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 aplenty.

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 failing health, Marcus knows his days are numbered, and decides 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.

But 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 (Marcus is poisoned and dies before he can sign the official document naming Livius his heir). 

Alas, where 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 those who oppose 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% accurate, but what movie is?). The opening sequences, which feature Marcus Aurelius and the Roman forces fighting the Germanic tribes in the snow-covered North, are wonderfully realized (you practically feel the chill in the air whenever the wind howls), and the various battle scenes scattered throughout the movie are equally exciting, especially the Battle of the Four Armies that occurs late in the film. 

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 Livius and Lucilla have zero energy (to be fair, the chemistry between the two does improve as the movie progresses). 

It's not like Boyd hurts the film, but the 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, like the Romans, mourn the loss of a great man. 

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

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