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The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire(1964)

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"Two of the greatest problems in history are how to account for the rise of Rome and how to account for her fall. We may come nearer to understanding the truth if we remember that the fall of Rome, like her rise, had not one cause but many, and was not an event but a process that was spread over three hundred years."

So begins The Fall of the Roman Empire, the sprawling historical epic from Samuel Bronston that attempted nothing less than an adaptation of Edward Gibbon's six-volume history. Bronston's 1961 El Cid had been a critical and popular success and the producer was eager to work with director Anthony Mann, who carved a grand and brawny story out of the spectacular production, once again. According to Bronston's biographers, it was Mann who suggested Gibbon's history. To pare the sprawling work down to a three-hour movie, screenwriters Ben Barzman and Philip Yordan ( traced the beginning of the end of Rome to 180 A.D., with the death of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and the beginning of the disastrous reign of Commodus, whose decadence and recklessness stands in for the ills and failures that marked the fall. Esteemed historian Will Durant was hired as the production's "special consultant" and received a prominent screen credit, which didn't stop the screenwriters from mixing supposition and downright fiction into the narrative. In this dramatization, as Marcus Aurelius (played with almost saintly idealism by Alec Guinness) battles the Germanic tribes (also known as the Barbarians) on the Northern frontier, he makes the painful choice to disinherit his decadent, arrogant son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) and hand the reins of leadership to his adopted son and loyal general Livius (Stephen Boyd), much to the approval of Lucilla (Sophia Loren), Marcus Aurelius' commanding daughter. Before he can act upon his decision, however, he is murdered in a conspiracy hatched by advisors and generals loyal to Commodus.

If any of that sounds familiar, it may be because Ridley Scott centered his Roman epic Gladiator on the same succession of power. Scott even opened his film with the campaign on the Northern Frontier, with Richard Harris taking the Alec Guinness role, Connie Nielson in Sophia Loren's part, and Joaquin Phoenix more flamboyantly decadent than Christopher Plummer as the kinky and morally corrupt Commodus. Russell Crowe's Maximus was Scott's stand-in for Stephen Boyd's Livius, but where Maximus was immediately and viciously betrayed by the power-mad Commodus in Gladiator, the relationship between Livius and Commodus is much more complicated. Torn between duty to his Caesar and loyalty to his friend and brother Commodus – not mention his love for Lucilla, who has been married off to the King of Armenia (Omar Shariff) – Livius makes a dramatic show of support for Commodus at the funeral of Marcus Aurelius.

It's one of the film's most magnificent scenes. The former Caesar's body is carried out to a pyre and lit while representatives of every province, dressed in their military finery, look on and the winds whip the falling snow into a bitter frenzy. The snow was real. According to Mann's production manager C.O. "Doc" Erikson, it began to snow on the first day of the location shoot in the dense forests of the mountains of Seville (standing in for the untamed German frontier) as if in answer to Mann's prayers. It made life difficult for the cast and crew, which had to match the scenes later with fake snow slathered over the landscape, but it gives the scene an added majesty. The soundtrack, meanwhile, offers counterpoint as Dmitri Tiomkin's grandiose score disappears into a chorus of keening voices, like an ill wind blowing through the ceremony. It recalls a pronouncement offered earlier by the seer Cleander (Mel Ferrer): "The omens are bad."

Thus begins the fall, not with a bang but a ghostly wail at the ascension of a decadent, arrogant, narcissistic ruler to the throne. Commodus recreates the Roman Empire in his own image, doubling taxes on the provinces to make Rome into the center of luxury and playing at gladiator camp (crossing swords with his favorite gladiator, half naked and laughing in pleasure, is as close as the film gets to homo-erotic suggestions) while the provinces rise up in rebellion, led in part by his sister and his own disenchanted armies. That's a thumbnail sketch of a three-hour drama that encompasses so much that it loses dramatic focus in the sprawl. In the words of Bronston biographer Paul Nagle, "The script was immense, the script was ambitious, and the script was constantly being revised, even during production." The physical scale of the production was no less ambitious. When Commodus rides back in to the bright, sun-kissed city of Rome, he passes through a full scale replica of the Roman forum, built from scratch in the Spanish desert outside of Madrid. The 27 three-dimensional structures were not merely facades but complete buildings with finished interiors: The largest standing film set ever built to that time. The set sprawled a third of a mile by 780 feet and rose over 165 feet at its highest point, decorated with 350 individual statues and detailed relief work on every façade. Matte paintings enhanced and extended the visual spectacle in some shots, but otherwise it was all real, from the sets to the cast of thousands, and Mann was a stickler for the accuracy in costuming. The parade of kings and their armed retinues that pay their respects to Marcus Aurelius in the opening act of the film is not just magnificent pageantry, but painstakingly researched and accurate recreations of national royal fashions and military garb.

Mann's staging of the processions and ceremonies is majestic, but his handling of the action scenes is both grand and dynamic. From the savage battles with the fierce Barbarian warriors in the German forests to the massive clashes of armies in the plains of the east, Mann not only fills the width of the frame with action, he stages the battled in depth, creating a rich canvas of furious combat. With the help of second unit director Yakima Canutt, the legendary stunt man and stunt coordinator who helmed the chariot race on Ben-Hur, Mann stages his own chariot battle, this one through the German forests where Commodus and Livius careen down a winding path and tip precariously on the edge of a cliff. And for the climax, Mann stages a glorious mano-a-mano gladiatorial combat amidst a grotesque celebration in the Roman forum as decadent as any Cecil B. DeMille pagan spectacle. Such grandeur came at a high cost. The Fall of the Roman Empire became Bronston's most expensive production and, in adjusted dollars, one of the most expensive pictures ever made. It almost bankrupted the independent Bronston, who had to seek funds from outside investors, finally striking a deal with Paramount to pay off his debts and finish the film.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, shot Ultra-Panavision by Robert Krasker (whose resume includes photographing the intimate Brief Encounter for David Lean and the expressionist The Third Man for Carol Reed as well as El Cid) is surely the most magnificent period piece of its era. Bronston tops himself in terms of sheer physical spectacle and Mann puts every dollar on screen, but it suffers from a less focused story and a weaker leading man than El Cid. Bronston and Mann had hoped to reteam Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, but to say that the stars did not get along is an understatement. By the end of El Cid they hated each other. Bronston signed Loren to a return engagement – at a premium price, thanks to hard bargaining by Loren's producer husband, Carlo Ponti – but Heston refused the offer. After Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas (fresh from Spartacus) also turned down the role, Mann suggested Stephen Boyd, who played Charlton Heston's boyhood friend turned nemesis in Ben-Hur. With his wide shoulders and Kirk Douglas cleft, Boyd certainly looks the role of the mighty and noble Roman soldier, but he lacks the screen presence and dramatic strength of Heston, who could hold the center of a massive drama and hold his own against overwhelming sets and locations. Boyd tends to be diminished by the scale of the production, not to mention Loren (who is truly larger than life as Lucilla) and the rest of the film's grand supporting cast. In addition to Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer (who suggests Commodus' corruption with impish smiles and blazing eyes and a provocatively casual manner), Bronston and Mann cast James Mason as the former slave turned patriot philosopher Timonides, John Ireland (under a wild red wig and beard) as the Barbarian leader Ballomar, Mel Ferrer as the blind seer Cleander, and Anthony Quayle as Commodus' champion gladiator Verulus. Omar Shariff, the Egyptian matinee idol who became an international star with Lawrence of Arabia, is given little screen time as the King of Armenia, but his presence burns through his every appearance.

The film was nowhere near the success of El Cid, neither critically nor commercially. It arrived at the end of the vogue for historical epics and costume spectacles and it ended not in heroic triumph but in the bitter disappointment, not a theme that resonated with audiences in 1964. Watching with contemporary eyes, however, Mann's disgust at the self-destructive corruption that poisoned the empire and led to its fall feels very modern. The speeches strewn through the film often sound showy and hollow, but Mann's direction is both bold and subtle, illustrating the ills dooming the empire better than any speech.

The Fall of the Roman Empire marks the second release in the Weinstein Company's "The Miriam Collection" and features the nearly complete roadshow version of the film (a newly-discovered scene surfaced after the disc had been mastered, according to a note on the disc), with original entrance, exit and intermission music intact. The film, beautifully restored with vivid colors and sharp clarity, is spread across two discs, split at the intermission. The commentary by Bill Bronston (son of producer Samuel Bronston) and Bronston biographer Mel Martin is largely focused on behind-the-scenes details and trivia and, with so much time to fill, they often fall quiet. The 30-minute Rome in Madrid is an archival promotional film focused on the creation and construction of the massive Roman forum set, with some behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot.

The second disc features four original featurettes. The half-hour The Rise and Fall of an Epic Production is a somewhat unfocused but very informative overview of the film from inception to release. No less than three Samuel Bronston biographers are joined by Bill Bronston, Anthony Mann's widow and daughter, screenwriter Ben Barzman's widow and Mann's production manager C.O. "Doc" Erikson, and they provide plenty of detail on the production and on director Anthony Mann's working methods, as well as look at the causes of the production's spiraling budget. The Rise and Fall of an Empire is a perfunctory sketch of the real-life history behind the film's story while Hollywood Vs. History takes a livelier look at the differences between the historical record and the film. More interesting is Dmitri Tiomkin: Scoring the Roman Empire, an in-depth look at the composer and his work on the film, including a detailed listen to the score with insights on his style.

The "Limited Collector's Edition" box set features an exclusive third disc with five short Encyclopedia Britannica On The Roman Empire educational documentaries that were shot on the sets of the production, plus a reproduction of original 1961 souvenir program and six postcard reproductions of color stills.

To order The Fall of the Roman Empire (limited collector's edition), go to TCM Shopping

by Sean Axmaker