The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire The Fall of the Roman Empire
Limited Collector’s Edition

3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

With a remastered print of the three hour theatrical film, promotional spots, a “making of” documentary spread out over 3 DVDs, plus post cards, and a Technicolor reproduction of the original program, trying to absorb all the material contained in this collector’s edition may feel as if the Roman Empire has fallen on you. But bear with it, citizen. The Miriam Collection’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire” has a forum for everyone, and is as sumptuous and striking as the film itself.

Released way back in 1964, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” isn’t as creaky as you might think. There’s none of the overboard, rip ‘em to shreds violence found in today’s productions (like watching 300 Spartans get hacked, severed and filleted down to none). It’s not an unforgettable epic in the vein of “Gladiator,” but it’s an enjoyable example of the extravagant epic genre. So if you’ve got young children, they won’t be exposed to anything they haven’t gawked at on prime time, making “The Fall” a good PG rated family movie night candidate.

Honchoed by producer Samuel Bronston, (known for extravagant historical dramas such as “El Cid” and “55 Days at Peking”) and director Anthony Mann, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” was the most expensive historical drama to date. Where a good deal of the money wound up is obvious – it’s right up there for you to see on the screen. Bronston commissioned a life sized version of the Roman Forum in Madrid with 160 foot buildings, thousands of statues, and intricate, accurate interiors that were never even used. (It still holds the record for being the largest outdoor set ever constructed.) The city was so convincing it later became a tourist attraction -- Madrid’s version of an ancient Disneyland.

Bronston hired some of Britain’s best known actors for supporting roles, (many of whom were leading actors in their own right). Alec Guinness (“Bridge Over The River Kwai”), James Mason (“20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”), and Anthony Quayle (“Lawrence Of Arabia”) gave the film instant credibility. For an international flair, Bronston added Canadian TV actor Christopher Plummer (“Hallmark Hall of Fame”), Egyptian actor Omar Sharif (another “Lawrence of Arabia” alumni) and the eighth wonder of the world, Sophia Loren. To keep American audiences interested, he brought in Stephen Boyd (“Ben Hur”) to play the hero, plus veteran heavy John Ireland (“Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”), and Mel Ferrer (“War and Peace”). Bronston tabbed Dimitri Tiomkin for the music. Working with three fully staffed orchestras over the course of a year, the composer recorded one of the most dramatic, emotional scores in movie history. As a testament to his open checkbook policy, Bronston hired a mere 8,000 extras for the battle scenes. A freak snowstorm threatened to delay filming, but the brain trust wisely chose to make the bad weather part of the film.

Many of the movie’s action scenes project the grandeur and vast expanse of the Roman Empire, including the previously mentioned battle scenes. The panning cameras capture the degradation in the city’s square, which resembles a densely populated Fellini nightmare (albeit an organized and sexless one) with clowns on stilts, rebellious regiments, thousands of famine-crazed citizens, and corrupt senators vying for the Emperor’s attention. One of the opening scenes at Caesar’s mountain fortress in the north assembles regiments from more than 50 Roman provinces. Great attention was paid in recreating the outfits worn by the soldiers and representatives from countries such as Syria, Armenia and Egypt. When Guinness stands on the veranda of his stronghold addressing thousands of brightly festooned men it’s no computer generated trick, everyone on screen is a real human being and the massive stone fortress was constructed specifically for the film. Imagine everyone at Woodstock dressed in feathered helmets and armor surrounded by chariots and horses and you’ll begin to get the picture. There’s also a fast-paced chariot race in which Stephen Boyd’s heroic Livius and Plummer’s treacherous Commodus thrash at each other, with both characters alternately threatening to sail over a cliff. The adrenalin surging shot is an enjoyable thrill at ever turn and probably caused a few stuntmen to wet themselves.

While great expense was made to make the Roman Empire as visually accurate as possible, Bronston would have been equally well served if he’d spent a little bit more money on the script. Screen writers Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina and Phillip Yordan, did a commendable job crafting the action scenes, and provided James Mason and Alec Guinness with poetic speeches, but the dialogue they manufactured for the film’s love story between Boyd and Loren is rigid as Caligula in the chamber of the vestal virgins, making the two already limited actors sound as if they’re trying to read Latin from wet cue cards:

Livius (Boyd): Come away with me.
Lucilla (Loren): Where could we hide? I am Caesar’s daughter.
Livius: You are also a woman. That is a much higher rank.

The storyline is less extravagant than the movie’s people-packed scenes. When the film opens, the Roman Empire is at the height of its power and glory, thanks to the guidance and wisdom of Marcus Aurelius (regal but wordy Alec Guinness). Sensing his impending death, Marcus Aurelius calls together representatives from the empire’s many nations to garner their support for a “Pax Romana,” a united nation living in peace. The only pockets of resistance threatening Aurelius’ dream are Persia and a clan of barbarians led by the ruthless Ballomar (a seething John Ireland). Aurelius’ impetuous son, Commodus (scene-stealing, captivating Christopher Plummer), thinks he’s in line for the throne, but Aurelius feels his loyal Tribune, Livius, should rule. (Livius is played by Stephen Boyd, who’s so wooden he deserves to be called Stiffin Bored.) Blind soothsayer Cleander (capable Mel Ferrer) speeds Aurelius on his way to Olympus before the Emperor can officially make Livius his heir. But Livius has already spilled the news to Commodus. Not surprisingly, Commodus, who feels close enough to call Livius his brother, begins to resent him. Their resentment and competitiveness surges when the two lead separate armies in pursuit of Ballomar. Commodus, assisted by a former gladiator (Anthony Quayle, vibrant as the virile Verulus), takes the more dangerous assignment of drawing Ballomar’s men into a trap. The trick works all too well. Ballomar’s men engage Commodus and his soldiers, but the gladiators conscripted to fight by Verulus cower and have to be rescued by Livius, further straining their relationship.

Livius is more intent on chasing Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (toga temptress Sophia Loren) than pursuing the throne. But Lucilla is a human olive branch promised by Aurelius to appease Sohamus, the King of the Armenians (Omar Sharif, as energetically animated as a Con Ed worker with his wet finger in a light socket). Commodus assumes the throne and immediately begins to tear down what his father has built by overtaxing and antagonizing Rome’s eastern settlements. Commodus also tries to undermine the peace that Timonides (the always brilliant and articulate James Mason) has arranged with Ballomar. He banishes Livius by sending him back to the northern frontier, and tells Lucilla, now Sohamus’ wife, not to bother with any road trips back to the Appian Way unless she’d like to be the next starring act with the lions at the coliseum.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Commodus’ lack of benevolence comes back to haunt both him and Rome. The city suffers through famine, pestilence, and a chariot strike (just kidding about that last one). Commodus gets barbarous with the barbarians, and the beleaguered eastern frontier revolts, including Lucilla’s adopted home, Armenia. Commodus recalls Livius to put down the rebels, which means he not only has to kill men he served with, he may also have to kill Lucilla. The act tests both Livius’ loyalty to the empire and his love for Lucilla, and sets his chariot wheels in motion for a final confrontation with Commodus. One of the men has to die in order for Rome to have a chance at survival, and the rest of “The Fall” becomes a question of who sides with Livius, who fights with Commodus, and who winds up on a funeral pyre. The outcome is as easy to see as 8,000 extras dressed in gleaming armor in a wide open field, but there’s a wild card in the climax involving Commodus that will catch you off your Praetorian guard. (Well, it surprised me.)

I hate to cast aspersions on the dead, but Stiffin Bored (or Stiffin Void) is one of the reason’s Rome fell when the picture was released. Boyd was a matinee idol, an action figure, not an actor, much like the man he replaced (Charlton Heston). Heston was offered the role of Livius, but turned it down because he hated Sophia Loren, with whom he’d co-starred in the Bronston’s previous epic, “El Cid.” Kirk Douglas’ schedule kept his chariot in the garage as well. Boyd was chosen because he was tall, long-limbed, fit the costumes and looked good on a horse. Stiffin had a busy career, appearing with Heston in “Ben Hur,” and in other costume epics such as “Genghis Khan” and “The Bible…In the Beginning,” as well as starring in the futuristic adventure “Fantastic Voyage” with another brunette ha-cha-cha, Raquel Welch. (He was also the first choice to play James Bond.) Boyd was struck down on the golf course by a heart attack at the age of 45. Talk about bogeying a hole.

Sophia Loren can’t act either, but who cares? Hoochie mama! She’s a Roman goddess, and one of the few cast members whose ancestors may have toga’ed with Caesar. Although she crossed swords with testy Chuck Heston, she clearly was a team player, appearing on the set to joke with the cast on her days off. She’s a bit tongue-tied by the dialogue at times, sounding like a female version of Yul Brynner (“I lub you Lidius!”), but remains as regal as Venus de Milo throughout. The fact that Ms. Loren’s best acting assets are concealed in figure nullifying robes isn’t her biggest problem. It’s hard to believe, but she and Boyd have absolutely no chemistry in their scenes together. (A recent bio on Doris Day outed Boyd, which may come as a shock to his two ex-wives.)

Christopher Plummer’s villainous portrayal of real life ruler Commodus dominates the screen and more than makes up for Loren and Boyd’s still life romance. Plummer’s cunning grin and boisterous delivery indicate he was really enjoying himself. And why not? The villains get the best dialogue, do despicable things the actor himself wouldn’t do in real life, and get to have a great death scene. Watch Plummer as he digresses from an irresponsible arrogant ruler in waiting to an enigmatic Emperor, and keep in mind that “The Fall of the Roman Empire” was only his third picture. He hijacks the film from distinguished veteran actors Quayle, Mason and Guinness, who seem to sense Plummer is locked in and support him in his effort to carry the production. Plummer’s performance helped him gain leading man status. His next film was the highly successful “Sound Of Music.” He liked the recognition the film afforded him, but thought it was too saccharine. (I’m with you, Chris.) He commented that working with prim and proper Julie Andrews every day was like “Being hit over the head with a Hallmark card.” Plummer is one of the few cast members still upright and acting.

Sir Alec has the daunting task of playing philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last benevolent ruler of the Roman Empire. Guinness is pious, wise, noble, and a bit of a bore (just like he is in all of his performances). He reportedly didn’t like some of his dialogue and rewrote it to suit the character’s position as the father of his country. I can’t imagine how stilted his lines were before. Guinness falls prey to Shakespearian actors’ tendency to treat their lines as if they’re trodding the stage of the exalted Vic Theater. This is an action movie, Alec, relax. It’s hard to portray a man as revered and respected as Marcus Aurelius and Guinness does a commendable job, but he spends most of his time on the screen ruminating and reacting quizzically to his conscience (served up in the form of a voice over), rather than showing the audience a good time. Guinness succeeds in portraying Marcus Aurelius as a visionary man of the people. He also interacts well with Mason, who plays his trusted advisor, Timonides, but in scenes with Plummer, Loren, or even Boyd, Guinness’ Marcus gets lost in a serious of ponderous speeches that sound as if he’s rehearsing for his role as Obe Wan Kanobi. (He also looks the part. In one scene he wears a black hoodie similar to the one he’d wear a decade later for “Star Wars.”). He does have one unintentionally amusing exchange with Boyd as the two discuss Ballomar:

Livius: A few days longer Caesar. We will bring you his head.
Marcus Aurelius:No, Livius, please do not bring me his head. I would not know what to do with it.

James Mason’s turn as Timonides, Marcus Aurelius’ gentle Greek advisor, is the exact opposite of Sir Alec’s overblown performance. Mason takes what could have been a minor role and by using his distinctive voice, well-placed moments of light comedy and believability, makes Timonides another character worth investing three hours to watch. As he speaks to the Roman senate on behalf of the barbarians, Mason’s matchless timbre elevates his words to the stature of speeches given by great orators such as Cicero, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. (Okay, I’ve never heard tapes of the first two either, I’m just throwing out some recognizable names for effect. You might think Harvey Fierstein is a great speaker, in which case you should seek help.) Mason makes Timionides, a former slave and a foreigner to boot, a sympathetic and admirable character.

Other performances worth watching are John Ireland as bad-ass barbarian Ballomar (“Let us die killing Romans!”). Ireland plied his trade in Westerns, usually playing a bushwhacking, boozing bad guy. (His rut with anything personal life was fodder for the tabloids.) Draped in furs with a very fake red beard and wig, Ireland resembles a fierce, humanized Hagar the Horrible. His torture of Mason (who would later become the barbarian’s champion and live with them) will make you twist in your chair, mainly because you don’t see what Ireland is actually doing to Mason, only James’ anguished, pained face. Ireland’s transformation from fearsome foe to productive ally is one of the film’s more realized subplots, and you’ll thank the writers for including a shave and a haircut as part of his alterations.

As Commodus’ trusted second in command, Anthony Quayle gives the barrel-chested Verulus the right amount of threatening, skull-cracking presence. Quayle’s furrow-browed portrayal takes on a whole new dimension when Loren and the audience discover there’s a noble and self-sacrificing side to Verulus. In the later part of his career Quayle usually played learned senators and generals (check out his turn as resourceful Roman engineer Rubris Gallus in “Masada.”) Quayle would have been a better choice to play Marcus Aurelius than Guinness. And you have to wonder if Peter O’Toole was off somewhere having his toga dry cleaned instead of joining his fellow “Lawrence of Arabia actors. Until his final scenes, Quayle is all biceps and brute force, and despite his limited screen time, leaves an indelible impression.

One criticism – the plot conveniently disposes of some of the characters using the spear from out of nowhere routine, and there are moments when the film lags like a crucifixion crew in search of a nail (it is after all, three hours). Okay, I’ve got another complaint. The film’s in a letterbox format, which I’ve never had any use for. I don’t squint when I look at things, so why shrink everything into a band and waste so much space?

The Empire Expands – The Extras

There’s an old saying: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” It’ll certainly take you the better part of 24 hours to get through the movie and its legion of extras. Disc one’s special features include commentary by producer Samuel Bronston’s son, William, and Bronston biographer Mel Martin; filmographies of the stars, stills, a theatrical trailer, and “Rome in Madrid,” a twenty-minute promotional film narrated by, who else? James Mason. Besides the mellifluous Mason, you’ll get an insider’s look at six month construction project that produced the massive forum, and get your chuckle on checking out candid shots of the stars on the set -- including Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer playing chess, and Stephen Boyd bound for his next shot in his chariot, braving the snow.

The second DVD contains the bulk of the extras, including a “Making of…” documentary, a historical look at the real Roman Empire, “Hollywood vs. History,” and a feature on composer Dimitri Tiomkin.

“The Making of…” is laced with interviews with surviving crew members and the relatives of the execs connected with the film, such as William Bronston, Nina Mann (the director’s daughter) and Bronston biographers Mel Martin and Paul Nagle. Among the many revelatory moments is Loren’s admiration for English actors. She loved the sound of their voices so much that instead of playing music in her trailer, she played records narrated by good friends Guinness and Mason. (Apparently the records didn’t take.) Bronston’s widow says part of the blame for the film’s astronomical budget can be traced to associate producer Michal Waszynski, who supposedly spirited away millions of dollars, depositing it into his personal account. Martin backs up the accusation, saying, “Money blew down the hall like leaves in October.”

Highbrow historians Dr Peter Heather and Dr. Ronald Mellor join Bronston biographer Neal Rosendorf and others to discuss if the film is historically on point. Marcus Aurelius and Commodus did indeed rule Rome in succession, and the available historical evidence indicates Aurelius was as kind-hearted and wise an overseer as Guinness’ portrayal would lead you to believe. By comparison, Commodus’ reign was a failure, but our history buffs point out he was only 19 when he succeeded Aurelius and may have eventually cracked under the pressure of ruling the entire known world. Another real-life figure, Lucilla, was executed by Commodus for plotting his assassination. But she was never betrothed to the King of Armenia or romanced by Livius, who’s purely a fictional concoction.

The third disc is a showcase for a series of historical shorts produced by Encyclopedia Britannica. When director Bill Deneen heard Samuel Bronston had created a Roman city, he asked Bronston if was available for use. Smarting form the cost of the film, Bronston and the studio were more than happy to rent it out. Incorporating scenes from “The Fall of The Roman Empire,” Dineen filmed a series of ten to twenty minute history lessons for kids, several of which, such as “Life In Ancient Rome,” and “Julius Caesar: The Rise of The Roman Empire” have been included in their entirety. The real kick is seeing Dineen’s 1964 on screen introduction and getting a load of him in 2007. Dineen has the perfect look for voice overs. His teeth are as yellow as a vampire’s eyes, his dark hair weave appears to have been stapled to his forehead, and his wing-sized ears look poised for flight. The old camera spinner seems to be enjoying ever second on camera, though.

When it was released, “The Fall Of The Roman Empire” was quickly conquered by the competition – “Mary Poppins,” which offered a spoon full of sugar from A-gaming Julie Andrews and was a much more optimistic trip down fantasy lane. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated only a few months before, and the U.S. wasn’t quite ready to embrace a picture where nearly everyone dies and an entire civilization is headed down the path to ruin. Audiences wanted neat, tidy happy endings in those days, and despite Plummer’s electrifying performance, “Fall” wasn’t exactly an uplifting experience. With a masterfully cleaned up appearance and its all-star cast, maybe “The Fall of the Roman Empire” can now find the audience it deserves. Rev up your chariot, go down to the coliseum, drop some ducats for a copy, and let the games begin.

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