NEW YORK — REVIVALS are all the rage these days. "Spartacus," the 1960 epic with Kirk Douglas as a rebellious slave in ancient Rome, has returned in an edition several minutes longer than the "official" version that's been shown until now. And the Orson Welles classic "Citizen Kane," first released in 1941, is back this season for a 50th-anniversary celebration. It's fun to have both of these movies back in theaters, but they're hardly of equal merit. Big and beautiful as it is, the saga of Spartacus is relegated promptly to the minor leagues by the story of Charles Foster Kane.
Although few moviegoers were aware of it at the time, "Spartacus" arrived on the screen in 1960 fresh from a session with the censors, who had decided that a few minutes of footage were in bad taste and had to be excised. The frames they clipped away look pretty tame 31 years later - a few seconds of battlefield violence, and a weird scene with Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis that has obvious homosexual overtones.
It's interesting to get a belated look at this material, which has earned the reissue a PG-13 rating. But overall "Spartacus" looks rather dull today, full of eye-dazzling shots and eloquent dialogue scenes that don't know when to quit. It's not surprising that director Stanley Kubrick has shown little eagerness to talk about the film in recent years, or that critics have habitually shown more interest in a Kubrick picture like "2001: A Space Odyssey," which really is a masterpiece.
The most interesting thing about "Spartacus" isn't its cinematic quality but rather its political subtext; the screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, a once-persecuted member of Hollywood's beleaguered left-wing community during the years of blacklisting and House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, and it includes pointed references to the undesirability of informing on one's colleagues and accepting state oppression.
The most important thing about the film's revival is the hard work Universal Pictures and the American Film Institute have put into restoring the movie, reminding us how fragile our cinema heritage is. "Spartacus" isn't one of the great American films, but it's sad to imagine its once-controversial moments disintengrating in a vault somewhere because nobody cared enough to dig them out and give us a chance to judge them.
By contrast with "Spartacus," the edition of "Citizen Kane" now playing is the same that has always been shown in the past, except for shiny new prints that Paramount Pictures has made to celebrate the anniversary. And a good thing, too, since "Kane" is almost unique among Welles pictures for having arrived on-screen in the form its director intended. Its reputation as one of the most celebrated American films ever made is due partly to its own merits, and partly to the fact that many other contenders f o
r the all-time-10-best list have strikes against them: "The Birth of a Nation" is racist, "Gone With the Wind" is more flashy than thoughtful, "Casablanca" has been called a family reunion of cliches, and box-office champs like "Star Wars" and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" are looked down on by some critics even though they're loved by matinee-goers and vidoecassette viewers.
Incredible as it seems, "Citizen Kane" lost money at the box office during its original run, starting what became a permanent slide in Mr. Welles's moviemaking career. But the film has acquired a rich and almost legendary history since its premiere - enraging conservative powers in the '40s, capturing imaginations all over the world in later years, and still prompting lively discussion among cinema professionals and casual movie fans alike.
Although some find it hollow and showy, like its own unfortunate hero, most consider it a true masterpiece. And its influence on filmmakers, today as in the '40s through the '80s, has been liberating and profound.