Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Director: Anthony Mann                                Writers: Ben Barzman & Basillo Franchina
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                           Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Starring: Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer and Sophia Loren

Among gigantic Hollywood epics of the golden age, this is not one that is typically mentioned along with Ben-Hur and Spartacus. The Fall of the Roman Empire was Anthony Mann’s follow up to the successful El Cid three years earlier. Like so many epics, it is a film that moves at a luxurious pace, unhurried and reveling in the grandeur of the outdoor settings and opulence of the interior sets. The first half of the picture takes place in the northern frontier of the empire, in what is now Germany. The second half then moves to Rome itself, and to the eastern provinces as the Roman armies fight the Persians. Though it is a good-looking film, as far as epics go it’s a little tepid. And I would probably place the blame for that on the use of Will Durant as technical advisor. While he was certainly a first rate historian, accurate history does not always make for gripping drama. Even the central love story fails to be all that compelling. The motion picture academy apparently felt the same way as the film was only nominated for a single Oscar.

Anyone familiar with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator will recognize the opening scenes of this film. The aging Caesar, Alec Guinness, is in the north fighting the Barbarians who threaten the frontier. His wish is to create a new, peaceful Roman state and to carry out this legacy he has decided to pass over his son, Christopher Plummer, and make his most trusted soldier and step-son, Stephen Boyd, the new emperor. But there the stories diverge. In Mann’s story it is Plummer’s men, gladiators, who engineer the death of the emperor in order to keep themselves in power. At the same time Boyd, who is in love with Caesar’s daughter, Sophia Loren, is feuding with Plummer, unaware that Guinness has promised his daughter to the king of Armenia in order to solidify defensive alliances on the eastern border of the empire. But the feud ends when, knowing Guinness made no written account of his preference, Boyd acknowledges Plummer as the new Caesar.

Once back in Rome, Plummer sets about dismantling everything Guinness tried to create, and in doing so he begins the destruction of the very empire that he is attempting to rule. Plummer is sufficient as the crazed king, but no more. He lacks the kind of almost sadistic personality that would create some real drama. In fact, no one in the piece is really bad, but they all lack the kind of spark that would elevate it into something special. Guinness, Boyd, Loren, even James Mason are unable to transcend the pedestrian nature of the material. But this wasn’t the original plan. Both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were offered Boyd’s role but turned it down. Richard Harris was the first choice for Plummer’s role, but he declined as well. And Sara Montiel was offered the role that eventually went to Loren. Had this cast been filmed things might have been different, but as it was the film was a box-office failure.

The one Oscar nomination the film received was for Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, but it isn’t any better than the acting. Of the big five composers of the golden age he’s decidedly my least favorite. I’m convinced--and if you close you eyes and just listen to the music you will too--that everything he ever wrote was a western. To my ears, Miklós Rózsa was the absolute best at scores for epic films, but he had gone into semi-retirement five years earlier after Ben-Hur. As far as Mann’s production goes, this was one of those literal casts of thousands. The final battle scene has over eight thousand extras and the Roman Forum was the largest outdoor set ever built. And while Mann went on to helm two more films before his death, the movie's failure broke producer Samuel Bronston who had to declare bankruptcy. The Fall of the Roman Empire is certainly not a terrible film, but in the end it lacks almost everything that makes a great epic great.

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