“I need a hero…he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight.” Basically, he’s gotta be Spartacus, Gannicus or Crixus.
The half-naked Romans in the stands of the gladiatorial arena wanted a rock star to relieve them of the boredom of 70s B.C. Rome. There was no TV, no porno channel. No SAW movies to sate their lust for violence. They wanted blood and sex. And you can taste their hunger for both in Stars’ epic TV series, Spartacus. Shot in New Zealand and featuring mostly an eye-candy cast of unknowns, Spartacus makes today’s WWE SmackDowns seem like Olympic curling.
The testosterone-filled epic borrows from 300, adding a more rounded, protracted storyline that kept diehard fans tuning in week after week. Filmed almost entirely on a sound stage, the high-budget, 13-episode first season delivered the blood and sex other TV shows only promise.
Writer, creator and executive producer Steven S. DeKnight did a great job forging Australian newcomer Andy Whitfield into a hero with soul and substance. It doesn’t hurt that Whitfield has the body for the title role. When I interviewed Whitfield, he looked fit as a gladiator and talked about the training, “Our Boot Camp was 5 days a week, 4 hours a day for a whole month. And no junk food. It was literally 20 grams of this, 5 grains of that. You’re in great shape when you get out of boot camp but then you gotta shoot for 8 months and stay in shape. That’s the hard part. We practiced sword fighting and coordination, and you build a lot of camaraderie. ” Asked what attracted him to the role, he replied, “I loved the concept: Sin City, meets 300, meets Rome. ”
The Thracian gladiator had but one goal: to reunite with his wife, Sura (Erin Cummings), who was sold into slavery. Producers originally slated a sequel, but when Whitfield took ill, the star was forced to back away and a prequel was filmed.
Qunitus Batiatus (John Hannah), a Linista who runs a Ludus (gladiator school) is obsessed with entering Roman politics. A character of increasing complexity, Quintus slowly rises out of debt on the blood and sweat of Spartacus’ victories and almost succeeds in keeping the patronage of Roman legate Claudius Glaber (the very same legate who condemned Spartacus to slavery). Plans go awry when Spartacus leads a rebellion that wipes out nearly every Roman in Batiatus’ Ludus.
When I interviewed Hanna and asked about that final scene, he replied, “I thought it seemed morally right, there’s no real way Quintus could have survived. The whole concept was to follow historically what happened.” Asked about the almost poetic dialog used in the series, Hanna noted, “Steven S. DeKnight is a brilliant writer, and I loved what he did. He created a sort of archaic Shakespearean dialog that was accessible, not just to a modern audience but an American audience—and I don’t mean anything detrimental about that.”
DeKnight reiterated, adding, “It wasn’t easy, and it was perhaps the one thing that created the biggest arguments in development. I call it Shakespeare meets Robert E. Howard. I studied as a playwright and combined the best elements of Shakespeare and Conan the Barbarian. During the first script conference people were saying, ‘what does this line mean? I don’t know what anybody’s saying?’ So I had to dial it back and it took a couple of episodes to dial it in. One thing people asked about was the use of modern curse words. And I had to explain to them that they did have these words, they were just in Latin. Asked about the sociology of Rome Spartacus depicts, DeKnight observed, “We did some background research and we had two experts on hand, but I’ve always said, one shouldn’t write a term paper based on our Spartacus, because our first job is to entertain.”
Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) had her own problems. In the first season, she’s humbled by Ilithyia (Viva Bianca), then humiliates her in a smartly executed masked sexcapade that suddenly backfires when Ilithyia loses it and smashes the skull of Licinia, one of the richest women in Rome. Asked how she felt about that violent scene, Bianca exclaimed, “Lucretia lost almost everything in that moment and her life changed forever.” Asked about the outfits and masks she wore, Bianca replied, “They were absolutely fantastic.” Will she be back in season 2? “Yes, I’ll definitely be back in flying colors and so will Glaber. We’ll be going into more of our relationship.” Did she study the life of Roman women? “I did a bit of reading on that. The women in Rome had more rights than those in ancient Greece. They had a lot of power over their men back then, if you look at Ilithyia and Lucretia and the influence they had over their husbands, you can see that.”
The six-episode Gods of the Arena prequel delivered Spartacus on steroids. More sex, more blood, and some classic movie moments worthy of serious beer party palaver. Here, Gannicus (Dustin Clare) is the “rock star” that dispatches his opponents with a Tom Cruise bad-boy smile. After an opponent nicks him, Gannicus brazenly drops his sword and defeats him barehanded. Later, he defeats a muscle-bound mutant while blindfolded. Then it’s cheap Roman wine and whores all night for the champion of Capua.
Later, when high-ranking Roman, Tullius (Stephen Lovat), beat and humiliated Batiatus, Batiatus, Gannicus, and Oenomaus do an “et tu Brute” on him and “Cask of Amontillado” his corpus into the new area (which Tullius financed). The one sour note that many viewers objected to was the arena execution of slave Diona (Jessica Grace Smith) after being brutally deflowered by a Roman aristocrat in a sex orgy hosted by Lucretia.
The main event in the season finale of Gods of the Arena was everything bored Romans could hope for. A sine missione match up of the houses of Batiatus and Solonius. Confined by a ring of fire, the spectacularly staged and choreographed contests pitted Batiatus’ skilled titans against Solonius’ diaper-wearing mutants who had greater numbers and lesser skills. The final winner secured not only champion bragging rights but freedom.
There’s obviously much more to tell. But with DVDs coming out (all loaded with eye-opening bonus features), it’s best left to watch–and wait, because friends, Romans and countrymen, the saga continues in the upcoming 13-episode Spartacus: Vengeance.