The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) dir. Anthony Mann
Starring: Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer
“The Fall of the Roman Empire” has been one of more famous colossal failures in Hollywood history. Samuel Bronston produced the film on the heels of the success of his previous gargantuan undertaking, “El Cid”. “Fall” was even bigger than “El Cid”. Along with “Cleopatra” it helped spell the death of epic sword and sandal films of the late 50’s, early 60’s. Watching the film with today’s eyes it’s a glorious experience. Bigger truly is better with massive real world sets, thousands of extras, and horses, and shot in ultra-Panavision 70mm.
The opening monologue sets the time and place. The narrator admits the fall of the real Empire was a lengthy, ‘slow-burning’ process, but the film tells of a specific time where the political follies of the day were representative of the downfall. It's 180AD during the transition from the great Emperor Marcus Aurilius (Alec Guinness) to his obnoxious tyrannical son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer). If these names ring a bell, they’re the same characters from Ridley Scott’s "Gladiator", as played by Richard Harris and Joaquin Phoenix. In Northern Spain Marcus Aurilius has assembled representatives from all the Roman territories and has called for peace, ushering in his 'Pax Romana'.
But Aurilius is ill and doesn’t have long to live. He makes a brash decision to make his loyal military commander Livius (Stephen Boyd) heir to his throne. Unfortunately Livius happens to be best friends with Aurilius’ son Commodus. This causes a feud between the friends which will cause the chaotic infighting which would help bring down the Empire. When Aurilius passes on, Commodus takes command away from Livius. While negotiating the complex politics, Livius desperately tries to find love with Commodus' sister Lucilla (Sophia Loren) whom Aurilius had sent to Armenia to marry it’s Prince. Commodus’ mind gets crazier and crazier resulting in complete chaos and the beginning of the end for Rome.
The film is structured in two halves. The first half, set in the glorious mountains of Northern Spain, is a breezy 90mins which set up the character, conflict and action of the second. It’s also the most engrossing thanks to Alec Guinness’ wonderful performance as Emperor Aurilius. His conflict is internal as he’s forced to put the needs of the State ahead of his family. Aurilius must sacrifice his family bond in order to set an example for how Rome should be run when he passes on.
The second half of the film moves to Rome. A full scale replica of the Roman Forum was built in Madrid. It was so massive and detailed it became a tourist attraction after the filming. For the final chaotic jubilee scene, director Mann assembled thousands of extras to fill the set. The elative jubilation of the drunken crowd plays against the emotional trauma of Commodus’s witch-hunt. It's a startling scene of organized chaos.
While Plummer plays a great crazed baddie, Stephen Boyd can't carry the hero-torch passed down from Alec Guinness. His handsome matinee-idol good looks doesn't keep with the acting talents of his co-stars. And even with the three hour running time some of many plotlines are inadequately fleshed out. Specifically Anthony Quayle’s character Verulus who is Commodus’ gladiator commander. Though he appears in a couple scenes training with Commodus, nothing sets up the shocking twist finale. As well Omar Sharif’s Somhamus character, the Armenian prince whom Lucilla is married off to, is never even given a close-up and barely 4 or 5 lines of dialogue.
But it's the grand spectacle that triumphs over character. The production design and cinematography is breathtaking. Since it was shot in 70mm, the image is a sharp and clean, with every detail in the frame discernable. Watch Aurilius’ funeral scene. Shot in a light snow fall, the flakes of white contrast the black uniforms of the soldiers, and black smoke from the lit fires in the background. And off in the distance, hundreds of torches create immaculately textured depth to the frame – a clear influence on Ridley Scott’s version of the film.
“The Fall of the Roman Empire” should certainly not serve as research for your school paper. Historical accuracy took a backseat to spectacle, and Sam Bronston delivered his one of the greatest epic films. The film has never received the respect it deserves. But with Hollywood history behind us, it’s time to put the film into the upper echelon of grand epics. Enjoy.
"The Fall of the Roman Empire" is available on 3-Disc Special Edition DVD from the Weinstein Company in the U.S. and Alliance Films in Canada.