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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.