Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which premieres on the cable channel tonight.
Seemingly inspired by the blockbuster 2007 film 300 as much as by historical accounts of a slave uprising against ancient Rome, the series is a stylish if graphically bloody soap opera. A lot of money appears to have gone into Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and its high-powered producers include filmmaker Sam Raimi (best known for his Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies), Rob Tapert (The Grudge) and Steven S. DeKnight (of the beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show).
Newcomer Andy Whitfield plays the title role, although his character doesn’t initially sport the moniker “Spartacus.” Rather, he starts out as an unnamed, happily married Thracian who becomes enslaved by a treacherous Roman soldier with a vendetta against him. Subsequently forced to fight four trained gladiators at once, the Thracian stuns his captors and the audience by slaying all of his opponents single-handedly. A star is born and is christened “Spartacus” (after a legendary fighter) by the crowd.
Spartacus is purchased by the scheming Batiatus (played by John Hannah, who was very funny as Rachel Weisz’s high-living brother in The Mummy movies) for formal training at the ludus (gladiator school) he owns. Batiatus sees his new recruit as having the potential to earn him and his wife (Lucy Lawless, Xena herself, who looks ravishing here) enough money and prestige to be accepted into the upper-echelons of Roman society.
I was able to view the first three episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand in advance. While the main plot and setting will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Gladiator or, again, 300, there is enough sex (both romantic and kinky, as well as some lesbian action) and full-frontal male and female nudity to keep more than a few GLBT viewers interested. Gay men, especially, will want to catch the second episode, “Sacramentum Gladiatorum,” which features naked gladiators shaving, strutting and preening in the ludus’s bath. Be sure to have your thumb at the ready over the remote’s “freeze frame” button!
The series is set in a digitally recreated ancient Rome wherein men stand stoic in virtual snow and sunsets, and slo-mo blood sprays out in all directions during the fight scenes. The violence is completely over-the-top, with severed heads and limbs similarly flying across the screen. There is also gratuitous, historically questionable use of derogatory terms for sexual acts and anatomy.
What gives Spartacus: Blood and Sand some sorely needed credibility are the fine performances of its lead cast members. Whitfield makes a fine hero: strong and seething angrily as appropriate while adding a nuanced softness and everyman quality to his role. Hannah and Lawless are excellent, as is Peter Mensah as Doctore, the gladiators’ domineering head trainer. Mensah deserves special credit, as he keeps his and his character’s dignity intact while delivering the scripts’ ripest dialogue.
But if chiseled, oiled men grappling with one another while wearing little more than codpieces get your blood pumping, you won’t want to miss Spartacus: Blood and Sand. For more information, visit the show's official website.
UPDATE: The first season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.