so often that a little blood on his hands just begins to feel right. While we know the path Spartacus is going down, even if he doesn’t, Blood and Sand keeps it interesting by making it less about the spectacle and more about the man.
The show’s main focus is on the growth of Spartacus from merely a foot soldier to a leader of men; it doesn’t happen overnight, either. Given a fearsome rival (Manu Bennett), a taskmaster of a trainer (Peter Mensah) and a power hungry idiot for a master (John Hannah), Spartacus has to learn the hard way about playing the game if he is to survive long enough to be reunited with his wife. How he does it becomes significantly interesting as his training, and eventually entry into the gladiatorial arena, revolve around his ability to eliminate the man he used to be and forge a new identity as a slave bound to another man. While we know he’ll survive and then go onto greater fame, in part because history demands it, the road to get there is uncertain and fraught with danger. It’s also one that succeeds mainly because it takes elements from other successes in the genre from a stylistic standpoint and fuses them with a character heavy drama.
Using the Zack Snyder inspired slow motion action sequences from 300 and the spectacle of Maximus vs. any number of foes from Gladiator, Blood and Sand makes its action sequences its main signature as it goes to them repeatedly. This is an extraordinarily violent and bloody show, sometimes almost going out of its way to show something violent when it could be merely alluded to or described, that garners good will by plying their character study with a significant amount of style instead of trying to build solely on the character of Spartacus. There’s enough going on, with plenty of strong supporting characters, that the style keeps the film from being merely a character study with some violence in it. It’s also the show’s weak point as sometimes the visuals get a bit overwhelming. There’s enough story, and sub plots, that sometimes we don’t need to see an extended battle sequence that is excessively bloody. The style can sometimes overwhelm the show’s substance.
Season 2 of Spartacus: Blood and Sand is currently up in the air given Andy Whitfeld’s struggle with lymphoma causing him to withdraw from the show. There’s enough going on that you could recast the part but enough that leaving it alone as a sort of guide to the young Spartacus could work as well. Blood and Sand works because of this, a modern synthesis of the best (and the worst) that the sword and sandals genre has given us.
Presented in a widescreen Dolby True HD with a surround sound presentation, this is a brilliant transfer that looks and sounds incredible. This is a show filled with lots of color, action and lots of sound and it comes through cleanly and clearly.
Spartacus Historicus is a series of pop ups that you can turn off and on throughout the series that gives historical nuggets about the era and the show itself throughout each episode.
There’s a “Vengeance” trailer for the show.
There are a handful of Featurettes about the series covering every aspect of the series from how it reimagined history to behind the scenes work, as well as focusing on the actors training for the show and the green screen effects, to give a good but not great perspective about the show. There’s just enough EPK pieces and material throughout this special feature that it takes away from some of the more introspective pieces.
The tale of Spartacus has been told in cinematic form most famously by Kirk Douglas but Spartacus: Blood and Sand gives us a modern take on the mythos of one of Rome’s great insurgents. While its second season is in doubt due to circumstances outside of any serious control, the first season stands as the establishment of a creation mythos that gives a modern insight into Spartacus.
Starz Home Entertainment presents Spartacus: Blood and Sand . Created by Steve S. DeKnight. Starring Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless, Peter Mensah, Erin Cummings. Running time: 692 minutes. Not Rated. Released on Blu-ray and DVD: September 21, 2010.
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.