Robert A. Harris spent five years reconstructing Abel Gance’s 4-hour epic Napoleon and three years piecing together the 3-hour-and-36-minute cut of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. But his spiffed-up and restored version of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus went from battered work prints to finished release prints in a mere nine months — and the final labor was frantic. There were ”lots of problems,” says Harris. ”I’ve been up to my ass in gladiators.”
Harris first considered resurrecting Spartacus when the organizers of a 1989 Kirk Douglas tribute could locate only a pale, crudely assembled print of the film. He felt a properly funded restoration would not only reverse time’s ravages but might also turn up scenes deleted after the Legion of Decency threatened Spartacus with its dread ”condemned” rating in 1960. Calling on Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg to contact Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock on his behalf, Harris got the green light. James Katz signed on as producer of the project, and the pair headed for Universal’s vaults. A search through 1,800 cans of Spartacus footage confirmed the team’s worst fears: The original negative had literally faded away.
”Spartacus was filmed in Eastman Color,” Harris says. That film stock, widely adopted in the early ’50s, has proven about as stable as disappearing ink. Of the thousands of color films made between 1953 and 1970, Harris says about 25 percent have negatives that are completely faded. ”The studios don’t really believe it. They think the materials are going to last forever,” he adds.
Harris and Katz shifted to a second-generation copy of the film, but even that had been manufactured so poorly that its three separate layers of color often wouldn’t line up to form a sharp-edged image. Says Katz, ”We had to work almost on a frame-by-frame basis.”
Despite the material’s poor condition, the censored footage — bloody battlefield scenes and bleak glimpses of starvation and dying infants during the slaves’ trek through Italy — was there. Even the most significant cutting-room casualty, the ”oysters and snails” scene between the late Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis, had survived — though minus a soundtrack, leaving Harris and Katz the task of creating a new one. Curtis redubbed his lines, but for Olivier’s dialogue, Katz — on the advice of Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright — hired actor Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs). In the interest of absolute accuracy, Kubrick, who was not directly involved in the project’s day-to-day progress, agreed to advise Hopkins on his line readings via fax.
Given the difficulty and expense of restorations — Spartacus reportedly cost Universal $1 million — many older films remain in peril. (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Harris says, is disintegrating fast.) But the hoopla over recent restorations, along with revenues from cable and home video reissues, has at least made Hollywood protective of its new films. ”Now they compensate the other way,” says Katz. ”They save too much. In 30 years, is anybody really going to care about having every outtake from Home Alone?”