Spartacus:Gore and Nudity
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“BY JUPITER'S COCK!!!.what is this, my pay cheque?..ta!”
“Open a cupboard here and out tumbles merkins, prosthetic penises and discarded sex toys”
“New Zealand is the home of Hobbits and televised Roman orgies. We can combine them if business slacks off in future”
What is it about Ancient Rome that keeps bringing back film and television makers? Art, plays, film and television have long plundered this time period for inspiration and ideas. Is it the memory of a civilization that appears to be a lot closer to the modern world than say the Middle Ages or the Renaissance? An era that serves as a mirror - and warning - to all great world powers that followed it after? These are all important questions but the real magic of this era is that you can show people a thoroughly immoral world. And when we talk about immoral here for entertainment, blood, gore and sex. Here is a clue:Spartacus! Spartacus!! Spartacus!!!
This certainly seems the approach made by the makers of the television series Spartacus:Blood and Sand, Spartacus:Gods of the Arena and now Spartacus:Vengeance. If Ben Hur had chariots and his Jewish background and hang ups, the era of Spartacus has no such problem. Everyone so far has been thoroughly pagan in their attitudes to each other, though it would not be surprising to see a Jewish merchant (or gladiator) appear at some stage. Perhaps there will be a Spartacus v Proto Ben Hur contest in future.
Spartacus on the Screen
Since virtually nothing is known about the real Spartacus except what Roman writers had chosen to record, his story is a nearly a blank canvas. No legends were attached to his name like Robin Hood or William Tell. All that was known for certain was that he trained as a gladiator and was able to defeat Roman armies sent against him until the Romans finally sent their best legions under Pompey and Crassus in 73 B.C. Was Spartacus the first freedom fighter, a slave emancipator or just a soldier who had no clue how to escape Italy and return home? Or would the ex-slave have become an enslaver himself??
These divergent opinions could see Spartacus as socialist revolutionary, national liberation icon or someone who wanted to take up his gladitorial retirement plan early. For the 1960 film by Stanley Kubrick and writer Howard Fast, Spartacus (with Kirk Douglas and his chin) spoke of freedom and that in his new society there would no slaves. It was about as far as communism Hollywood would allow at the time.
The gladiator angle was by the by but like Ben Hur and his chariot racing, it was the aspect of the story that people could relate to easier. And turn the tables on those who whipped you. So when news in 2008 that a new mini series was to be made, would it be a politically relevant story? One that talked of the new economic power situation with reference to the past? Nah...scrub that..blood and sex. Now why hadn't anyone thought of that earlier?
Spartacus in the television series
The last major Spartacus version was one released in 2004. It looked good, was 'authentic' and had many other things going for it except one. It was dull. All the elements that make a story about Ancient Rome had to be toned down for big bucks production where they want the show to be seen by large tv audiences. But there was another audience, except they were not watching shows like these but were buying/pirating games with pneumatic heroines (Lara Tomb Raider) or jumping over barrels in Donkey Kong. Could these ideas be put together?
Then there was the influence of a film like 300. Lots of shouting, slo-mo heroics by men in leather jockstraps and a lot of thrusting - at least by those holding spears. It looked like a San Francisco Bath House visit but women barely featured in the story except one. It was unnatural and looked unnatural under skies that appeared to have been blown from Mars. And the acting, oh god, the acting. Shout, threaten, mumble and shriek when struck. There was a winning formula for someone to shape.
Behind the Stage
So by 2009 the decision to shoot a pilot of the 'new Spartacus' is given the go-ahead by the Starz tv cable network. Perhaps seeing how HBO and Showtime were going more 'top' end with their offerings, Starz looks with interest to see how far it can go in the other direction before running into the Channel Porn franchises. The producers of the new Spartacus promise that their show will be the most authentic version of the story as they will be able to shoot a lot more graphic stuff, more in the tradition of say 'I Claudius' or 'Rome', though the over-the-top acting and people hissing revenge bears a passing resemblance to the 1980s series Dallas and especially Dynasty. One advantage of setting the show before Jesus was born is to show how much everyone was into depravity (outside presumably the Jewish world) and therefore needed saving from paganism.
The new version has a few things going for it. It will be shot in New Zealand where they made Hercules/Xena Warrior Princess films and that the prequel to Lord of the Rings - The Hobbit has again been delayed. Someone suggests 'The Hobo' as an alternative but instead Spartacus:Blood and Sand gets the green light to be shot as a pilot. Casting begins.
Return of Xena
- Lucy Lawless as Lucretia: Last seen disappearing into the sunset of lesbian love, Lawless is back in a costume as the co-owner of a gladiator school. She is the envy of some her friends with her stock of prime human beef on display. Lucretia uses this to make friends with the powerful and also 'samples the soup' with one particular broth cake gladiator Crixus. Since Lucretia also allows her husband to shag a female slave in her bathtub whilst she has a manicure, it can be said they have a 'thoroughly modern pagan marriage'.
- John Hannah as Batiatus: A regular on British television in various roles including a pathologist (so he was used to flesh), John Hannah had made more of an international name for himself as the cowardly but resourceful Jonathan Carnahan in 'The Mummy' and 'The Mummy Returns'. His role as the wheedling, cruel, boastful, ambitious Batiatus becomes so convincing that Hannah easily outshines everyone in all his scenes. There is an element of 'Hokum-Pokum' in his performance but you want to support him against the other Romans who see Batiatus as a hustler, intruder and an upstart.
- Andy Whitfield as Spartacus: The nominal hero of the show, Spartacus does come across as a bit of a bore. Great on the battlefield and in an arena, this Spartacus spends a lost of the time brooding and not mixing in the the others. For Whitfield, this was his big career break but it was to end through illness and an early death. Looking at the first series now and knowing what happens, Whitfield's pain was to become all to real later on. As an actor, difficult to say but he is good at bottling up stuff. Just a shame we never learn what exactly was in that glass container.
- Manu Bennett as Crixus: Physically built like a Rugby forward, Australian Bennett is for the most part of first series Spartacus's deadly rival. He wants to be top gladiator and takes against Spartacus as a rival for that honour. Crixus finally gets miffed when his slave-girlfriend is sold off for more body oil. He also shares a nude scene with Spartacus, standing next to his rival in a pork sausage measuring contest, put on by Lucretia when her friends want to select a champion for the coming games.
- Peter Mensah as Oenomaus (Doctore): With a name similar to Mensa, you are expecting this guy to be a bright. He is the ex-gladiator turned trainer. Broods a bit like Spartacus and gets a reputation as tough but not cruel and has a strong loyalty to the school. Takes a grim pride in what he does but sheds no tears when some of his students get dragged out dead from the arena. In the cinematic tradition of the black sergeant as seen in An Officer and a Gentleman and Woody Allen's Love and Death. Mensah was also in the 300 film, linking the two series. Remember the arrogant Persian ambassador who is kicked down a well? That was him.
Slashing and Bashing
Nearly all the action in the first series is centered around Batiatus's gladiatorial school or Ludos (no relation to ludo apparently). It is a bit like Downton Abbey or before that, Upstairs, Downstairs.
However unlike those two shows, there is none of that 'we're all people except different classes'. This is a bit more like Gone With the Wind, slaves are definitely slaves and only allowed to be seen standing around mute at banquets. They are part of the furniture to chuck your clothes on the floor or to clean up after some orgy or other. The other slaves are out in the courtyard in digs that would shame a goat. These ones, the gladiators walk about in straps and hairy trunks. They are constantly checked, prodded and measured like farm animals, perhaps given a spruce up only when they are appearing in the next gladitorial show.
Batiatus's ludos sits perched high above Capua which looks a good day's journey to go back and forth. It also only has three walls, the fourth barrier marked by a steep cliff where rubbish and gladiators who fail their exams are chucked over the side. There is also a balcony where Batiatus and Lucretia can look over whilst having breakfast as their gladiators grunt and hit each other with wooden swords.
This being the Ancient World, clothes are obviously an optional extra and the absence of Original Sin and Puritainism, just about everybody gets at least naked in scene or other. This being New Zealand, there are a lot of 'sporty nudity' from the Aussie and Kiwis actors and the extras, though everyone who stips off looks in peak condition. Some viewers have looked out for any signs of plastic surgery but none so far have been confirmed. The actor who played Spartacus and his successor look the best physical male specimens on show. Just a shame body perfection doesn't translate into convincing acting performances.
How do you play in a show like this? Take it deadly serious or ham up your acting so much that no one can tell what you are doing?? Spartacus is able to combine a lot of acting styles. When people aren't plotting, they're having screen sex and then vice versa. For some actors this series is their big break, for others it's a handy gig to get involved in. Lucy Lawless appears to be play it both ways whilst the younger actors go for the 'method ham' in a vain attempt that they are taking this all very serious. In the end do you care or are just waiting for the sweaty action scenes, whether in the arena or on a hard bench. It looks more like the WWF than Ancient Rome.
The series has already entered it's third run. Thanks to the original Spartacus unable to shoot a follow up, the team behind Spartacus had to shoot a filler series - which in the end was a lot funnier than the second. It allowed John Hannah to return from the dead in a time period set before Spartacus - though the name was kept for the series for commercial reasons. The end result was Spartacus:Gods of the Arena, featuring more of Lucy Lawless getting frisky with her husband and a female friend. Now the actor who played Crixus was the centre of the story, a rough Gaul but without any charm. This one ended with the triumph of Batiatus's gladitorial school as they over throw their rivals and in addition, cement the losing boss into the foundations of Capua's brand new amphitheatre (for those interested, it's ruins still stand in what was once Capua..the city migrated during the Middle Ages).
The third series is now being shown with the new Spartacus and a fourth series apparently will follow. Now Spartacus is out on the loose and the Romans are still disinclined to take the rebels seriously as there is no glory in killing slaves. Just will have to see if audiences will keep faith with the show or tire of the Blood, Gore...and ham.