Produced by maverick film maker, Samuel Bronston at a jaw-dropping cost of $28 million, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is by far the most ambitious cinematic trek into Roman antiquity ever undertaken. With its startlingly contemporary score by Dimitri Tiomkin and its impressive international roster of stars, from Alec Guinness to Sophia Loren, from James Mason to Christopher Plummer, and Stephen Boyd, John Ireland, Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, Findlay Currie (I’ll stop now, but you get my drift), in every way ‘Fall’ was meant to dwarf audiences’ expectations. Only a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants showman like Samuel Bronston could have pulled off such a feat; and only Bronston, it seems, would be made to pay the price for endeavoring to scale such heights so fast. It should be remembered that Samuel Bronston produced virtually one spectacle per annum for an uninterrupted run beginning in 1961 with El Cid and ending a scant three years later with Circus World. Regrettably, The Fall of the Roman Empire catches Bronston on his way down. The gargantuan Roman Forum set alone – designed by Veniero Moore and Peter Colasanti - covered a staggering third of a mile with 27 three dimensionally built structures – able to function as free-standing buildings rather than false fronts. These were augmented by 350 plaster cast statues, utilizing over 33,000 gallons of paint. That the real ‘fall’ on display became the astonishing implosion of Bronston’s independently managed studio in Madrid seems to prove an old axiom about never allowing a true creative his freedom, lest he run both it and himself into the ground.
But actually, the Bessarabian-born Broston, who died penniless in Sacramento, California in 1994, was unwittingly the victim of others’ greed. The jury is still out as to how many who came to Spain to work on these too few screen spectacles were only there to drink from the trough until the proverbial well had run dry. But there is enough evidence to suggest Bronston would have preferred to make money for every last one of his financial backers, most notably, the du Ponts with whom his ongoing and very public battle ultimately turned his good name into mud. To suggest Samuel Bronston was a visionary is perhaps a stretch. Although he believed in the proliferation of film as art, there was nothing particularly cutting edge about his approach to film-making. What set Bronston apart from virtually all his contemporaries was his inexhaustible optimism and showmanship, plus his insatiable ability to convince others of the feasibility in his schemes.
In hindsight, Bronston and his adopted country – Spain – were a perfect fit. Neither was particularly well received abroad. Both were in line for a major public image overhaul and each had their sights set on expanding new horizons. Under the totalitarian regime of General Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teodulo Franco y Bahamonde (Franco, for short), nationalist Spain had existed as its own enviable and insular thiefdom, perceived as a danger to the free democratic nations of the world. Indeed, Franco held to the same fascist principles as Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, with no international trade and an economically backward approach to foreign investment. Investors were free to put their money into his country. They just couldn’t take any of it out! Even with this rigid structure in place, independent Hollywood film makers like Stanley Kramer and Robert Rossen had managed to shoot movies there. Ultimately, such investment could be summed up in one word – cheap. Apart from the agreeably climate, Spain’s cost of labor was a mere tuppence, and this at a time when Hollywood’s production costs were skyrocketing wildly out of control.
Bronston had a different slant than most. If, as Rossen and Kramer had proven films could be made in Spain more grandly and cheaply, why leave the country after the shoot was over? Why not establish a permanent facility to take full advantage year round? Into this brainstorm, Bronston reformulated ties he had established in Washington with the Rockefellers and the Pierponts; two of the most influential and wealthy dynasties in the United States. Pierre du Pont III wielded considerable clout in the Du Pont Corporation. Moreover, he had more than a slight Cecil B. DeMille complex, unfulfilled at home, but destined for greatness via his considerable investment in Bronston’s Madrid-based operations…or so he naively believed. Du Pont ought to have read the fine print on their agreement. The onus for repayment on his loans was not based on Bronston’s box office success. Should Bronston fail to produce a hit film, the responsibility to pay back the creditors reverted back to du Pont.
For outside investments, Bronston employed a savvy ‘pre-sell’ marketing philosophy. While quite common today, this was virtually unheard of during his time. In essence, Bronston would shoot some of his biggest and most impressive set pieces first, despite the fact he had neither the time nor funds to complete. This footage would be processed at Technicolor and then go on a whirlwind tour with a sales pitch made to potential distributors/investors to cut a check for the necessary moneys required to finish his movie. Alas, the bait and switch could only succeed if the movie itself became a smash hit. At the same time, a financial arrangement between Bronston and the Franco government, involving the oil industry, afforded Bronston a license to act as an intermediary in the purchase and import of oil on Spain’s behalf; Bronston purchasing raw crude at a fixed price on the open market, then turning around and selling it to Spanish refineries for a considerably higher price, skimming the differential off the top and funneling it back into his film productions.
For du Pont, the Bronston oil deal – if slightly crooked - was something of a failsafe. What it boils down to is ‘legal’ money laundering. Since no investment in the Spanish economy could be refurbished in anything other than Pesetas – the national currency – and du Pont would only accept remuneration in American dollars - du Pont’s sale of oil to Bronston was to be repaid by the international monies accrued from Bronston’s completed movies, based on the blind understanding each would obviously turn a profit. Meanwhile, the Franco government was repaid in the court of popular opinion; officially recognized as a tourist Mecca. Bronston kept up this illusion by inviting an endless stream of dignitaries and stars to his studio; the glitterati parading through the gates, rich foreigners with lots of money to spend.
As was usually the case with Bronston, he had more than one project on the go. Hence, even after construction on the sets for The Fall of the Roman Empire was already well underway, the producer came back to Charlton Heston – his good luck charm in El Cid (1961) – with another script for 55 Days at Peking (1963). Heston’s reticence to commit to ‘Fall’ may have had something to do with the fact he had already starred in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959); two of the most successful sword and sandal spectacles of all time. More directly, his ultimate refusal was likely based on the thoroughly unpleasant working relationship Heston had on the set of El Cid with his co-star, Sophia Loren – already slated to co-star in The Fall of the Roman Empire. To keep Heston happy, Bronston tore down the outdoor sets already begun for ‘Fall’ to erect an exact replica of China’s Forbidden City for 55 Days at Peking (1963). Unhappy chance, the latter proved less of a dynamo at the box office than El Cid, putting a considerable strain on Bronston’s studio finances. With little to suggest he could recoup what had already been lost on his next venture, Bronston dove headstrong and feet first into The Fall of the Roman Empire, an exact replica of the Roman forum rising from the dusty Spanish landscape at a staggering cost.
To imply Bronston’s approach to budgeting was laissez faire is to understate the enormity of the blood-letting going on behind the scenes. Indeed, both the Forbidden City and Roman Forum sets, designed down to the last detail by production manager, C.O. ‘Doc’ Erikson, were not only built to scale, but also three dimensionally, affording their respective directors a multiplicity of camera angles. Ironically, cinematographer, Robert Krasker chose to utilize very little of the Roman forum in the finished film. Apart from a few startling long shots, Krasker’s work almost exclusively concentrates on the famous faces set before it. Even more of an oddity, his lack of artistic license did not particularly concern Bronston, who derived a certain amount of pleasure from entertaining visiting dignitaries, particularly historians of Roman antiquity who were utterly flabbergasted by its jaw-dropping scope, size and historical accuracy. Good showmanship on Bronston’s part, although, in hindsight, very bad planning in terms of achieving profitability for the future.
So long as Bronston could be assured a rollover of profits from one ‘super production’ into the next, this precarious cycle made his film-making empire completely renewable – especially, on paper. Unfortunately for Bronston, 55 Days at Peking did not perform as well as expected, and neither did The Fall of the Roman Empire. When Erikson approached Bronston with a whopping $9,000,000.00 budget for ‘Fall’ – of which Bronston had only secured seven and a half – the producer fastidiously went to work procuring more outsider investment to make up the difference rather than trim his costs down to compensate for a revised bottom line. It appears as though Samuel Bronston’s motives for investing heavily in movies that, comparatively speaking, returned very little to his coffers, was more an artistic pursuit misguidedly eschewing the necessary crass commercialism to make it click. The flipside to Bronston’s penultimate demise after the release of ‘Fall’ was his inability to wriggle out from under this quagmire he had created; his entrusted colleagues suddenly vanishing into the woodwork with mismanaged funds spent elsewhere along the way, taking advantage of Bronston’s hospitality to the point of no return and bankrupting his Spanish adventure into an embarrassing debacle with social ramifications to follow.
For Pierre du Pont, the fallout was immediate and decidedly humiliating. When several defaulted loans made to the Bronston organization found their way back to his desk, following the doomed release of The Fall of the Roman Empire, du Pont was forced to pay out in excess of several million dollars to gloss over and appease the creditors. His chagrin extended to his impeccable line of credit, enough to oust du Pont from the family business he had inherited; a very public humiliation du Pont never forgot, forgave or had any quam about entirely blaming Samuel Bronston. Thereafter, du Pont made it his life-long purpose to destroy Bronston’s reputation. The release of Circus World (1964) notwithstanding, Samuel Bronston’s next project; Paris 1900 never went beyond the planning stage, chiefly because Bronston was quickly to discover he could not gain enough trust or interest to produce it.
It is too easy to blame Samuel Bronston. Point taken: Bronston’s finesse in matters of business had always lacked refinement. Yet, despite a federal investigation into ‘secret’ bank accounts in Switzerland (that earned two indictments against him before being overturned in the Supreme Court), the unvarnished truth regarding Bronston’s personal finances was he made virtually little or nothing off his pictures that had not already been reinvested on another project; that he left Spain in disgrace and practically penniless, and, was forced to live on a meager social security check of $367.00 a month, his children supporting him for the rest of his years. In the last twelve, Bronston never stopped planning his big comeback, despite the onset of Alzheimer’s. But the illness did much to slow him down. He died of pneumonia on January 12, 1994 in Sacramento California. As per his request, he was buried in his beloved Madrid.
All this is a most unhappy epilogue to The Fall of the Roman Empire, the final flourish and disintegration of Bronston’s movie-making empire in Spain. Initially, the project had been brought to Bronston’s attention by director, Anthony Mann after reading Edward Gibbons’ lengthy history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, Gibbons did not view the onset of Christianity as thematically responsible for Rome’s ultimate demise; a perspective carried over into the finished film and making it quite unique amongst the usual Roman screen spectacles. Mann, who had cut his teeth in Hollywood as a scout on Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) before directing a series of highly successful B-budget noir thrillers throughout the decade, and later, in the 1950s, A-list westerns tinged with noir undertones, came to The Fall of the Roman Empire well versed in the construction of the epic. He had, after all, directed second unit on the burning of Rome for MGM’s titanic production of Quo Vadis (1951); had shot a considerable portion of Spartacus (1960) before a rift with actor/producer, Kirk Douglas resulted in his removal from the picture, and, had shot El Cid (1961) for Bronston; by far, his biggest and brightest epic to date. Bronston saw The Fall of the Roman Empire as a reunion picture for Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston. The two stars had yielded big box office in El Cid (1961). It is unclear exactly when Bronston realized this screen reteaming was not to be. But Heston evidently made it quite obvious he had no intention of reprising his co-starring status opposite Carlo Ponti’s Italian Cinderella; disheartening for Bronston, who enjoyed working with familiar faces – particularly those responsible for making him a lot of money. Undaunted, Bronston cast Heston in 55 Days in Peking instead, handing over the plum part of Livius in ‘Fall’ to Chuck’s Ben-Hur costar, Stephen Boyd. The Irish born Boyd had carved a niche for himself in Hollywood and, by mid-decade, had proven his acting diversity.
Moreover, he was already a known quantity to audiences and could hold his own in the oft feminizing, and occasionally overpowering attire befitting a Roman General. For the rest of the cast, Bronston assembled a who’s who of the most celebrated actors of their generation, falling back on the time-honored principle of casting Brits as Romans. But his ‘look who’s here’ mentality, with its memorable parade of famous faces, at least in retrospect, tends to marginally take the audience out of the story, veering dangerously close to the travelogue tomes in Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). Even so, the picture is immeasurably blessed to have such a wellspring of talent on tap. Ultimately, The Fall of the Roman Empire became the victim of very bad timing. Released on the heels of President Kennedy’s assassination, and in a year of frothy and lighthearted entertainments capped off by Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), an anesthetizing elixir to buffer their thought-numbing national grief, ‘Fall’s’ dour perspective on this imploding superpower corrupted from within was a message that perhaps struck much too close to home for then, contemporary tastes.
It should be evident, though nevertheless prudent to illustrate the purpose of all historical epics is not primarily to provide a literal historical record in moving tableau. Like all filmed art, its primary object should be to entertain. Yet, even on this score, The Fall of the Roman Empire is somewhat misguided, uneven and flawed. Its historical accuracies get in the way of the drama…or is it the other way around? The whole movie has a very episodic quality, one that, in general, does not endear itself to our conventional appreciation for a rich and vibrant spectacle. What is most impressive about the movie is everything is achieved full scale and without the benefit (or illusion, for that matter) of optical effects and/or matte work. What you see is precise what was there; the titanic scale, awe-inspiring to say the least. Alas, when it debuted, ‘Fall’ received unanimously scathing reviews. Almost without fail, it was dismissed as an elephantine bore. Whether the epic’s waning popularity had anything really to do with its’ critical backlash is a moot point. The dark undercurrent of death and destruction, intricately woven into the narrative by screen scenarists, Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina and Philip Yorden, left the popcorn sect stultified. In some ways, the movie plays much better today, in an era where cynicism in the arts runs ramped.
The premise is set up beautifully with Dimitri Tiomkin’s main title; not pomp and circumstance, but a pipe organ dirge; the narration that immediately follows, suggesting two of the most mystifying and elusive historical facts about Rome relate to its meteoric rise and epic crumble; the Pax Romana so desperately desired by the benevolent and world-weary Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) hastened into an amoral decline under the autocratic rule of the murderous and mad, Commodus (Christopher Plummer). As our narrator points out, the death of a civilization is never an event, but a process. We are brought into this sad-eyed spectacle of an emperor, whose thirst for conquest having long since cooled, is strained for purpose during his latest campaign against Germanic forces. Aurelius’s ever-loyal advisor, Timonides (James Mason) is empathetic and a closeted Christian. These early scenes were shot during the steely blue-gray of dawn with only a crack of golden sunlight fast fading in the distance. While virtually all of The Fall of The Roman Empire was shot in Spain, director Anthony Mann had a little help from Mother Nature during this opening sequence. The script called for snow, a commodity in short supply in Spain. Miraculously the weather obliged Mann, bringing down the biggest storm to hit Spain in fifty years and saving Bronston the added expense of having to fake a blizzard with pulverized gypsum and asbestos.
As a matter of record, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) bears a striking resemblance to ‘Fall’, the revised historical record as embellished for the screen by Barzman, Franchina and Yordan the template employed for Scott’s loose remake. We meet our central love interests; the unerring and noble General Gaius Livius (Boyd) and Lucilla (Sophia Loren), the philosopher/daughter of the Emperor. Ironically, their love is complicated by a great chasm in their political views, also by the vengeful manipulations of Lucilla’s elder brother, Commodus (Christopher Plummer). We move from the starkness of dawn to the noonday resplendence of vast armies gathering at Aurelius’ request. These galloping brigades were on loan from Franco’s vast military stables; the pride of Spain on display in these valiant beasts and horsemanship in particular, creating an impressive assemblage of Rome’s neighboring nations, come to hear Aurelius’ plans for golden centuries of peace. Alas, this moment is fraught with a mortal tragedy; Aurelius’ unwillingness to bend to the unholy surprise; that life’s great moments are often doomed to break in the end, our blistering fire meant to burn out in a faded flicker.
In hindsight, ‘Fall’ is as much a tribute to Samuel Brontson’s profligacy as it remains a fashion parade of painstakingly recreated costuming by Veniero Colasanti and John Moore; each garment made of genuine leather, real metal breastplates and fur. For years afterward, Samuel Bronston would take great pride in this accomplishment, adding, “We rented nothing. We made everything.” After Bronston’s company imploded, virtually all these costumes and props vanished overnight from their warehouse storage facilities, presumably into the hands of private collectors throughout Spain, and eventually, the world. Will Durante, a famous historian of his time, was hired by Bronston as a consultant. Alas, Bronston and Durante parted on less than amicable terms; Durante upset that history had been altered for entertainment purposes. He might have better realized Hollywood is not in the business of making documentaries.
After Aurelius’ shining hour, he retreats in pain to his bedchamber, attended by his devoted daughter and Livius; the blind sage and soothsayer, Cleander (Mel Ferrer) already knowing his emperor is dying of cancer. Aurelius entrusts the future of Rome to Livius over his own son. Indeed, Commodus is spoilt and insincere; jealous and easily distracted. He would rule Rome as a penetrating autocracy. Livius is humbled and startled by the appointment. He is, after all, an adopted son rather than the legitimate heir. And Aurelius’ decision is sure to infuriate Commodus while driving a wedge into the heart of their friendship. Nevertheless, their initial reunion is playful; Commodus overjoyed to see his best friend and father looking so well. He is less enchanted by Lucilla, whom he has dubbed the vestal virgin; Aurelius acknowledging the two have been quarrelsome and confrontational almost since birth. Aurelius has an even more unpleasant surprise in store for Lucilla; her betrothal to the Armenian king, Sohamus (Omar Sharif); a marriage of state meant to secure a peaceful alliance on Rome’s eastern borders.
The first order of business for Commodus is a competitive drinking game with Livius. Commodus inquires, “Did you study logic? Do you know what a dilemma is?” to which an inebriated Livius replies, “When there are only two possibilities and both are impossible…that is a dilemma!” Alas, a scene that was to immediately have followed, differentiating clearly Livius’ politics from Commodus’, was excised by Paramount – the U.S. distributors of The Fall of the Roman Empire, before its theatrical debut. Instead, we jump ahead to a night of drunken debauchery, Commodus unable to force himself on a terrified prostitute, stumbling back to seek Livius’ acceptance. Livius, however, is a solemn drunk – or rather, still able to see clearly beyond the haze of his alcoholic stupor. In light of Aurelius’ decision to appoint him to the seat of power, has suddenly become quite aware the Emperor has made the only choice for the security and safety of the empire. Commodus would make a disastrous leader, his stifling egotism and lack of compassion destined to lead to ruin.
Livius and Lucilla renew their passion for one another. It is the last respite before all hell breaks loose; Aurelius ordering his sons into battle after learning of a Germanic plot afoot in the forests just beyond, but not before he has revealed to Commodus his grave decision to overlook him in the line of succession. It is a bitter pill to swallow and Commodus proves how fickle his love is by divesting himself of all emotional warmth towards either his father or best friend. Commodus is determined to prove his worth against these barbarians by taking a small army of his gladiatorial forces into the woods. They are ambushed and almost immediate overrun, forcing Livius to forge the vast Roman garrison on a rescue mission. Both Bronston and Mann agreed implicitly the focus of these battle sequences would be on the human drama instead of the morbidity to fashion a bloody spectacle from the obvious carnage. The results speak for themselves; a myriad of amazing stunt work, beautifully stitched together by editor, Robert Lawrence for maximum effect. We are treated to exhilarating action without the gore.
Afterward, Livius is required to set an example of his newfound authority by punishing the gladiatorial forces for defying his direct order. Commodus refuses to allow for this, sparking an impromptu chariot race through the dense forests. Staged by Yakima Canutt (responsible for the breathtaking chariot race in Ben-Hur), this confrontation created more fervor amongst the critics as a shameless rehash of the aforementioned sequence in the 1959 film. In fact, the race in Ben-Hur had been designed to accentuate the triumph of Christ’s influence over Rome’s seemingly unstoppable might. In ‘Fall’; the race caps off an emphasis on the diverging political viewpoints of these two men; their friendship reduced to mortal enemies.
Parted at the last possible moment and thus prevented from destroying one another, the wounds inflicted on Commodus’ ego continue to fester. Cleander sets a conspiratorial plot into motion; poisoning the Emperor’s fruit to hasten the ascendancy of a new Roman order. Either out of pity or magnanimity, neither reason good enough, Livius makes the wretched decision to betray his own heart and Aurelius’ final wishes by relinquishing the throne to Commodus. As Commodus prepares to light the pyre on which his late father’s remains are displayed he cannot contain the wicked thin grin of satisfaction permeating his lips. As consolation, Commodus appoints Livius his Captain of the Roman Guard and pro-counsel, second only in rank to himself. We retreat from these relatively cold and inhospitable conditions to the sundrenched warmth of Rome in all her glory. Here, in this decadent metropolis, Commodus vacillates; the thronging masses crying out their adoration.
At this juncture is inserted an intermission; a chance for the audience to meditate on all that has gone on thus far. The tone afterward turns from elation to solemnity once more as Lucilla arrives at the great temple library, entrusting the entire written history of her late father to their care before departing the city with Sohamus. Commodus’ edicts are swift and terrifying. He vows to undo all that his father has done; to rule as nothing like Aurelius would have wished, merely to be different. Commodus further commands that his eastern provinces produce twice as much grain as before so all Rome’s inhabitants may be fed; furthermore, their taxes are to be doubled immediately. When it is explained this simply cannot be done, since there is extreme poverty and a drought plaguing the eastern region, Commodus instructs his representatives to anticipate rebellion and to meet it by mercilessly crushing all those who oppose his will as Caesar. Livius finds himself embroiled in an unjust war against the barbarians, led by Ballomar (John Ireland). Far from a massacre, however, Livius places his captors in chains, sending Timonides to make the peace. Timonides’ Christian faith is put to the test when Ballomar repeatedly burns his hand with a torch. If his God is so powerful he will give Timonides the strength to free himself. Timonides proves unable to do just that. However, he does not cry out from the extreme pain being inflicted upon him as this would signal the Roman legions to put the barbarians to death. Ballomar is most impressed by Timonides, particularly as he redoubles his efforts to forge an alliance with them on Rome’s behalf, despite their cruelty shown him.
A short while later, Lucilla returns to Rome, finding Commodus at play in his gladiator’s training school with Verulus (Anthony Quayle); his beloved teacher. Although neither Commodus nor the audience knows it yet, Verulus is really Commodus’ father. Lucilla’s return to Rome is met with skepticism by Commodus. Livius’ return home is preceded by rumors he is plotting against Commodus; to remake the sort of Pax Romana Aurelius had so desperately desired but had failed to create in his own lifetime. Commodus tempts Livius, moreover promising him Lucilla in exchange for a sacrifice of his principles. Instead, Livius appeals to the Roman senate to consider what it would mean to make peace with the barbarians, employing Timonides’ persuasive logic to help sway them to reconsider a Rome without bloodshed; where Roman law may still appeal to the vanquished without any bitterness or resentment – because ultimate freedom is attained through kindness shown its conquered in place of the sword. Timonides reasons that free men produce more than slaves ever could because they are invested in the outcome of a free market enterprise. “Let us then do what is profitable,” Timonides concludes, “- and right!”
A note of dissention is offered by Julianus (Eric Porter), who believes Rome will be viewed as weak by others if it allows these barbarians to live and work as free men under the safety umbrella of its own citizenship. But the sage (Findlay Currie) intervenes, proposing – then answering – the question of ‘when does an empire begin to die’: when the people no longer believe in it. Alongside its resplendent scenery, The Fall of the Roman Empire reveals the grave human complexities in such philosophical debates. The barbarian nation is given its independence and begins to prosper. His edicts defeated in the senate by Timonides’ persuasive arguments, Commodus exiles Livius to a remote frontier post under the guise it is for the good of the empire. Not long thereafter, Lucilla returns to Rome to find Commodus even more self-obsessed in his plot to squeeze the eastern nations of their resources. She retreats to Armenia to support her husband in a campaign to rid the east of Commodus’ oppressive rule. Begrudgingly, Commodus is compelled to recall Livius to put down this rebellion. However, when he arrives on the eastern plateau, Livius is horrified to discover Lucilla has pledged her support against Rome. Livius is understandably torn in his loyalties. He is a true Roman soldier, recalling with faint sadness the glorious reign of Aurelius, and determined to work within the framework of its less than benevolent present regime to bring about a lasting peace.
Lucilla tries to persuade Livius to join their splintered state. But Livius remains loyal to Rome. Sohamus ambushes Livius and his men with the Persian forces in an epic confrontation, rumored to have employed more than 20,000 extras on horseback. In this hellish exchange of clashed swords, Sohamus informs Livius if he is struck down he has already given the word for Lucilla to be killed. Indeed, moments later Sohamus is defeated, though not by Livius’ hand, and the order given for Lucilla’s murder to take place. Livius charges through the raging armies, narrowly arriving in time to prevent her death. Distraught and now a widow, Lucilla agrees to return to Rome with Livius. On route they pass through the once thriving barbarian community, now reduced to a bloody and still smoldering cinder; Commodus’ rage against Livius exacted in a brutal revenge against these defenseless believers. Livius discovers Timonides body amongst the slaughtered and mourns his loss. Returning to Rome with Lucilla, Livius quickly discovers the city’s decadence has unraveled its citizenry into a pagan spectacle. He leaves the army and Lucilla at the gates, instructing her if he does not return by sunset to give the order to storm the city.
Livius confronts Commodus in the great temple; Commodus revealing he is quite mad – his cynical cackle echoing throughout the chambers. Livius appeals to the senate to have Commodus deposed. Too late, he discovers Commodus’ decadence has corrupted even those who were once loyal to Aurelius. In fact, the senate has made Caesar a god. Now, they condemn Livius as a traitor to be burned alive in the public forum, along with hostages from the barbarian village, including Ballomar, also, the few Roman senators who oppose Commodus. As Livius has not returned by sunset, Lucilla sneaks into the palace in search of him. She finds what appears to be Commodus, alone in his private chamber, his back to her as he meditates. Seizing a concealed knife to put to death her own brother, Lucilla is instead subdued by this shadowy figure. It is not Commodus, but Verulus. She begs him to put Commodus to death. But Verulus reveals himself to be Commodus’ father from a clandestine affair with the late empress, Faustina Minor, Lucilla’s mother. Unable to bear the notion he is not of divine lineage, Commodus appears from the shadows and murders Verulus with his sword. Lucilla races into the crowds beyond the palace, desperate to warn Livius’ armies and give the signal to invade. But Commodus has anticipated this; bribing the army, including General Victorinus (George Murcell) with freshly minted gold ducats made from the precious metal previously stripped off Rome’s statuary.
Chaining Lucilla to the same pillar as Livius in the public square, Commodus now prepares a garish pageantry for the masses. His mind further unhinged by the discovery of his great shame, he makes the bizarre decision to challenge Livius to a duel to the death for the imperial crown. Commodus makes Livius a promise; that his victory will save Lucilla and the rest from their death sentences. In a brutal display of javelins, the thoroughly insane Commodus momentarily gains the upper hand before being run through by Livius. Alas, Commodus had no intension of letting Lucilla live, his dying cry - ‘burn them!’ – met with torches lit under the condemned. Livius bursts through the crowd and manages to free Lucilla in the nick of time. But Ballomar and the others are burnt alive in a hellish fireball. The fickle Julianus, who only moments earlier is seen bartering with Victorinus to appoint him Imperial Caesar, whatever the outcome of Commodus’ showdown, now declares Livius the new and undisputed Caesar of Rome. Seething with disgust for these contemptible men who have rotted the dignity of their offices and corrupted Roman law merely to maintain their own levels of wealth and importance within the government, Livius replies with gritted teeth, “I’m afraid you would find me unsuitable…because my first act would be to have you all crucified!” Departing the forum with Lucilla at his side, Livius observes as the bartering for a new head of state begins; the divine nature of its former office thus reduced to an even more unstable oligarchy of absolute power available to the highest bidder. As dense, acrid clouds of smoke fill the air, obliterating much of the spectacular detail in Colasanti and Moore’s Roman forum set our omnipotent narrator summarizes the government’s eventually collapse, brought on by this self-afflicting malaise of political infighting.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is a supreme spectacle. For those merely interested in such star-studded and mind-boggling elephantiasis, the picture holds up remarkably well. Yet, in hindsight, its ominous political intrigues, then practically ignored by the critics and virtually shunned by audiences of their day, presumably in search of more lighthearted programming, appear even more foreboding and clairvoyant with the passage of time; the present decline in America’s own economic might; its’ perplexedly inexcusable distraction from more prescient matters, its population drunk on decadent and diverting entertainments that fail to enrich its collective understanding of humanity or even life itself, and, finally, its intolerably stymied machinery of a fractured government, chronically bent to the will of a Presidential veto, thereby warped beyond recognition of its democratic due process: these not so distant echoes of another empire in the throes of a crisis it has yet to acknowledge, seem too eerily to be mirrored in history itself and revealed with startling second-sight in Bronston’s monumental epic.
At the time of its release, The Fall of the Roman Empire was heavily criticized on several levels; the critics all too quick to suggest Stephen Boyd a weak and ineffectual ‘hero’, his performance all but eclipsed by Christopher Plummer’s. Plummer, to be sure, has the better half of the story and makes the absolute most of these opportunities. Again, ‘Fall’ is rather unique in this; its focus somewhat more staunchly and uncharacteristically situated on the villain of the piece. Commodus we love to hate; or perhaps, in our present topsy-turvy world of amoral muddles, has been translated into the tragically ‘misunderstood’ misanthrope to whom our mediocre loyalties are more easily aligned. The best performance in the picture arguably belongs to Alec Guinness; the empathetic liege, torn by familial loyalties and those he must nevertheless afford the state, to preserve it for future generations. It goes without saying, that in Guinness we have the consummate actor’s actor; his lyrically wrought delivery of every last line of dialogue impacting our appreciation for Aurelius’ sad state of affairs – both public and private. At precisely the moment when Aurelius’ dreams for a pax Romana are poised to revolutionize these warring factions of humanity into a divinely inspired harmony of nations, he is cut down by the inescapable reality of death. The disturbing parallels between Aurelius’ fate and that of the assassinated J.F.K. may have also submarined ‘Fall’s’ critical success. Without question, the parallels are there for anyone willing to look beyond the togas and breastplates.
Whatever the reason, The Fall of the Roman Empire has long been overdue for reassessment as a bona fide masterpiece. The sheer size of Bronston’s epic, the vast undertaking in research, construction and execution are awe-inspiring. For decades, Bronston’s independently made spectacles have remained absent from public view while various distribution apparatuses via for control over who ultimately holds the rights. This shocking oversight ought to have been rectified in early 2002 when Alliance Home Video made a valiant stab to establish the now defunct ‘Miriam Collection’; marking its debut with the long overdue releases of El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire in elegantly appointed DVD box sets. While the European market has been blessed to have releases in hi-def of virtually all the Bronston epics, only 55 Days at Peking and Circus World have benefited from the upgrade to 1080p transfers (and only ‘Peking’ is region free and thus available for consideration around the world. As for El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, both appear to have fallen between the cracks for restoration and preservation, leaving collectors to seek these titles at a considerable cost and in a quality belying the fact each was photographed in the superior Ultra-Panavision format and Technicolor. In ye olden days of LaserDisc, Criterion released The Fall of the Roman Empire with a competently rendered image harvest. But for several painfully long decades thereafter, the only way to appreciate this movie was via a bootlegged DVD from Japanese distributor, Tohokushinsha; marred by some disastrous color implosion and an unhealthy green tint.
Then came the aforementioned Miriam Collector’s Edition DVD on which this review is based. It isn’t terrible, but it is still a far cry from Robert Krasker’s sumptuous cinematography. What we have here is a flawed master, exhibiting color fading and sporadic built-in flicker. Flesh tones are hideously pink during almost the entire first half of the movie. Sophia Loren looks as though she were hosed down in Pepto Bismol. Curiously, color balance and density marginally improve over the course of this presentation; particularly after we leave the woods and enter the gargantuan Colosanti and Moore Roman Forum sets. Color fading and color timing remain a prescient concern. Blacks tend to register a deep navy blue. There is no sparkle to this transfer. These sets were designed with real gold leaf and mosaic marble tiles; Bronston and director Anthony Mann conspiring to show them off from every conceivable angle. Alas, the gold lacks glitter and the marble is deprived of its elusive colorful veins. Worse, there’s a residual softness creeping into these images. None are as razor-sharp or refined in their detail as any image lensed on 70mm film stock ought to be. Close-ups are the most impressive, but even they do not celebrate the great pains Bronston and Mann took to achieve something visually resplendent on celluloid.
On the whole, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is more richly satisfying than the image. Even though DVD is a compromise, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score sounds spectacular; the dialogue and effects integrated with precision; the sound field giving bass speakers a real workout. Extras are plentiful and include a fairly comprehensive ‘making of’ featurette created exclusively for the Miriam Collection release. Dr. Bill Brontson, the producer’s son, weighs in with biographer, Mel Martin on a fantastic audio commentary as well. As The Fall of the Roman Empire is divided, at its intermission, across two discs, these also house the aforementioned featurette, plus a vintage promotional junkets, trailers, filmographies, and two more short subjects made to complement the Miriam release; the first, a reel to real comparison of ancient history, the other a glowing tribute to composer, Dmitri Tiomkin. We also get a third disc, advertised on the back package as ‘…and more!’ The ‘more’ are a series of short subjects produced by Bill Deneen for the Encyclopedia Britannica to document Roman antiquity. As the Bronston sets were so accurate in every last detail they became a hub for historians to attend and marvel over. Alas, these sets were torn down and bulldozed shortly after production wrapped; an epic loss to movie-land’s cultural heritage. Mercifully, these shorts and the feature film endure as a testament to their greatness.
I have broken a precedent with this review; made on a product most collectors will not be able to get their hands on without paying big bucks to third party sellers via Amazon or Ebay. I have done so because the time has come to demand a renewed interest, not just in The Fall of the Roman Empire, but all the Samuel Bronston epics made in Spain. While Bronston’s reputation has greatly suffered since his own time, still regarded unjustly as something of a nimble-minded shyster and con, there is nothing to deny Bronston his place amongst the movie Gods who dared bring such resplendent antiquity to the big screen, unencumbered by a big studio executive brain trust chronically looking over his shoulder. For a brief wrinkle in time, Samuel Bronston was his own man. He made movie art, unapologetically and mostly with a disinterest in the cost that would ultimately destroy him. For this, he ought to have long since taken his rightful place alongside such showman as Michael Todd, Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick. Regrettably, today his is either more pitied or reviled. And yet, I cannot hesitate to think of Bronston simply as the last of this vanishing breed; the master for whom class, culture and entertainment value took a decided backseat to crass commercialism. If you are fortunate enough to snag this DVD – or are in a position to purchase the ‘region B’ blocked European Blu-rays, equally as flawed, then you will be exposing yourself to some of the finest and most opulent entertainments money can buy. As Commodus might very well have proclaimed, “Permit us to worship!”
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)