The Fall of the Roman Empire


3h 8m 1964
The Fall of the Roman Empire

Brief Synopsis

A mad emperor's excesses leave the Roman Empire open to barbarian invasions.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Historical
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1964
Premiere Information
New York opening: 26 Mar 1964
Production Company
Bronston--Roma Productions
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures
Country
United States
Location
Spain

Technical Specs

Duration
3h 8m
Sound
Stereo
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.75 : 1

Synopsis

In 180 A. D. the ailing emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, confides to his daughter, Lucilla, that he has decided to relinquish his throne to his adopted son, Livius. The news is overheard by Cleander, a blind prophet close to Marcus' weak and licentious son, Commodus. After conniving with Commodus, Cleander kills Marcus with a poisoned apple, and the less ambitious Livius allows Commodus to proclaim himself emperor, much to the dismay of Lucilla. Because of her devotion to her deceased father, and, irritated with Livius for giving up the throne, she agrees to a loveless marriage to King Sohamus of Armenia in the hope it will help the Roman Empire. Despite pestilence and unrest among his citizens, Commodus continues to live a life of debauchery, banishing both Livius and the faithful Timonides, a Greek philosopher and adviser to Marcus. Nevertheless, Livius remains loyal to Commodus during an Eastern revolt in which Sohamus is killed in battle. After Livius has brought Lucilla back to Rome, Commodus becomes so enraged by Livius that he has a newly-liberated barbarian village completely destroyed; and Timonides is slain during its defense. Upon learning that Verulus, an aging gladiator, is his real father, Commodus loses his mind, proclaims himself a god, and condemns Lucilla to be burned at the stake in the arena. But Livius returns in time to kill Commodus and rescue Lucilla from the blazing pyre. As the Roman senators compete for the throne, Livius and Lucilla leave the rapidly disintegrating empire.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Historical
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1964
Premiere Information
New York opening: 26 Mar 1964
Production Company
Bronston--Roma Productions
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures
Country
United States
Location
Spain

Technical Specs

Duration
3h 8m
Sound
Stereo
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.75 : 1

Award Nominations

Best Score

1964

Articles

The Fall of the Roman Empire


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).
C-184m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford
The Fall Of The Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire

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). C-184m. Letterboxed. by Jeff Stafford

The Fall of the Roman Empire (Limited Collector's Edition) - Anthony Mann's 1964 Epic THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE from The Miriam Collection on DVD


"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

The Fall of the Roman Empire (Limited Collector's Edition) - Anthony Mann's 1964 Epic THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE from The Miriam Collection on DVD

"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

Quotes

Trivia

'Harris, Richard' was originally cast as Commodus. He withdrew because of artistic differences with the director. He was replaced by 'Plummer, Christopher'

Sophia Loren's salary for the film was $1,000,000 becoming the second actress (behind 'Elizabeth Taylor' for Cleopatra (1963)) to receive that amount for a single film.

At 1312 by 754 ft., the Roman Forum still holds the record as the largest outdoor set ever built for a film.

Notes

Location scenes filmed in Spain. Also reviewed at 180 and 185 min. Copyright length: 153 min.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1964

Released in United States March 1980

Released in United States 1964

Released in United States March 1980 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Epic: A Monumental Movie Marathon) March 4-21, 1980.)