DIRECTOR: Anthony Mann
The last classic epic from the Bronson stable, The Fall Of The Roman Empire was always a tough sell to me. I had seen bits and bobs of it over the years but it had never struck me, though being so closely associated with the epic revival film, Gladiator, the fact that my dad is a huge fan of the genre and that epics and movie innovation are my thing, it was a must see.
But one thing that put me off over the years was the lack a decent and authentic copy. The DVD versions up until 2008 were in the WRONG aspect ratio, missing the Overture and Intermission etc… so watching a film that is already struggling to capture my imagination was further dulled.
But in 2008, The Miriam Collection, Region 1, released but this and El Cid in complete and brilliantly remastered editions. Now, almost completely restored, though there is talk of a future release with further lost and recently found footage, will be released soon, I could finally see it as it was intended.
This was one of the few Ultra-Panavision prints never to shown on the curved Cinerama screen, as this format was often used as a single strip alternative to the cumbersome three strip Cinerama process. But nothing could help this film, which was a massive financial flop, pretty much bankrupting Samuel Bronson’s production company.
This is a bleak sword and sandal epic, with some inspired production design, but dark is an understatement. This was filmed at a time when these film were bright, sunny and glossy but this, though framed wide for the 70mm format, it has an intimacy, suited for its intelligent script. There are several decent action sequences, the best of which being a chariot chase with was choreographed and shot excellently, exciting and engaging in equal measure.
But Steven Boyd was a problem. As the villain in the 1959 Ben~Hur, he was great, but as the fictitious hero, Livius, he was as wooden as and old table. And without a strong leading man, the film then rests on the darker, weaker or more intellectual characters. Christopher Plummer excels in an early performance, his third in fact as Emperor Commodus, a role taken on by Joquiem Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s, Gladiator, as Plummer plays him as an insecure yet charismatic man with plenty of zeal and energy.
The ever reliable Alex Guinness portrays his father, Marcus Aurelius as you well as you might expect, and Sofia Loren, who is given top billing, portrays Lucilla, the real life ill-fated sister of Commodus’s, as she always did. Sexy, sultry and more than adequately. And then we have James Mason, as an ex-Greek slave who has earned his freedom and become an Imperial Advisor.
And it is with his character that the film shows one of its core faults. The Fall Of The Roman Empire is an intellectual thesis on empire building and how it can and will inevitably all come crashing down and it is often Mason who is given the dialogue to explain this to the audience. But there are a fair few scenes where he does this and I feel breaking the cardinal rule of the narrative of ‘show, don’t tell’.
The film struggles to bring its elements together with enough cohesion to adequately show the complex story of the beginning of the end of an empire that had lasted a thousand years and would be gone in a another three-hundred. It relied on speeches and musing of its characters to in many cases, propose sometimes naive arguments about making enemies of its people today will lead to unmanageable revolts in the future, and the that the way forward is through peaceful and respectful co-existence.
But in the end, this film and its thesis is just as relevant today, as it was in 1964 and in 187 AD. It’s a sociopolitical tract discussing the nature of political power, concluding that it is fleeting and as fickle and those who Weald it. But was it a good film? Is this a lost classic, a flop that simply didn’t deserve to sink a studio?
No… Sorry, but no.
The intellectual elements were good. Some of the action sequences were very good and was the final thirty minutes which built up to a tense and somewhat dark finale. It also contained a twist that even I didn’t see coming which is based on real life rumours of Commodus’s parentage at the time, but this was often related to the mob’s dismantlement about his gladiatorial exploits in the arena. And the production design in different and ambitious with dark, sombre themes taking the place of sunshine and lighter epic tones.
But Steven Boyd’s casting was a huge mistake, with Charton Heston, who had worked with Samuel Bronson before in El Cid in 1961, being my choice and apparently he was considered. Boyd just didn’t have enough charisma of acting ability in this film to carry such a complex lattice structure of ideas and deeper sub texts. And without him pulling his weight, the audience struggles to identify with the situations, most of which were academic, needing big action and heartfelt emotion to keep us engaged with the epic nature of the film.
If it had achieved this and the film had held together better as a whole, then this could well have been not only a classic, but one of ‘Sword and Sandal’s’ most subversive epics. Points for effort but not enough to carry the fact that in its three-hour running time, I was bordering of bored throughout, with only a few scenes, almost everyone featuring Plummer, saving me from giving up altogether at times.
A real shame, but still worth a watch as this was trying to do something that it would take another thirty years to achieve and craft a solid, intellectual blockbuster or epic. Gladiator, the direct descendent of this, would usher in the new era in 2000, but Ridley Scott’s epic solved the problems of this by not only casting Russell Crowe, but crafting a solid heart-felt character with an equally as solid and identifiable cause.
This descends at times into a typical ‘paint by numbers’ affair. Shame…