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…

Ben-Hur (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 4 April (3.05 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

I did have something different in mind to cover today – Miyazaki’s gorgeous ode to childhood, My Neighbour Totoro, in case you’re wondering – but hey, it’s Easter, and considering this is a site often driven by nostalgia I wanted to look instead at a picture I consider to be quintessential viewing for the season.

Ben-Hur isn’t the only Easter movie, obviously; neither can it claim to be the only Biblical Epic with some link to the season. Staying with the nostalgic note, it takes me back to childhood Easters, when the school break and especially the four-day Bank Holiday weekend was a time for classical epic cinema to dominate the schedules. King of Kings. The Robe. The Greatest Story Ever Told. And then there was the Zefferilli mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as the eponymous son of God heading inexorably towards Calvary. I used to gorge on this stuff, often I confess devoured with Easter Eggs. These films were invariably long-haul affairs and opened my eyes to a stylised ancient world with all those fabulous sets, costumes and armies of extras. We might have had a mini-revival of epicry with the likes of Gladiator and Troy in more recent years, but the difference back then was in knowing that those colossal Roman scenes were all created to look full scale; the people in contemporary costumes were really there.

Ben-Hur was the biggest of them all. It’s very, very long, leaving the viewer with little change from four hours. It was a serious award winner, holding the record for number of Oscars claimed for many years, until Titanic and The Return of the King came along, and even then only won enough to share the record, nor do I think it’s a coincidence that all three films are fine examples of, in their own way, epic cinema. Spectacle counts, after all. It’s in part what the industry is based on, the opportunity to show audiences things they would never get to see otherwise, and where Ben-Hur is concerned the timing of its release really mattered. Put yourself in the place of a 1959 working class viewer, somewhere colourless, like in northern England perhaps, and then imagine the feast for your eyes that this movie would have been. These films were made to persuade the public to switch off their little black and white television sets and go back to the cinema, watch something made in dazzling Technicolor, on a wide canvas, the stereo sound blasting out, and into which millions of dollars had clearly been plunged. It must have been a deliriously rich experience, the sort of thing we so rarely get these days as the studios basically out-CGI each other and audiences know intrinsically that everything they are watching is produced artificially.

I’ve never read General Lew Wallace’s nineteenth century novel, on which this – and a number of earlier versions of the story – is based, but it was a major bestseller in its day, indeed at one point claimed to be second only to the Bible in terms of units shifted. I think, however, that it sold so well because it’s a glorious concoction of a very personal story told against the biggest backdrop possible. Much of it is a tale of revenge, and the man seeking vengeance has about as good a reason for doing so as any. It’s a yarn many of us can empathise with, though the pay-off for our hero comes when his actions happen to cross his path with that of Jesus and he learns, before the end, from the influence of Christ to quell his hateful thirst and focus on forgiveness, gaining some peace of heart at last. However faithful you happen to be, it’s a good story, simple morality clashing with complicated individuals and their entangled, damaged lives.

In the film, Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston, at the height of his fame and working once again with director William Wyler after their collaboration on The Big Country. Heston’s quality as a leading man in the biggest productions had already been evidenced in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments. With sufficient gravitas and presence, he was one of the few actors who could stand tall with plagues and parting seas taking place around him, and he was the perfect choice to take on Ben-Hur. His character is a rich Jewish nobleman in a country that has been conquered and is now ruled by Rome. His childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), is a Roman Tribune who has risen through the ranks to become the regional army commander. Messala knows from his own experiences that Judea will not be an easy place to control given the troublesome population, and this – mixed in with his own ambition – makes him consider shows of cruelty to be the most effective way of guaranteeing order. However, when he asks Judah to help by identifying the chief troublemakers, his friend sees it as a betrayal of his countrymen and has to refuse, which sets the pair up as mutual enemies. Sure enough, during an armed procession through the streets of Jerusalem, Judah’s family watching from their rooftop terrace, his sister accidentally causes a loose tile to fall to the ground, nearly killing the governor, and Messala uses the incident as a pretext to ruin the family. His mother and sister are imprisoned and Judah himself is sold as a galley slave. His life, they believe, is over.

What Messala doesn’t figure on is Judah’s survival instinct, belying the mortality rate of the average slave and driven by thoughts of revenge into continuing. Rowing in a warship. For four long years. A naval battle takes place and the ship for which he rows is hit, but he manages to get free and save a Consul, the patrician Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who’s fallen into the sea. Despite the loss of his own boat, Arrius, who was commanding the battle, wants to kill himself as a consequence of what he perceives to be his failure and is only prevented from doing so by Judah, but later finds he’s won a major victory and takes the slave with him for his victory parade, both in thanks for saving his life and in respect for his spirit. Judah’s fortunes have transformed once again. He’s adopted by Arrius and his prestige as a young Roman nobleman begins to rise. But his lust for vengeance remains, and knowing of Messala’s participation in the famous Jerusalem chariot races he plans to confront his old nemesis in the arena. Even a strange experience he had when he was at his lowest ebb can’t quench it. During his initial enslavement, Judah was marched across the desert in chains along with the other captives; in Nazareth he finally collapses through sheer exhaustion, thirst and mainly despair, when a young carpenter offers him water. He’ll meet the man again and gain an important life message from those meetings.

Judah’s final redemption doesn’t happen until very late in Ben-Hur. Until then, he’s a cauldron of hate and Heston plays the part superbly, his face a rictus of revenge, indeed I can’t recall seeing acting that brings out so well the urge to strike back. It’s a performance that adds real bite to the story, one in which Jesus has a small but critical part to play, and for the most part focuses on human rage. Heston, speaking through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes, commands every scene he’s in, though Boyd does well as the villain. There’s an argument for suggesting a hidden complexity to his role, and I’m not referring to the legend that he was told to play Messala as having a past sexual relationship with Judah in order to add nuance to their scenes together. Clearly the character sees himself as having a job to do in Judea, and that his rough justice against Ben-Hur isn’t so much motivated by paying him back for his lack of support but more the simple act of showing the people what happens to those with anti-Roman sentiment. That suggests Messala is a good old-fashioned megalomaniac, though there’s also sufficient levels of pent up anger in his acting to give the impression of a strong personal dimension in the mix also. Essentially, the fractured relationship between the pair boils enough to add levels of tension to the fateful chariot race, turning it into the ultimate personal battle.

There are some cinema scenes that stay with you forever, whether they’re small, personal moments loaded with significance or those on the largest scale possible. The chariot race in Ben-Hur is one of those, certainly in the latter bracket, and I would go so far as to say it’s one of the greatest scenes I am ever likely to see. The entire film has been building up to it, and when it happens it doesn’t disappoint, not just for the suspense but the massive spectacle it produces. There’s that enormous arena, with its racetrack wrapping around two massive statues. The cheering crowds high up in the stands above. The ornamental fish, one of which is dipped with each lap. The chariots with their teams of four horses; obviously Messala’s are black, Judah’s white Arabic. The real sense of danger as the chariots navigate around the hairpin bends, often crashing into one another. The way that Messala’s chariot wheels, in one final sign of his evil nature, are armed with spikes for cutting into anyone who gets too close to his carriage. The rather excellent stunt work, especially when Judah’s chariot has to somehow jump over another that has collapsed directly in his path. The absence of Rosza’s score and instead letting the noise of the hurtling chariots and the spectators dominate the soundtrack. So many elements just to produce this one bravura scene; it’s worth the admission price alone and little wonder, considering it’s a ten minute sequence within a far larger film, that it’s the one dominating all the art work, posters, trailers and peoples’ memories of Ben-Hur.

The final straw for Judah has comes when he discovers that his mother and sister, imprisoned years earlier by Messala, have contracted leprosy, which effectively means their death sentence. This is devastating for the hero, even after he’s had his revenge, leading him to question everything he’s worked towards and if anything builds his levels of internal anger. Yet it’s no accident that the film has dovetailed his story very carefully with that of Jesus. Opening with a beautifully filmed Nativity scene, Ben-Hur shows how the young Christ’s reputation as a prophet has grown. When Messala arrives in Judea, the departing commander, played by André Morell, tells him that he finds Jesus’s teachings to be surprisingly profound, and there’s more as Judah finds himself coming increasingly into the world of those who have listened to his sermons. As the archetypal angry young man, Judah sees nothing for him in the teachings of peace and forgiveness, but the film’s culmination at the crucifixion turns into the final piece in his own redemptive arc.

I’m a confirmed atheist, so a yarn that relies on the power of Christ to deliver hope into someone’s shattered life could be something for an old cynic like me to sneer at. But you know what, I find it to be a rather lovely message. Whether you believe in any of this or not, there’s no denying the power of a man who’s had little to feel happy and at peace about suddenly having an epiphany thanks solely to someone else’s message and self-sacrifice, which at heart is the story of Ben-Hur. The film takes an interesting stylistic choice in never showing Jesus’s face, only filming him from behind or at a distance, and depending on the reactions of other characters towards him in marking him out as someone special. This is never better revealed than in his meeting with a Roman centurion, who is utterly unable to do anything but just stare at him, all his beliefs and conviction temporarily confounded.

If there’s a downside to the Ben-Hur, it’s in that formidable running time. Epic cinema rarely produced the briskest narratives; everything was in the scope, the sense of ‘we paid a lot of money for these sets so we’re going to linger on them for a bit longer, damn it!’ at the expense of pace. Those used to the snappily edited ethic of twenty first century film making are likely to find it rather grandiose and stately. And not all of it works. I find many of the film’s more romantic interludes, the scenes between Heston and Haya Harareet’s Esther to distract from the main story, to an extent shoehorned in to a tale of vengeance. There’s nothing especially wrong with the performances of either actor during these moments, just the level of distraction from the main narrative, the comparative lack of interest that these bits generate.

But the good far outweighs the bad, and Ben-Hur remains the jewel in Wyler’s crown. A meticulous director with an attention for detail and propensity for multiple takes that defined his directorial style, he serves up almost the ultimate visual treat here, a drama that just seems to grow and grow in stature until it culminates in the legendary chariot race, filmed on the largest scale and providing a real pay-off for viewers who have sat through more than two hours of build-up to it in the best way possible. It’s all the more impressive because, amidst the grand scale, it never loses sight of the personal drama at its heart, the magnificent hatred between Judah and Messala. Talking of the latter, whilst the film won all its Academy Awards, the oversight in the case of Boyd stands as one of those historically unfair snubs. The Best Supporting Actor award instead went to Hugh Griffith, who plays a kindly Sheikh, whilst Boyd wasn’t even nominated. Griffith is fine, absolutely fine, but the picture belongs to Heston and Boyd and it’s those two characters that you remember afterwards.

There’s a sparkling recent and restored version of Ben-Hur that’s available to buy, which even has its own glossy website (it’s worth a visit, not just for the way it showcases the chariot scenes but for the gimmick of showing us some of Heston’s on-set diary entries). I still own the 2006 four-disc release, with which I have no complaints. The main feature is spread over two discs, looking as glorious and fresh as I could wish for really. Disc three contains the 1925 film, which was pretty much the, er, Ben-Hur of its day. Made every bit as lavishly as the film discussed here, there’s a clear link between the chariot races in both films, and it matters also that Wyler worked on that production as an Assistant Director and staffed one of the 42 cameras operating on chariot set. The final disc carries some great ‘Making Of’ extras, including a piece that talks about the influence of Ben-Hur over the years, interviewing directors who have since gone on to make epics of their own and cite this as a significant reference point. I think it also comes with a warning. The pod race scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace might be the most glaring example of a sequence inspired by Ben-Hur, but it also shows much of what’s wrong, I believe, with modern cinema, the possibilities opened up by CGI that turned the sequence into something from a video game and removing any degree of credibility and identification. Who can possibly ‘feel’ anything for a film where the things that happen couldn’t possibility be endured by a human being?

Ben-Hur: ****

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 March (12.55 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

The premise of Fantastic Voyage is this – the Cold War simmers on, and scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain have developed the technology to miniaturise objects and even human beings. The possibilities this represents are perceived to be decisive potentially, but there’s a catch. The miniaturisation process lasts for only sixty minutes, after which the subject will irrevocably expand back to the original size. One Russian boffin has discovered a solution and, even better, he wants to defect to the west. Getting off the plane on US soil, he’s gunned down by enemy agents, and is left fighting for his life, comatose and with a blood clot on his brain. Not removing the clot will kill him, and the only way to do so is to use the new process, inject a microscopic team of surgeons into the man’s bloodstream and get them to use a laser to clear it. All in the space of an hour.

Enter Stephen Boyd as Grant, a CIA agent who helped the scientist to defect. He joins the small crew taking a submarine, the Proteus, into the scientist’s body. His fellows include mission leader, Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), surgeon Dr Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). As the team is miniaturised, the procedure is overseen by military staff who work through innumerable cups of coffee and cigars whilst the ‘operation’ takes place.

Fantastic Voyage was one of those films that constantly seemed to be on television when I was a child. A major success and rather a thrilling premise, the fun was had from the moment the team enters the scientist’s bloodstream and experience the human body from a unique perspective. Thrillingly, the plot moves as quickly as possible to get them to this juncture, and the hour they spend in miniature form is played in close to real time, the countdown adding to the tension as they face various pitfalls on their journey. What makes it even better is that one of the crew is clearly a double agent and out to sabotage the mission, a plot Grant attempts to uncover as the minutes tick away.

Watched now, the cracks start to appear. The biology seems sound enough to layman viewers and there’s a note of authenticity before the film starts to add to its gravitas. Leonard Rosenman’s score doesn’t kick in until they’re in the bloodstream, as though giving the piece a documentary feel. However, the miniaturisation, whilst a cleverly assembled sequence, is straight out of science fiction. It’s a great process, the submarine shrunk until it’s the size of a toy car, before it’s placed carefully into a big cylinder of liquid that is then diminished so that it can form the trunk of a syringe. But it’s crazy, and they know it, keeping technobabble to a minimum so that audiences can enjoy the ride without being fobbed off with a pat explanation of how it all works.

The main length of the film, whilst the crew are inside the man, is good stuff, utilising contemporary cutting edge special effects that don’t look so terrible now (and indeed, it was for technical achievements that it won two Academy Awards). I like the scenes inside the lungs, which look like an alien landscape from an episode of Star Trek, when it’s explained that what appears to be rocks are in fact specks of dust. The whole sequence reminds me of the Starship Enterprise’s lengthy flight to the centre of V’ger in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, which makes sense as Kirk and his crew were traversing the extended ‘body’ of the little probe.

But it is hokum, complete fiction, and this was recognised by writer Isaac Asimov, who was approached to pen the novelisation. At first dismissive, Asimov went ahead with the job with the proviso that he could lessen some of the film’s crazier leaps in logic, for instance dealing with the destruction of the Proteus. In the film, white blood cells attack and destroy the submarine, but any bits of wreckage left behind would be sure to expand after an hour, bursting horribly from within the scientist. Along with the discarded laser gun, this turned into a fatal oversight that was resolved in the book, though clearly it was hoped the excitement of the climactic moments would excise any of this from the thoughts of viewers.

Fantastic Voyage was directed by sure hand Richard Fleischer, who brought some of his technical people from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to help make the show look more realistic. Fleischer knew how to make a tale tick along, aware that audiences would want to get from the set-up to the realisation as quickly as possible and not wasting time in making it unfold. Boyd was entirely capable of playing square jawed heroes and, despite having no medical experience, comes to suggest solutions to the crew members that keep the mission going, relying on little more than his sense of authority and charisma. Kennedy’s job is to come out with philosophical statements that bring to life the wonders of the human body, saying things like ‘Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought’ whilst looking on in sheer amazement. Welch, who at the time was in the process of attaining stardom, has little to do beyond look good in her tight fitting (obviously) scuba diving costume and get into situations of peril, as in the moment when she’s attacked by antibodies and has the indignity of her fellow crew members removing them from all over her body. As for Pleasance, he’s one of those actors, like Herbert Lom and Brian Cox, whose presence removes any sense of mystery when there’s a secret villain within the crew…

The film inspired an animated series, novels and a comic book, and talks continue over the possibility of a remake, with various illustrious directors attached. It does seem to be one of those stories tailor-made for a twenty first century update, and there’s something tantalising about recreating the ‘inner space’ scenes using the latest CGI technology. For now, there’s this version, which remains a slice of good fun and certainly doesn’t fail to thrill, as in the famous scene involving a pair of dropped scissors, something mundane that creates great suspense.

Fantastic Voyage: ***