Judge Ben Saylor wants to set the record straight: He caused the fall of the Roman Empire. He was feeling mischievous one day and just stuck his leg out while it was passing by.
Commodus: If you listen very carefully, you'll hear the gods laughing.
Producer Samuel Bronston made a number of well-known epic films in the 1960s such as King of Kings and El Cid. But with 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire, Bronston produced a flop both commercially and critically. However, while not without its flaws, Fall is a fascinating and visually sumptuous film, one that is done justice with a lavish treatment from the Weinstein brothers' Miriam Collection.
Facts of the Case
Under the reign of the wise and just Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai), the Roman Empire is vast and mighty. Nearing the end of his life, Marcus Aurelius does not wish to pass on the throne to his brash and temperamental son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music), and instead chooses the brave, levelheaded General Livius (Stephen Boyd, Ben-Hur) to succeed him. But the enemies of Marcus Aurelius do not wish Livius to assume power, and thus murder the emperor before he can make his decision known publicly. Commodus ascends to the throne, much to the dismay of his sister Lucilla (Sophia Loren, A Countess From Hong Kong), who loves Livius but is trapped in an arranged marriage to Sohamus, king of Armenia (Omar Sharif, Doctor Zhivago).
Under Commodus' rule, Rome weakens and provinces begin to revolt. As the situation throughout the empire becomes increasingly desperate, Livius is forced to defy his friend and emperor in order to save Rome.
With a title like The Fall of the Roman Empire, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the subject matter is a bit of downer. (The word "fall" is a big clue.) It's interesting that Samuel Bronston put so much money into producing such a depressing movie. The first hour and a half, in particular, is surprisingly bleak and character-driven. Yes, there is a battle scene in the forest, followed by a chariot race, but other than that, there's very little action in the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius knows the hour of his death is near and fears that he will not have enough time to complete the work needed to be done in order for a true pax romana to prevail in the empire. His declining health doesn't help matters for the despairing Lucilla, who suffers from loneliness and feelings of resentment against her mother. Livius is deeply unsettled by Marcus Aurelius' intentions to pass on the throne to him, both because of the responsibility it entails and because of the effect the decision has on his friendship with Commodus. Furthermore, Lucilla becomes betrothed to Sohamus, tearing her away from Livius. Finally, Commodus simmers with bitterness and sorrow due to being passed over by his father.
For the most part, the film's first half works. While admittedly slow and drawn out, this portion of the film effectively establishes atmosphere and helps develop character. One of the only major sore spots is a contemplative scene where Marcus Aurelius has an interior monologue about his mortality, which is marred by the ill advised decision to have some of the character's thoughts articulated in dialogue and others in voiceover. The frequent switching between the two comes across as silly, ultimately undermining the scene's potential. (This happens again near the end of the movie with Lucilla.) In addition, the first half's primary action sequence, a forest battle, is hard to follow because of the number of people involved. Furthermore, it's followed by a chariot race between Livius and Commodus that is more exciting but arguably superfluous. There's also a rather jarring scene change (discussed in the commentary) due to the cutting of a sequence.
If you get impatient during the first half, stick with it, because the filmmakers deliver a huge payoff as the film draws closer to intermission. This begins with Marcus Aurelius' funeral, a terrific sequence shot while real snow was falling. The whole sequence, but particularly the portion where countless soldiers assembled for the ceremony moan in mourning as the snow flies and the torches flicker, is just great filmmaking. This is brilliantly followed by Commodus' triumphant arrival in Rome, complete with a soaring fanfare, brightly colored costumes, and, most important, the film's colossal Forum set. Up until this point, the entirety of the film has taken place on the Roman frontiers, where Marcus Aurelius had been fighting the Germanic tribes. In keeping with the bleak tone of the film, these frontier scenes are cold and dark. But with Commodus' ascension to the throne, the sun is shining (deceptive, when one considers the grim times ahead), and the forbidding forests are replaced by the splendor of Rome. It's a great way to end the first half of the movie.
The second half of The Fall of the Roman Empire is more plot-driven, which works both to the film's advantage and disadvantage. What's good is that the story, which charts the detrimental effects Commodus' decisions have on the empire, means, naturally, that the focus shifts more to Commodus, who is splendidly portrayed by Christopher Plummer. The actor displays impressive range with the role, capable of grandiose moments (the "gods laughing" scene near the end) and also more subtle ones (the scene where Marcus Aurelius dies and also the funeral sequence, which is discussed in the commentary). A lesser actor would probably have run this character into the ground by overplaying the mad-dictator aspects of Commodus' personality. But Plummer takes care with the role, and the result is a balanced and very compelling performance. His character even comes through an absurd 11th hour revelation from his close friend Verulus (Anthony Quayle) relatively unscathed.
Unfortunately, because Commodus, clearly the antagonist here, is the dominant character, Stephen Boyd's Livius is completely overshadowed. This stems from a combination of bad writing for his character and a stiff, bland turn from Boyd. Livius is a very passive figure who pretty much lets Commodus boss him around until the very end of the movie, when the damage done by Commodus' disastrous policies is irreversible. Boyd's lack of charisma also tarnishes his scenes with the much more expressive Loren (whose fire and passion stand out all the more next to her wet blanket co-star), and when watching the two of them together, one wonders why she would fall for such a boring guy.
During this second half, the filmmakers offer up two major action sequences: a battle between Livius' Northern Army and some rebellious provinces, and a climactic showdown between Livius and Commodus. The battle sequence, like the forest battle in the first half, is impressive for the number of people involved but is honestly not an easy one to follow; it's too hard to tell who's fighting whom. The Livius-Commodus fight, however, is a very exciting and well-shot sequence, and a great way to bring the movie to a close.
In addition to Plummer, The Fall of the Roman Empire benefits greatly from strong supporting turns from Alec Guinness and James Mason (North by Northwest). Guinness figures prominently in the first half of the film, and has at least two great scenes: one where he reviews a parade of nations, and the subsequent speech he delivers to those assembled in the frontier. The role of philosopher-emperor is one well suited to Guinness, who imbues Marcus Aurelius with a noble regality. Mason, likewise, was a great choice for the role of Timonides, a forward-thinking advisor to Marcus Aurelius. Mason had one of those great, quintessentially English voices that, to my American ears least, conveys a certain authority and dignity. This quality of Mason's goes a long way toward making two scenes in the movie stand out: one where his character is tortured by Germanic tribe leader Ballomar (John Ireland, Red River), and one where he eloquently addresses the Roman Senate.
What deficiencies exist with The Fall of the Roman Empire in terms of story and acting/characters are offset in large part by the film's incredible production and costume design and lush musical score. The film's sets and costumes are the work of dynamic duo Veniero Colasanti and John Moore, who really went above and beyond for this film. The Roman Forum is absolutely one of the most impressive sets ever constructed for a movie, and every time it appeared on screen, I was in awe once again. Care was taken with both the sets and costumes to be as accurate as possible, we are told in the commentary, and the attention to detail is evident in every frame. Even the film's earlier scenes, which are darker and set in the frontier, boast meticulousness and craftsmanship.
It helps that the film had a skilled director and cinematographer in Anthony Mann and Robert Krasker, respectively. The two did similarly strong work together for El Cid, and Mann's superb widescreen compositions and precise framing help maximize the effect of Colasanti and Moore's work. The film's first half is a real testament to Krasker's abilities, as he provides excellently lit shots in dark candle and torch-lit environs.
Finally, there is Dimitri Tiomkin's full-bodied musical score, which is a perfect match for the majesty and sweep of the film. Tiomkin's score is filled with great variety and attention to what is happening on screen. Whether it's the ominous pipe organ that leads off the film's Overture, or the somber composition "The Fall of Love" (which plays as the Intermission and Exit Music), or the dizzying tarantella that plays during the crowd sequence near the end of the film, Tiomkin's music provides a beautiful complement to the story unfolding on the screen without overwhelming it.
For The Fall of the Roman Empire, the second DVD in the Weinstein Company's Miriam Collection (the first being El Cid), the red carpet has certainly been rolled out. The film itself is spread out across two discs. The picture quality of the feature, while not perfect, is still very good; the lush colors of the costumes and sets absolutely shine, and Mann's widescreen compositions generally register quite nicely. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track gives Tiomkin's score the presentation it deserves.
In terms of features, there is a commentary with Bronston's son, Bill, and Bronston biographer, Mel Martin. The pair keeps up a fairly steady commentary despite the film's imposing runtime. Of the two, Martin is more pleasant to listen to, offering lots of interesting facts and detail on the production. Bronston, on the other hand, is a little too enthusiastic, gushing about certain scenes to an excessive degree. For one scene, he even tells us, "This is the metaphor." Also, his near-constant drawing of parallels between the film and contemporary American foreign policy gets old after a while. On disc one, a vintage promotional film called "Rome in Madrid" is included. Narrated by James Mason, this 22-minute look at the making of the film is one of my favorite supplements in this set, offering footage of the sets under construction, wardrobe and makeup tests for Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer, and even a look at a chess match between Guinness and Plummer. Next up is a trailer gallery that includes previews for FotRE as well as for El Cid (its DVD release, not the actual trailer), Cinema Paradiso and Control. Rounding out the disc are a pair of stills galleries and filmographies for several cast and crew members.
On Disc Two, things start off with "The Rise and Fall of an Epic Production: The Making of the Film," which crams a good amount of information into about 29 minutes. Up next is "The Rise and Fall of an Empire: An Historical Look at the Real Roman Empire," which, at just under 11 minutes, is hardly a comprehensive treatment of the subject, but is still worth watching. The next two featurettes are my favorites on this disc: "Hollywood vs. History: An Historical Analysis" and "Dimitri Tiomkin: Scoring an Empire." I always enjoy featurettes that discuss the historical accuracy (or lack thereof) of a movie, and Tiomkin's music is such a highlight of the film that it's great to get a closer examination of it. Also included on Disc Two is a text message that states that a deleted scene for the film was located, but not soon enough for inclusion with this release. The message states that it will be included on a future release.
If one buys the limited collector's edition of The Fall of the Roman Empire, a third disc is included that contains three short films made by Encyclopedia Britannica using the film's sets. What's neat about these is that a vintage introduction by Bill Deneen, who produced and directed the films, is included, as well as a new introduction from Deneen. Also included in the limited collector's edition set is a reproduction of the film's original souvenir booklet, as well as six production stills.
The Fall of the Roman Empire, maligned upon its release, is ripe for re-discovery. While far from perfect, the film manages to be both intelligent and entertaining, and is an example of filmmaking on a scale that has rarely (if ever) been equaled since. And with this fine DVD release, there's no better time to become acquainted (or re-acquainted) with The Fall of the Roman Empire.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Feature commentary by the producer's son Bill Bronston and Bronston biographer Mel Martin
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