If heaps of violence, blood, gore, swearing, sex, nudity, togas and unbelievably well muscled men are your thing, then Spartacus: Blood and Sand might be right up your alley.
The Starz series is set in Capua, a small Italian city of the Roman Empire around about 72-71BC, and tells the story of Spartacus, a legendary gladiator who lead a slave revolt against his Master and the elite class. It is loosely based on the historic figure of Spartacus, the legendary Thracian leader of the slaves during the Third Servile War (71-73BC), a slave uprising that took on the might of Rome itself. History nerds will get a kick out of this show, though probably not without a frequent grimace at historical inaccuracies. There are a great many historic parallels and references and although detailed historical consultation is provided, the producers have been quick to point out that at times they drop the historical facts in favour of the better story. Taken at face value, without too much emphasis on its historical accuracy, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is well worth a watch.
The plot finds Spartacus (Andy Whitfield), a Thracian solider enlisted by the Roman Army. He’s not called Spartacus then, and his never revealed real name is a point of sentiment though the entire series. Betrayal and treachery ensues, and Spartacus and his men revolt. In retaliation for the revolt the Legatus, Claudius Glauber kidnaps Spartacus’ wife, selling her into slavery. Spartacus is arrested and sentenced to Death by Gladiator in the arena. After an unlikely, but still awesome victory against his multiple opponents, the Thracian is sold to Quintus Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah), Dominus of a struggling ludus, and trained as a gladiator. Batiatus promises if he performs in the arena, Spartacus will be able to buy his freedom and reunite with his wife. It’s this promise that keeps him going and when it all falls apart, Spartacus is left without love, without hope and without reason to go on.
The series was filmed in New Zealand and is packed with kiwis and Aussies, and it’s refreshing to see so much New Zealand and Australian talent in such a large scale international production.
The strength of Spartacus is most definitely in the subtle interactions of the characters. One might think there isn’t much subtlety of any kind going on in this violent world, but it is this precise juxtaposition of the up front brutality and the far deeper nuances of character that makes it such an intriguing show
Spartacus himself is unfortunately one of the more flat characters. He’s a champion fighter and dedicated husband, he’s arrogant but still honourable. While it seems the producers have done their best not to make him the one dimensional good guy hero, he lacks the subtle nuances of many other characters. Whitfield however plays the role quite well, especially with that steely gaze and smug smile. I was saddened to learn of Whitfield’s death in September, 2011 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was replaced in season 2, by Liam McIntyre.
Spartacus’ nemesis, Crixus (Manu Bennett) is a far more interesting character. The top gladiator, and Spartacus’ direct rival, his ferocity is well tempered with his love for the slave girl, Naevia and their relationship is nicely developed. Crixus began as a man with nothing but honour for his ludus, but love transformed him into something not even he understands.
Most of the other gladiators are not greatly important and at best play their types – the friend, the young inexperienced fighter, the wannabe. Doctore Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), the trainer and former champion gladiator is worth a special mention. While very little of Doctore’s character is developed until quite close to the season close, his calm, venomous and always watchful presence fascinated me from the beginning, that and he looks totally bad ass.
By far the strongest characters, and actors in the series are Quintus Batiatus, and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless – yes, that Lucy Lawless). Both as diabolical as the other, life is cheap as they trade blood for gold in their endless pursuit of riches and social power. Hannah is brilliant as the Little Big Man and Lawless equally so. Her relationship with Crixus is one of the more interesting character details for them both – at first it appears he’s nothing more than a hot body for her, but then she seems to love him in some strange, obsessive way. A host of Roman citizens form the backdrop to their social climb, the women perhaps more conniving and brutal than the men. Intrigues, backstabbing, shady deals, murder, love, superstition, honour – they all form part of what turns out to be an intricately detailed and rich plot.
And then there’s the violence. Lots of violence. Spartacus is not for the squeamish viewer. There’s blood, guts, beheading, castration, flagellation, crucifixion, excoriation, just about any form of violence you can think to inflict with a sword. And the show pulls no punches in showing it in full. Stylistically, Spartacus uses the super-imposition chroma key same style of filming as 300 in it most violent scenes. This was done a lot more in the earlier episodes and to me it was to their detriment. It just didn’t look right, and I felt I was watching a video game rather than a TV show. The effect was lessened as the series developed, but the violence, and especially the blood flow continued to have that same stylistic artificiality. I’m not sure if this was an attempt to either draw more attention to the gore, or draw attention away from it. Much of the blood work doesn’t quite look right, for me, but that said there are still plenty of moments of pure revulsion. Episode 4, “The Thing in the Pit” was particularly horrific.
Just as it is violent, there are sex scenes and nudity enough to ensure this is a program only for the more mature viewer. A lot of the sex scenes aren’t what one might call sensual or seductive in anyway either, but opting for a quite full on performance. There’s also a lot of random nudity in the arena crowds, seems some women of Capua were so excited by the sport there was nothing to do but rip their clothes off. I have no problem with graphic sex (or violence), and even I thought that was a bit unnecessary. Each episode does give fair warning of the level of adult content it’s about to screen, so anyone with a problem with watching stuff like this has ample opportunity to turn it off. There’s quite a lot of swearing too, but hearing John Hannah curse “Jupiter’s cock!” and other variations, so often was rather comical.
Overall, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a decent series with high production values and a well drawn out plot. It did take me a while to really get into it, but as the characters were developed and the plot grew more and more complex, I found it well worth it and look forward to the next season.
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