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How do you adapt a six volume historical work that spans 1200 years for the screen? It was a question many critics had for director Anthony Mann when he took on the challenge of making The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), based on Edward Gibbon's acclaimed work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Although Gibbon's epic narrative spanned from 200 AD to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Mann chose to concentrate on the first 300 years. Many factors led to the decline of the Roman Empire - too many, in fact, to cover adequately in a 187-minute feature - but Mann focuses on the political power shift that eventually resulted in the invasion of the Barbarians and the rise of Christianity, two factors which ended Roman domination of the civilized world.
The film opens during the reign of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 121-180) as he considers a successor to his throne. Instead of choosing his own son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) to succeed him, Aurelius (Alec Guinness) favors his adopted son, Livius (Stephen Boyd), a decision which is never made official because of the emperor's premature death. Instead, Commodus proclaims himself emperor and Livius, his boyhood friend, pledges his support and is appointed Commander of the Army. But where Aurelius made a humane and philosophical leader, Commodus proves himself to be a rash and irresponsible one. Eventually his tyranny alienates Livius who ends up siding with Lucilla (Sophia Loren), Commodus's sister and the wife of the Armenian King, Sohamus (Omar Sharif). The power struggle between Commodus and Livius culminates in the latter leading the Barbarians against the Romans with a decisive javelin duel to the death between the emperor and his former army commander.
Anthony Mann had just completed El Cid (1961), a critical and commercially successful epic about the 11th century Spanish patriot, when he embarked on The Fall of the Roman Empire. Filmed on location in Spain, in the vicinities of Segovia and Madrid, no expense was spared during a production that featured some of the biggest names in international cinema, a cast of thousands and even a full-scale reproduction of the Roman Forum. For Mann, though, it wasn't the spectacle that interested him but the central tenets of Gibbon's work that drew him to the project. And he was able to explore favorite personal themes of honor, loyalty, and betrayal (that distinguished all of his films) through the characters. Regarding the central relationship of Aurelius and Commodus, Mann said (in an interview with Christopher Wicking and Barrie Pattison in Screen), "..he [Commodus] tries to kill his father's image, because this image is greater than his own. This is the story underneath the Oedipus drama. I don't know of any great man who ever had a great son. This must have been a terrible thing for the son - to live with the image of his father, for although this is a love-image, it can also be a hate-image. This theme is recurrent, because it is a very strong one and, consequently, I like it - it reaches to heights and depths beyond more mundane stories."
Mann was also a big advocate of filming on location because he discovered early on that unpredictable occurrences due to weather or some uncontrollable factor could actually result in an inspired cinema moment. "For instance," he recalled, "I had always thought for Roman Empire, I would love to do the death of Marcus Aurelius in the snow. One morning I woke up and it was really snowing. So I called everybody early and I got them up there and I said: 'I know it's freezing to death here, but we'll put you in warm tents and we're going to do this sequence all in the snow.' It was marvelous! Because it had a silence about it, a kind of majesty it wouldn't have had if it had been done on a sunny day or any other kind of day."
Despite Mann's enthusiasm for The Fall of the Roman Empire, not all of the cast members felt the same way. Alec Guinness, who gave what many critics felt was the film's finest performance, later admitted "I never saw more than twenty minutes of the film." During the shoot, he preferred his off-the-set time at his lodging, a 16th century farmhouse that he shared with co-star Anthony Quayle. He did, however, recall one amusing incident in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise: "While flying out to Spain I sat gazing forlornly at the script and jotting down a few notes. A tall American came to sit beside me and asked if I was studying my lines. 'Well, re-writing them, where possible,' I said. 'What do you think of the script?' he asked. 'Not much,' I replied...It was tactless of me; I didn't realize until I met him later that my companion was the scriptwriter. The saving grace - apart from Anthony Mann, who was a friendly director and well-disposed towards actors - was Sophia Loren, whose company I enjoyed enormously."
It was hard, in fact, for anyone on the set not to be awestruck by Loren's beauty or her winning personality. Omar Sharif, who plays her husband in The Fall of the Roman Empire, recalled in his autobiography, The Eternal Male, that during the six-month shoot they often played poker in the evenings even though she was a bad sport and didn't like to lose. Nevertheless, they had great fun together and he thought that, despite her superstardom, she "led the life of a middle-class housewife...Inviting friends over to try the Neapolitan specialties that she cooked herself." He also added that "on the set she was very nice with her co-stars. She became more demanding with her director, forcing him to be careful with his camera angles, because she was obsessed with her nose! Like all stars, she tries to defend her profile."
When The Fall of the Roman Empire finally opened in its theatrical run, the critics were sharply divided over it. The film was made toward the end of the epic film cycle in the early sixties and many moviegoers had become bored with the genre. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "So massive and incoherent is it, so loaded with Technicolored spectacles, tableaus and military melees that have no real meaning or emotional pull, that you're likely to have the feeling after sitting through its more than three hours...that the Roman Empire has fallen on you." Numerous reviewers pointed out that Mann's film was a distortion of Gibbon's work, an accusation that prompted the director to remark, "Now I guarantee you there is not one person that had read Gibbon...From Bosley Crowther on down or up. And for them to start to say: 'This isn't Gibbon' - well, this is a lot of crap! Because all we were trying to do was dramatize how an empire fell. Incest, buying an army, destroying the will of the people to speak through the Senate, all these things...were in the film." Nevertheless, The Fall of the Roman Empire was generally overlooked during Oscar® time though it did receive a sole nomination for Best Score (by Dimitri Tiomkin). Yet the film certainly had its defenders, particularly in England where the Daily Express called it "an epic to make one cheer rather than cringe" and the critic for the Evening Standard "proclaimed it one of the best all-round epics I have ever seen." And in recent years, the film's reputation continues to grow with director Martin Scorsese among its more famous admirers.
Producer: Samuel Bronston
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, Philip Yordan
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Production Design: Veniero Colasanti, John Moore
Film Editing: Robert Lawrence
Cast: Sophia Loren (Lucilla), Stephen Boyd (Livius), Alec Guinness (Marcus Aurelius), James Mason (Timonides), Christopher Plummer (Commodus), Anthony Quayle (Verulus), John Ireland (Ballomar), Omar Sharif (Sohamus), Mel Ferrer (Cleander), Eric Porter (Julianus), Andrew Keir (Polybius), Finlay Currie (Senator).
by Jeff Stafford