Thursday, November 9, 2017

#2,457. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness

Tag line: "Spectacle! Passions! Savagery!"

Trivia: Alec Guinness admitted that he never saw more than twenty minutes of the completed film

Having already produced such epics as El Cid, King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, Samuel Bronston next turned his attention to ancient Rome, and his 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire is a grand, sweeping, monster of a movie, with enormous set pieces, thousands of extras, and action scenes galore.

The year is 180 A.D. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is in the north, leading his armies against a fierce band of Germanic invaders. Old and in poor health, Marcus knows his days are numbered, and that it is time for him to name his successor. But instead of selecting his son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) to follow him, Marcus chooses Livius (Stephen Boyd), his most trusted General, to be the next Roman Emperor.

Livius, who is close friends with Commodus, has no interest in ruling such a vast empire. Though urged to accept by Lucilla (Sophia Loren) - his lover and Marcus’s only daughter - Livius instead steps aside, allowing Commodus to succeed his father (who is poisoned and dies before he can sign the official document naming Livius his heir). 

But while Marcus Aurelius was a man of peace, his son Commodus, who spends the majority of his free time training with gladiators, rules the empire with an iron fist, doubling all taxes and promising to deal harshly with anyone who opposes him. Realizing that his friend has become a tyrant, Livius, with the help of Marcus Aurelius’ former advisor Timonides (James Mason), defies Commodus by showing mercy to the Germanic tribes of Ballomar (John Ireland), who were recently defeated in battle. Angered by his actions, Commodus banishes Livius, only to recall him a short while later when the Eastern provinces rise up against Rome. 

Will Livius do as Commodus asks and crush the rebellion, or will he instead join forces with Lucilla, who wants nothing more than to see her brother deposed? 

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because Ridley Scott’s 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator is set in this exact time period, and features many of the same characters (oddly enough, Richard Harris refused the role of Commodus in this 1964 film, only to play the young Emperor’s father, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator). 

Being something of a history buff, I’ve always enjoyed The Fall of the Roman Empire (sure, it’s not 100% historically accurate, but what movie is?). The opening sequences, in which Marcus Aurelius and the Roman forces fight the Germanic tribes in the snow-covered North, are wonderfully realized (you can just about feel the chill hit your skin whenever the wind howls), and the various battle scenes scattered throughout are as exciting as they are impressive (especially the Battle of the Four Armies that occurs late in the movie). The real spectacle, though, is the immense Roman Forum, which, if some sources are to be believed, was the single largest set ever constructed up to that time (it measured 1312 x 754 feet, or 400 x 230 meters). 

As for the performances, most are exceptional; the only one that rubs me the wrong way is Stephen Boyd’s portrayal of Livius. He’s certainly not terrible in the role, and based on his turn as the villainous Messala in Ben-Hur he obviously had a knack for playing larger-then-life figures. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, however, Boyd comes across as flat, and the early love scenes between him and Loren’s Lucilla have zero energy (though the chemistry between the two does improve as the movie progresses). 

Again, Boyd doesn’t hurt the film, but it’s best moments (aside from the battles) are those that feature either Alec Guinness or Christopher Plummer, both of whom are in top form (Guinness is especially strong as the aging Marcus Aurelius, and when his character dies we’re as convinced as the Romans themselves are that a great man has been lost). 

Much like 1963’s Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire was a late entry in the historical epics genre, and while the movie itself was a box office bomb (rumor has it producer Samuel Bronston had to declare bankruptcy as a result of this film), it’s still a massively entertaining motion picture, and stands as a shining example of Hollywood at its decadent best.

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