Produced by maverick film maker Samuel Bronston at a crippling cost of $28 million, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is by far the most ambitious trek into antiquity ever undertaken. With its startlingly contemporary score by Dimitri Tiomkin and its impressive cast of international headlining stars, in every way the film has been designed to boggle the mind – and it does. The gargantuan Roman Forum set alone – designed by John Moore and Peter Colasanti - covers a staggering 1/3 of a mile; its 27 three dimensional structures – built as functional free standing buildings, complete with 350 statues utilizing over 33,000 gallons of paint - each meticulously crafted down to the last minute detail.
Initially the project had been brought to Bronston’s attention by Mann after the latter read Edward Gibbon’s lengthy historical account, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Bronston saw the film as a way of reuniting stars Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston. The two had yielded big box office for Bronston in El Cid (1961). Heston however, perceiving the project as too close in scope and subject matter to his own Ben-Hur (1959), declined the offer.
Furthermore, Heston’s working relationship with Sophia Loren on El Cid had yielded a mutual disdain that the actor chose wisely to avoid encountering again. Hence, Bronston cast Heston in 55 Days in Peking instead, handing over the part of Livius to Ben-Hur alumni Stephen Boyd. The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who with plum roles going to Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, James Mason, John Ireland, Omar Sharif, Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quayle.
It is evident, though nevertheless prudent to illustrate the point that the purpose of all historical epics is not to provide literal translations of the historical record. Rather, their primary purpose is to entertain, and on that score, The Fall of the Roman Empire is an overwhelming success. However, at the time of its general release most critics did not agree with this assessment. In fact, the film received near unanimously scathing reviews and was dismissed as an elephantine bore.
Whether its’ dark and intricately woven narrative by screen scenarists Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina and Philip Yorden left the popcorn set stultified, or the fact that by 1964 toga spectacles were on their way out had anything to do with the critical failure of the film is difficult to assess. One thing's for sure: 'Empire's' financial debacle can be squarely blamed on the mitigating circumstance of its runaway budget that in today’s dollars would make The Fall of the Roman Empire second only to James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) as the costly movie ever produced.
The plot begins in earnest on the last length of Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s (Alec Guinness) Germanic campaign. Aurelius’ ambitious plans for a Pax Romana, where all men will live free under an umbrella of brotherly peace is nearly complete. However, the barbarian hoards under Ballomar (John Ireland) prove a very powerful adversary. Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren) believes in her father’s dream, as does her lover, warrior Livius (Stephen Boyd) and Aurelius’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason). All of this disinterests Aurelius’ son Commodus (Christopher Plummer), a sycophant worshipper of beauty whose greatest pleasure in life is his gladiator training with General Verulus (Anthony Quayle). Commodus openly tells his father that he would have done things differently, forcing Aurelius to choose Livius as his heir and successor to the throne.
Unfortunately, before Aurelius’ plans can be made law he is poisoned by the devious blind servant, Cleander (Mel Ferrer) who also seeks to manipulate the throne from within. Though Livius and Lucilla suspect murder and fraud, Livius accepts Commodus as the new Caesar to quell dissension within the realm. It is a choice Livius will live to regret.
Drunk on power, Commodus initiates a ruthless reign of terror, designed to undo all that his father has created. Rome ceases to be a benevolent center of the human world. Ballomar revolts, captures and tortures Timonides. However, Timonides loyalty to the state as he faces death and Livius’ benevolence toward Ballomar and his people convince the barbarians to live in enforced peace under Roman law.
Lucilla plots the overthrow of her brother, but is married off by Commodus to Sohamus (Omar Sharif) the King of Armenia. Meanwhile, against the strenuous objection of Commodus, Livius asks Timonides to plead his case for the barbarians to become Roman citizens, under the philosophical presumption that an empire only dies when the people living within its boundaries lose faith in its glory and power. The Roman Senate sides with Livius, sparking Commodus's psychotic rage. He exiles Livius and Lucilla to opposite ends of his empire. Deviously, Commodus woos Livius back into the fold after a revolt of the Eastern provinces under Sohamus fails.
The pax Romana is forever shattered when Commodus orders the prosperous barbarian village burned, killing Timonides in the process. Livius is commanded by Commodus to randomly crucify 5000 people from each of the regions that revolted under Sohamus as an abject lesson the state's authority over its peoples – an edict rejected by Livius who is thereafter captured and chained to a pillar in the public square where he will be burned at the stake along with the surviving barbarians.
Now for the shocker; Commodus learns that he is not Aurelius’s son but rather Verulus’s. To conceal this truth, Commodus murders Verulus while Lucilla looks on, forcing her to flee into the streets where she is capture and chained next to Livius.
To assert his divinity, Commodus frees Livius for a battle to the death in the public square. Livius is wounded, but Commodus is killed. The barbarians are burned to death. However, Livius manages to save Lucilla. He is offered the state as his victory by the Senate, rejecting it outright even as he recognizes that Rome’s supremacy as the master of the world’s domains has come to a most bitter and tragic end.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is a dark epic indeed – its finale void of the clichéd exaltations inherent in the human spirit or externalizing of eternal redemption a la the will of God that are so readily apparent themes in films like The Robe (1954) and Ben-Hur (1959). Undoubtedly, the story resonates more profoundly with our own brooding post-modern cynicism.
Reportedly, some 40 minutes of plot were excised to whittle the film to its girth 3 hour road show presentation. Lost in these cuts where scenes depicting Lucilla plotting to have Commodus killed, as well as Commodus’ bloody cry of “Father!” after murdering Verulus.
Acting throughout is solid – but particularly from Plummer, Boyd, Mason and Guinness. Mann’s direction keeps the story’s pace swift and assured. We get both spectacle and substance – a rarity. In the final analysis, The Fall of the Roman Empire is superb, thought-provoking entertainment.
Miriam Entertainment and Genius Productions deliver a superb DVD transfer on three discs. Though flesh tones still have a tendency to appear slightly pasty – particularly during the first half of the film, on the whole color fidelity is robust and engaging. The reds in the Roman capes are blood red. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are crisp and refined.
A considerable amount of fine detail is gleaned from the Ultra-Panavision negative for a beautiful visual presentation that will surely NOT disappoint. The audio is a 5.1 re-channeling of the original six track magnetic stereo masters and provides an enveloping sonic mix.
Extras include a running audio commentary throughout the film and a ‘making of’ documentary that is somewhat of a disappointment since it is largely comprised of clips excised from the documentary on Samuel Bronston already available as an extra on Miriam’s El Cid disc. (Aside: it would have been gratifying to have commentary provided by Christopher Plummer and Sophia Loren – the last two surviving cast members).
There’s also a Hollywood Vs. History documentary and another on Dimitri Tiomkin and his score that are informative – if brief. Disc Three includes several short films produced for Encyclopedia Britannica to provide historical record on the actual Roman Forum. There are also production stills and the film’s theatrical trailer to wade through.
It should be pointed out that there is no difference in the disc content regardless of whether you purchase the 3-disc edition or ‘deluxe box set’ (see cover art above). The only additional extras in the deluxe box are a reprint of the original press kit and some reproductions of lobby cards. Bottom line on either version: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)