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FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, THE(director: Anthony Mann; screenwriters: Ben Barzman/Basilio Franchina/Philip Yordan; cinematographer: Robert Krasker; editor: Robert Lawrence; cast: Sophia Loren (Lucilla), Stephen Boyd (Livius), Alec Guinness (Marcus Aurelius), Christopher Plummer (Commodus), James Mason (Timonides), Anthony Quayle (Verulus), John Ireland (Ballomar), Mel Ferrer (Cleander), Omar Sharif (Sohamus), Andrew Keir (Polybius); Runtime: 187; Samuel Bronston; 1964)
“An above average epic, whose main drawback is the three hours it takes to span the Roman history of the second century.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An above average epic, whose main drawback is the three hours it takes to span the Roman history of the second century. Yet the length of the film will prove to be somewhat of an advantage as the slow development of the story draws out the inner workings of how the Empire politically operated, and this couldn’t have been done as effectively if it was shortened too much.

Anthony Mann picked up a copy of Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline of the Roman Empire” in a London bookshop and went to producer Samuel Bronston and told him this would make a swell picture. The two collaborated on another epic “El Cid” with very satisfactory results, so Bronston gave the green light for the project. The script was given an intelligent treatment especially through the efforts of screenwriter Philip Yordan, who wisely emphasized the political intrigues going on behind the throne. Will Durant was called in as a consultant to make this story as accurate as possible for a Hollywood film. One can appreciate that this version of the Roman Empire is a more salutary one than most others, including the recently released “Gladiator.” The only problem was a financial one for the producer, as the fickle public was too tired of seeing epics and failed to provide this film with the box office clout it needed to meet costs. The result was that this film virtually put Bronston out of business as a producer, he didn’t return to producing until 1971.

The story starts with the current Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Alex Guiness), who is in poor health and is waiting to die. He chooses as his successor his victorious general from his campaign in the North, against the Barbarians, Livius (Stephen Boyd), instead of his wayward son, Commodus (Plummer). Livius has some doubts about taking this responsible job and talks to Caesar and then to Commodus about his concerns. But some inner circle members of Marcus’s court decide that it’s time to put the philosopher emperor to sleep for good. They get the blind Cleander (Mel Ferrer) to feed the poison half of an apple to Caesar. The inner circle feels relieved to have one of their own kind, Commodus, take the throne. He is someone who will keep them entrenched in power. But Commodus is devastated that his father didn’t choose him to be emperor and so once on the throne he decides to ignore all of his father’s plans to reform the Roman Empire and obtain peace with the East and with the North, the only two factions in the world that are not under the rule of the Roman Empire.

As the picture starts, a narrator mentions there are two things that are important to note about the Roman Empire: Its rise and its fall. He goes on to say that there is not one single reason it rose or fell, but there were many causes–it was not so much an event as a process taking place over a long period of time. The film will take you up to the beginning of the fall leaving you with the understanding that the Empire fell because it lost its integrity, that the army and the crown could be bought with gold and that the people didn’t believe in its principles anymore. The film makes some glaring attempts to compare the Roman Empire with the modern world and its current problems.

This magnificent film is truly a big-budget spectacle, shot in Ultra-Panavision. It is entertaining in spots, though suffering overall from too many tedious scenes that go on for far too long. It suffers the fate of most epics, its story and characterizations are too sweeping and generalized and they can’t provide an intimacy that is needed. But what is even more fatal is that it fails to live up to the mythic proportions required to tell such a story, that despite all the splendor invested in its production the film still feels top heavy and too literate.

Christopher Plummer is a grand villain. His evil is cloaked in ordinary human desires and a display of egomania. A slight curling smile that creases his lips and slowly widens when he is made the next Caesar says it all, as he will lead his subjects down a path of wanton destruction. James Mason as Timonides, the adviser to Marcus Aurelius and then to Livius, is the voice of hope. He’s an ex-slave, a Greek, who is now a teacher and a scholar. His call for peace and brotherhood pits him against the forces of Commodus. Mason, as usual, gives a solid performance.

The reason Commodus was not selected by his father is because of his evil nature and that he’s a party animal, loving the gladiator games more than anything else. His father’s words prove to be prescient, as his doubts about him as a leader are proven to be correct. Commodus turns out to be a ruthless despot, not understanding his father’s desire for a new Rome of peace and for the Empire to incorporate people of diverse backgrounds and of all colors into it. Because of his foolish actions he causes an uprising against his rule, which will lead eventually to the fall of Rome at the hands of the Barbarians.

Lucilla (Sophia Loren) is the sister he could never get along with. She is hopelessly in love with Livius. But before her father was poisoned he arranged for her a loveless political marriage with the king of Armenia (Omar), so Rome could have an ally in the East. She obediently followed his wishes, and spends most of the film pining for the love of Livius. Their love story and Livius’ duel with Commodus, provide the film with its Hollywood touches.

What impressed me most about the epic was that in showing the Empire in all its pomp and riches, there is still a restraint as it casts a light on the Empire’s tired pragmatism and lack of imagination. It is truly an Empire dying from within due to its decadence and cancerous turmoil and constant warfare, and we can feel this in the penetrating action scenes and in the colorful sets.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”