Friday, April 29, 2016

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

The Fall of the Roman Empire was the second of Anthony Mann’s historical epics. El Cid had been a huge hit; The Fall of the Roman Empire was destined to be a major box-office failure. Both films were exceedingly risky ventures since both dealt with subject matter that  would have been unfamiliar to the average cinema-goer. Sometimes such risks pay off and sometimes they don’t. These two films remain two of the most interesting of all movie epics.

Both El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire were filmed in Spain under the auspices of the mercurial but notorious producer Samuel Bronston. Whatever his faults Bronston had no qualms about spending money. If he was going to make an epic he was not going to cut any corners. These were very very expensive movies. Unfortunately while much of the money was well spent a great deal seems to have been wasted or, even worse, simply disappeared into the pockets of some of Bronston’s less scrupulous associates. The commercial failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire led directly to the fall of the Bronston movie empire.

As the voiceover at the beginning of the film reminds us the fall of the Roman Empire was not a single event. It was a prolonged process that took centuries and it was an exceedingly complex process. The story that the movie tells is merely one episode in this process, albeit an important one. 

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is ageing and ill. He is well aware that he has not long to live. One of the chief problems facing the Roman Empire was that there was never a clear-cut method for determining the succession. The immediate predecessors of Marcus Aurelius had solved this problem by choosing a capable successor, adopting him as a son and naming him as successor well before they died. This was the period of the so-called Five Good Emperors, a period of stability and wise government. Marcus Aurelius unfortunately did not adopt the very sensible practice of his predecessors. He allowed himself to be swayed by his fondness for his son Commodus (played in the film by Christopher Plummer). He appointed Commodus co-emperor and successor. It proved to be a catastrophic error.

In the movie Marcus Aurelius realises too late that he is making a mistake and tries to make Gaius Metellus Livius (Stephen Boyd) his successor. The rivalry thus set up provides the major dramatic theme of the film.

Marcus Aurelius has been at war with the German tribes for seventeen years. He dislikes war and his one great hope is that he can achieve a lasting peace and that these tribes can be successfully integrated into the Roman Empire. What Marcus Aurelius needs more than anything else is time. Her needs time to achieve peace and time to solve the pressing succession problem, but time is the one thing he does not have.

Anthony Mann’s reputation as a director rests on a series of celebrated film noir efforts made in the late 40s and an equally celebrated cycle of 1950s westerns starring James Stewart. Mann’s forays into the epic genre in some ways represented a surprising movie by the director. Perhaps not so surprising really though. After all a successful film noir and a successful western require a certain flair for atmosphere, a quality that is equally necessary in a successful epic. The western genre itself has a certain mythic quality which would also be a requirement for an epic. 

On the other hand an epic requires something that very very few directors possess - an ability to paint not only on a very large canvas indeed but on a complex canvas as well. This is an ability that probably cannot be acquired. You either have it or you don’t. Cecil B. DeMille had it and it was in evidence from his very first attempts a the genre. Making a good epic requires one more thing - an ability to keep control over a staggeringly complex production. No-one could really have predicted whether Mann would possess these two attributes. Fortunately it turned out that he possessed them to an incredibly high degree. And no-one could fill a Cinemascope frame more splendidly than Anthony Mann.

Epics require acting on a suitably epic scale. That was no problem in the case of El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the lead role. It is a problem with The Fall of the Roman Empire. Stephen Boyd simply does not have the star power or the charisma that his central role demands. His performance is competent but competent is not quite good enough. He cannot convince us that Livius could ever have been a serious rival to Commodus, and he cannot carry the audience through a very long movie the way Charlton Heston could.

Christopher Plummer’s performance is interesting. In the early part of the story he plays Commodus quite sympathetically. He is obviously ambitious and somewhat vain, and irresponsible. There seems to be no real malice in him however. He is a man who simply does not possess the qualities needed to be emperor and his tragedy is that he does not understand this, nor does he understand why his father believes him to be an unsuitable successor. This approach on Plummer’s part works quite well since it makes the gradual worsening of Commodus’s character plausible - we can see that he resents his father’s lack of faith in him and he resents Livius because Livius does have the qualities to be a good emperor. We can understand, up to a point, that Commodus’s bitterness would cause him to want to undo everything that his father had painstakingly achieved. Plummer’s powerhouse performance dominates the movie entirely. That’s OK, but Commodus is after all the villain and the fact that the hero is so colourless and dull leaves the movie badly unbalanced.

Sophia Loren’s role as Marcus Aurelius’s daughter Lucilla is less interesting than her role in El Cid. For most of the film she is a peripheral character. Towards the end she finally gets the chance to do some real acting (and does so to good effect) but again there’s a problem of balance with the heroine being sidelined for most of the story. James Mason is wonderful early on as the old emperor’s shrewd and trusted adviser Timonides but as the tale progress Timonides becomes irritatingly preachy. Anthony Quayle has some fun as the brutal gladiator Verulus, one of Commodus’s boon companions and a thoroughly bad influence on a man destined to be emperor, but his part is badly underwritten. Omar Sharif is entirely wasted in what is little more than a cameo as the Armenian king to whom Lucilla is unwillingly betrothed - a pity since it’s a part that Sharif could have done something with.

Marcus Aurelius was, in addition to being emperor, an important philosopher of the Stoic school so Alec Guinness was a reasonable choice for the role. He does a pretty fair job of conveying the essential message that this is a man who would have preferred to spend his life discussing philosophy but also a man who (as a Stoic) accepts the hand that fate has dealt him. The trouble is that Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius is too good to be true and adds to the movie’s preachiness. This performance is almost a dry run for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars - I keep expecting him to say, “Use the Force, Livius.”

The biggest problem of all is the screenplay. No-one objects to a few historical inaccuracies in a movie like this but blatantly distorting history to make political points is another matter. This is very much a Message Movie and screenwriter Ben Barzman bludgeons us with that message in an embarrassingly clumsy and tedious manner. Long rambling speeches in which characters mouth embarrassing platitudes do not make for entertainment. There’s no real focus to the narrative and there’s only one memorable character, and he’s the villain. The good guys are bland, lifeless and irritating. While Stephen Boyd’s dullness was always going to be a problem much of the blame for the ineffectiveness of the other actors must be laid at the door of the awful script. Mind you, Anthony Mann should have realised there were enormous problems with the script and should have taken steps - the best step he could have taken would have been to eliminate the incessant speechifying. It’s also possible that Samuel Bronston was at fault here - perhaps he wanted the speeches and the sledgehammer messages.

On the plus side this is truly one of the most visually magnificent movies you will ever see. In that respect it is vastly superior to any subsequent movie epics. Everything looks real because everything is real. The Roman Forum set is not so much a set as a complete reproduction of the real thing. The buildings are not façades. They’re complete buildings. It’s the single most lavish set in motion picture history. And visually it’s all astonishingly  accurate.  

Anchor Bay’s Region B Blu-Ray release offers a magnificent transfer and includes a second disc well supplied with extras. This is, like El Cid, a movie that really needs to be seen on the big screen but if you have a good large-screen TV this Blu-Ray release is certainly the next best thing.

As an historical film The Fall of the Roman Empire is laughably inept. This is fantasy, not history. There are far too many dull stretches and the script is a complete trainwreck. The positives are the breathtaking visuals and Christopher Plummer’s performance and they’re enough to make the movie worth seeing in spite of its egregious faults. Recommended, with those reservations kept clearly in mind.

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