Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quayle, John Ireland, Omar Sharif, Mel Ferrer, Eric Porter, Finlay Currie, Andrew Keir, Douglas Wilmer, George Murcell, Norman Wooland, Michael Gwynn, Virgilio Teixeira, Peter Damon, Rafael Calvo, Lena von Martens
Written by: Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, Philip Yordan
Directed by: Anthony Mann
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 185
Date: 03/24/1964

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Roman Scandals

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anthony Mann may be the most underrated Hollywood director of all time. His career went through four distinct phases, from unremarkable "B" films to remarkable "B" films (the noirs T-Men and Raw Deal among them), to exceptional Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart (Winchester '73, The Naked Spur, etc.) to epics. During the same period, many of the most highly skilled Hollywood workhorses eventually found themselves directing oversized epics: George Stevens (Giant), David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia), William Wyler (Ben-Hur), George Cukor (My Fair Lady), Vincente Minnelli (Gigi) and Robert Wise (West Side Story and The Sound of Music). The Academy has always been impressed with scale and spectacle, and these filmmakers all won Oscars for their large-scale work, but for some reason Mann's epics never turned them on. Mann was fired from his partly-completed Spartacus (1960) and he later dismissed his Cimarron (1960), but El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), both recently released on DVD by The Weinstein Company's Miriam Collection, look like they ought to have turned a few heads.

Sophia Loren had won an Oscar in 1961 and had worked with Mann on El Cid, so she was ripe for the role of Lucila, the daughter of Caesar (she received top billing and a big paycheck). Unfortunately, Mann chose the uninteresting Stephen Boyd for the role of the hero Livius (though Charlton Heston had been particularly effective in El Cid). Livius and Lucila are in love and the dying Caesar (Alec Guinness) wants Livius to replace him, rather than his obnoxious, irresponsible son Commodus (Christopher Plummer). But before Caesar can make his wishes public, he's murdered, and Commodus takes over. In an eerie parallel to modern times, he plunges his country into war, alienates the allies and erases all the progress made during his father's time. In essence he ensures the collapse of the entire empire. Moreover, he tries to keep the lovers apart by marrying off his sister and sending Livius on endless military campaigns. When a rebellion rises, Livius must decide whether to remain loyal to his childhood friend. James Mason has some wonderful moments as the old Caesar's right hand man, a babbling philosopher.

Mann's greatest skill was a sublime use of space to convey the psychological state of his troubled characters, usually trapped between some vague definitions of good and evil. In his noirs, he used drastically stark lighting, with harsh white lights occasionally puncturing the inky blackness. In his Westerns, he used rocky terrain, ruts and rivets and hills and valleys to carve out his characters. He was also considered an "action" director in that he staged rough and tumble brawls in excitingly visual ways. In his epics, however, he was faced with an entirely different definition of space. He had to fill a massive frame with extra width and depth, and like other directors at the time, he did it with lots and lots of decorations and lots and lots of moving (costumed) bodies. His battles now consisted of hundreds of combatants, and use of space became almost irrelevant, although The Fall of the Roman Empire has one good cross-country chariot race, evidently cashing in on the Ben-Hur craze from a few years earlier. Mainly, however, the film is at its most interesting during interior shots, with a smaller number of characters strategically staged in gargantuan chambers and halls. When Commodus begins to go mad with power, Mann has a great time framing him among huge statues of former Caesars. He also makes fascinating use of a giant indoor swimming pool. Guinness is magnificent in an opening sequence in which he must greet an endless parade of delegates and emissaries by name, even if he can't remember who they are. The old Caesar's funeral sequence is astonishing with its use of falling snow, a range of loud and quiet sounds and dramatic staging. But while The Fall of the Roman Empire is even more technically assured than El Cid, it's less interesting narrative-wise; when Guinness leaves the picture, it begins to lose steam.

DVD Details: Of course, the Weinsteins have given The Fall of the Roman Empire an opulent 3-disc box set worthy of its subject. The movie is spread out onto two discs to maintain quality. Extras include reproductions of the pressbook and lobby cards, a feature commentary track by Bill Bronston (son of producer Samuel Bronston) and Bronston biographer Mel Martin, and several featurettes, old and new. Disc three contains a collection of educational shorts that used the film's sets to tell stories about Ancient Rome. (It's also available on a regular 2-disc edition without the box.)

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