The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 March (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

There’s no use crying. You don’t understand all this, do you? In the old days there was gold from the wars for the legionnaires, but your father… He was a great man, but with this new Rome it’s all changed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is infamous as the film that bankrupted its producer Samuel Bronston and sounded a death knell for the lavish epic. Making back a mere quarter of its titanic $20 million budget at the box office, it was a complete flush and a warning to the industry never to gamble so recklessly again. Now, with the financial misfire taking place more than fifty years ago we can see it for the brilliant picture it is – large scale, truly epic, absorbing with subtle levels of characterisation and plotting, and with all those high production values placed front and centre. While writing this, I’m listening to Dimitri Tionmkin’s score; it’s a thing of utter melancholic beauty, which kind of sums up the film itself.

Bronston had always thrown the dice when making his features. Before this one, he’d come up trumps with the likes of King of Kings and El Cid, each one outdoing the last for their ensemble casts, massive sets and armies of extras. Today in the CGI age we can really appreciate the effort, the way these films had to employ thousands of people to play the parts that special effects would simply fill in digitally now. The production company was based in Spain, and Bronston would entertain his guests with tours of the films’ sets, indeed there’s a suggestion that these walkabouts were part of the point for the egotistical producer. In any event, the Roman Forum set built for The Fall of the Roman Empire holds the record as the largest ever built outdoors, and a splendour it was, ancient buildings reconstructed with a gorgeous attention to detail and sense of giant scale. I guess if you’re going to fail then you might as well do it on a spectacular level, and few films did that quite so fulsomely.

The film was conceived from director Anthony Mann, fresh from the success of El Cid, reading Edward Gibbons’s massive examination of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a series of works written in the eighteenth century that attempted to tackle one of history’s great questions. Covering Rome from the end of the first century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it remains a terrific if time consuming analysis, still eminently readable and wholly objective in its outlook. The task facing the production was to condense Gibbon’s central thesis into a single film, selecting a single episode from history in order to illustrate why the ‘decline and fall’ took place, when exactly the rot started to creep in. The ruinous reign of Commodus from 180 to 192 CE was chosen as it came after the rule of Rome’s ‘five good Emperors’ and suggested the fragility of the its vast and sprawling empire when it was mismanaged. Rome lurched on for a few hundred more years before being overwhelmed by ‘barbarians’ and remaining solely in the east, because it was still powerful enough to continue, but Commodus showed how it was vulnerable to corruption and bad decision making.

On a political level, the film plays the start of the fall as a tragedy, suggesting that Marcus Aurelius’s vision for the empire’s future was undone by his death and the subsequent Commodus, who partly through sheer spite against his father took Rome’s policy in the opposite and destructive direction. Both men were actual historical figures, and Marcus Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla, existed in reality also. The fictional element comes in the shape of Livius, a general on the Danube frontier who shares Marcus Aurelius’s ideas and is also Lucilla’s lover. The ageing Emperor’s plan is for Livius to ascend to the throne after him, marry Lucilla and guide the Empire into a new age of prosperity and inclusiveness, but he dies before he can enact it and Commodus instead takes over, with terrible consequences, what the contemporary historian Cassius Dio described as a descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’.

Whereas the focus is inevitably on Commodus’s folly as Emperor, helped by a performance filled with elan by the then up and coming Christopher Plummer, all playful smiles and mental fixed stares, the film takes its good time to show Rome’s corruption as about more than one man. Marcus Aurelius is killed not by his son but as a consequence of plotting from self-serving Senators who can see in his plans the deaths of their own advancement. Both Emperors are surrounded by would-be assassins, political opportunists on the make, which lends the film a degree of terrifying topicality. It’s worth bearing in mind that it was made during JFK’s assassination, and whether or not you believe the President was murdered by one man or a conspiracy the reality is a lot of people stood to lose much from his continued existence and this film suggests an expediency in Marcus Aurelius’s death that gives it a delicious level of subtlety. Compare it, as we must really, with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which Commodus suffocates his father in order to advance to the throne, and the contrast is astonishing. In Gladiator, while the servile Senators are still present and correct the characters are rather one-dimensional, whereas in The Fall of the Roman Empire Commodus is presented as being merely at the apex of a rotten society, a corrupt business that is already eating itself away from within. Decline and fall? You’d better believe it’s happening!

Plummer is one of the better performances delivered by a stunning ensemble cast. These movies employed armies of well known faces as a matter of course but The Fall of the Roman Empire takes this element to its natural summit. At the very top is Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius, trying to hold it together and enact his reforms in a race against his advancing illness. The ‘fall’ of the film’s second half works on his absence. Once he’s gone there’s a vacuum, well minded characters struggling because the man at the top who they believed in is no longer around to support them. Plummer’s Commodus is a study in opposites – younger, more energetic, thrusting forward without any thought of the consequences, far and decisively removed from the carefully considered philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. A marvellous and riveting scene in the debating house, where Senators discuss the merits of settling former enemies to farm on Roman land, illustrates this perfectly. The lickspittles who’ve advanced through Commodus argue against accommodating the ‘barbarians’, and it takes a speech from Finlay Currie’s aged sage (Currie was one of those actors who turned up often in epic films, normally playing wise old characters and putting in minor but significant roles) to turn the matter. Currie’s character can see past the immediate self interests to the future envisaged by the late Emperor, but you can tell his is a dying voice with little place in Commodus’s world and during a later scene in the same location, by now a room of toadies, his absence is telling.

James Mason puts in a fine piece of work as Timonides, the philosopher freedman employed by Marcus Aurelius as his sparring partner in wit and words, and later throws in his lot with the German farmers. A scene in which he attempts to talk beaten foe Ballomar (John Ireland) into surrendering peacefully is brilliant. Ballomar, beaten and trapped in a cave, has little interest in giving up without a fight and would be far happier going down killing Romans. As Timonides tries to persuade the German warrior to give up this end in favour of accepting a farmer’s future, Ballomar tortures him with fire, knowing that a pained scream from the Greek philosopher will alert the guards and bring on his favoured fighter’s death. But Timonides doesn’t give up and refuses to cry out, a beautifully performed scene typical of Mann, who dotted his films with such moments in order to illustrate physical human sacrifice, and in the end it’s Ballomar who submits, so impressed and moved is he by his opponent’s strength of conviction.

The film’s main star was none of these great actors but in fact Sophia Loren, the towering Roman who in 1964 was named the most popular star among British audiences. Earning a cool million for her role and echoing the salary paid to Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra, it was Loren’s attachment to the project that turned Mann’s preferred male star, Charlton Heston, away. Having worked together on Mann’s previous Bronston epic, El Cid, Heston had endured enough of Loren’s fussy insistences that she be shot a certain way to capture her nose on camera at its best that he refused to do so again, opting instead for 55 Days at Peking (and as it happened suffering another torrid professional relationship with Ava Gardner). Personally, I’ve never felt Loren to be blessed with outstanding acting talent, but what she did have was presence, poise, grace and those longing, massive eyes, which were capable of conveying complete tragedy and make men melt. Cast against her was Stephen Boyd, best known at the time for playing the villain Messala in Ben-Hur. Over the years it’s become fashionable to blame Boyd for many of The Fall of Roman Empire’s ills, as though the decision to employ him as a substitute for Heston became its fateful tragedy as he simply wasn’t as good. True enough it’s difficult to argue against Heston as the ultimate casting choice for films of this type, but Boyd, given the tough role of playing the blue eyed good guy, the bloke we root for throughout as he battles vainly against massive odds, turns out to be marvellous, personally magnetic and selling wholly his character’s devotion to Loren’s Lucilla. Boyd would later claim that he was enamoured with Loren and it’s certainly the case in the film that the pair have great chemistry. As Commodus uses their love for each other as a lever in trying to get his own way, there’s a real believability about their efforts to make the most of their moments together.

And the stars just keep on coming. As the blind man Cleander, the man of dubious loyalties who performs the subtle, perfectly executed killing of Marcus Aurelius, Mel Ferrer plays him with absolute inscrutability, realising that audiences can tell a lot about a character through their eyes and when those eyes are dead there’s nothing to see. Anthony Quayle plays a gladiatorial confidante of Commodus with great conviction. One of the more decisive yet smaller tragedies of the film is his character’s complete loyalty to the young Emperor, the way he continually steps into harm’s way for him, a fact that has its fateful denouement late in the story. Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir is on hand as one of Livius’s generals, a man who remains steadfastly faithful right to the inevitably bitter end. If one performer gets short changed then it’s Omar Sharif as the Armenian king. Sharif is always watchable but there’s an entire film one could make that focuses on the events of the film purely from his perspective. What a fascinating exercise that would have been, the opportunity to witness ‘the fall’ from the point of view of a supporting character whose own motivations are on the periphery but come to matter. As it is, Sharif gets a handful of lines and a beautifully choreographed fight scene.

Almost 2,000 words into this piece and I’ve mentioned little about the plot, which I leave to you for your enjoyment. It’s a treat, on the surface the stuff of high melodrama but beneath that a mess of broiling machinations and the crushing weight of history. Throwaway bits of dialogue – check out the closing lines from George Murcell’s General, Victorinus – hint at the sweep of Roman policy and how it affects ordinary people, adding so much depth to the action and showing how deeply Mann understood the significance of the tale he was weaving. You don’t have to really swallow this stuff; there’s a great deal going on all the time, but it’s a stirring brew all the same. There’s a weight to the film’s most significant moment, the magnificently mounted funeral of Marcus Aurelius, where Livius hands the torch to Commodus, which effectively gives him the throne. Audiences can be forgiven for crying out at this stage; we all know where the film’s going with a nutjob like Commodus in charge. But it’s all been built up to by the preceding moments, as Timonides tries to find a scrap of paper that makes law the decision to crown Livius and learns that it doesn’t exist. Livius knows that if he seizes power at this point it will never be accepted and lead to civil war and therefore has no choice but to hand the Empire to Commodus, hoping for the best. Which of course, he doesn’t get. Again compare this with Gladiator, in which the hero Maximus loses everything as Commodus attempts to eliminate him. The tale of his bloody rise from the gladiatorial pits is well told, but it’s altogether less complicated than the story being weaved here, in which Livius acts not only from a position of relative strength but knows also he has to work against someone he considers to be a friend, adding dramatic heft to the film’s string of tragedies, both on a giant scale and at a personal level. I know which version I prefer.

It’s easy enough to see why this film failed. It’s gigantic, on any point you choose to consider, whether you’re marvelling at the forum set (which is staggering, no doubt about it) or being pummelled into sheer emotional submission at the sight of thousands of extras dressed in Roman soldiers’ uniforms lamenting the passing of Marcus Aurelius (sorry to return to it again and again, but it remains one of my favourite scenes of all time and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with each viewing). Whether you’re as impressed as I am or turned off by the capricious grand scale, you must appreciate the sheer human effort that went into it, the epic vision and scope of the piece. But it could only work if people went to see the thing and that didn’t happen. Perhaps the tastes of movie-goers had simply moved on. The absence of any element of Christianity (it is there, however, if you notice the talisman Timonides wears around his neck, but that’s another of the film’s clever little subtleties and adds quietly to its characterisation) removes an aspect that was writ large in many of the more successful films of this type, suggesting a link between stories that focused on ancient times and the religious sensibilities of viewers, and without it you’re left with a piece about a long dead empire that held little relevance for the majority.

One thing for certain is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is nobody’s idea of a bad film. If you haven’t before seen it, do so if only to make your jaw drop, to take in the last hurrah of a dying genre, a late example of the sort of movie they simply don’t make anymore because the cost if it doesn’t work is far too great. For me it’s a title that gets better each time, a brilliantly filmed labour of love that contains real heart. See for yourself the bit where provincial governors are assembled before Marcus Aurelius. Your focus is on the Emperor, his efforts to remember all their names, and so it should be because it’s funny and Alec Guinness’s face as he becomes more dumbfounded is a treat. But check out the costumes and bear in mind that someone took the time to design them as close as possible to the real garments these people would have been wearing if the scene had happened in reality. That takes some effort and as far as I’m concerned shows the care and attention that was lavished on the film’s production values.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: *****

It’s been a couple of weeks since I lasted posted here and my apologies for that. I’ve no good excuses; I’ve even been busy buying discs of films I intended to cover, watched them and then didn’t get around to doing the writing. It just wasn’t there I guess, the intent, and at times like that the worst thing I could probably do is get something down because the effort of having to do it – as opposed to wanting to – would have been clear. Hope this makes up for it. As you can probably tell I quite like this one…

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13 Replies to “The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)”

  1. Great analysis of the positive and negative aspects of the movie, Mike, and your admiration for Bronston’s epics really shines through.
    This is such a visually splendid movie, where all the care and expense lavished on the sets and huge casts is clear to see. CGI does make it easier to shoot similar things these days but the look just isn’t the same.

    1. Thanks Colin, glad you enjoyed it and I know you like the movie. To be honest it’s one that I think gets better with every viewing and each time I appreciate another element of it. I was so pleased to pick up the Blu-Ray and watch a version that did it proper justice.

      1. Yes, it’s a big favorite of mine and I always enjoy viewing it and reading anything about it.The Blu does look quite spiffy – speaking of which, I heartily recommend the Blu-ray of 55 Days as it really has the movie looking wonderful.

  2. I like this one a lot – I even used to have this one on LaserDisc (back in the days when you had to import them and they cost about £40). It’s a shame that Charlton Heston didn’t want to do it as he would have been better than Boyd, and the censoring of that early scene with Plummer, once you know about it, really hurts it. But this is a very intelligent epic too and one that repays multiple viewings (and I’m always big on epics that are not about religion).

    1. Thanks Sergio – it’s the embodiment of “don’t make em like that any more” isn’t it? I certainly agree about the intelligence. If I have one complaint about these movies it’s their relative simple mindedness, which I suppose is fine and no doubt intended to appeal to all demographics (hey they cost a lot of money, can’t blame the for wanting to claw it back), but not here, where there are some weighty issues being covered and for me done so rather deftly. Maybe thinking about why it didn’t work that multi-layered and dense plotting takes some of the blame. I’m a guy in the mid-1960s – what possible relevance is a movie about 2,000 year old politics going to have for me?

      The Plummer scene – as I understand it this is the suggested gay subtext, right, a scene that would have removed much of the “sub”? I don’t think these lost scenes exist, at least not until a lost cache of reels in Argentina turns up some missing prints, of course.

  3. It’s my favorite movie of all times. I always loved Boyd and Lauren and I think they gave it their best. The cast is GREAT; so why did this movie fall????
    Anyone truly wants to provide the truth?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Rex, always nice to hear from fellow fans of this magnificent epic. Where it’s failure is concerned, these things are always a roll of the dice, aren’t they, and in this instance it would have had to score major box office to be considered anything other than a disaster. I suspect, like another of my favourites WATERLOO, that it was just the right film at the wrong time and audience tastes had moved on. Sad, really.

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