Weekend Film Recommendation: Fall of the Roman Empire

Although writing reviews of remakes throughout last month was a lot of fun, there was one original that came to mind that I really wanted to review. The new month brings the opportunity to switch over and recommend the movie that inspired Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It’s Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Many years campaigning and pacifying the frontiers of the Roman Empire have wearied Marcus Aurelius, played by Alec Guinness (who, thanks to make-up and costume is an absolute spitting image of a marble imperial bust). Although the emperor’s health is deteriorating rapidly his wits remain sharp: he knows that his son Commodus, played by a young and seriously dashing Christopher Plummer, is unfit to rule. Aurelius decides that the soldier Livius, played by Stephen Boyd, should succeed him. In anticipation of the tumult this will cause the empire, soldiers arrange to hasten the death of Aurelius to ensure Commodus’ unequivocal accession to the throne.

But when the despotic Commodus becomes emperor, the chances of realizing the stable pax romanum Aurelius had hoped for disappear entirely. The empire falls into disrepair, and Livius is caught in a quandary: he owes Rome loyalty, but he also hopes to save her from the irretrievable depravity of her emperor. Livius’ love for Commodus’ sister Lucilla, played by Sophia Loren, helps Livius decide which path to take. But the ending is not altogether straightforward…

******SPOILER******

As you might expect, Livius is successful in ridding Rome of Commodus. But unlike most Hollywood endings, it really doesn’t make a jot of difference. Rome is still doomed. So while the title of the film may have led you to believe that Commodus’ despotism is what causes the titular ‘Fall’, in fact it refers to something else entirely.

Boyd is a typically photogenic male lead with a mellifluous baritone voice, and he’s certainly got acting chops. But although he absolutely nailed the part of the patrician Roman general as Messala in Ben-Hur, he’s surprisingly off-the-mark as Livius. He seems far more tormented by his distance from Lucilla (who wouldn’t be) than he is by his patriotic dilemma. That ends up as an unconvincing sub-plot, given that Livius and Lucilla never seem happy even when they are together.

Clocking in at over three hours, there’s time for a few other dilatory sub-plots. The enfranchisement of the Barbarians (in reality, something that happened about two centuries earlier under Julius Caesar) demonstrates the narrow-mindedness of Rome’s patrician class. Lucilla’s betrothal to the king of Armenia, played by Omar Sharif, gives us both a sense of the fractiousness of the empire in the East, and the war it precipitates introduces the thousands of extras Mann recruited from General Franco while filming. The weakest of the sub-plots is a final scene twist in which we learn that Commodus was not in fact descended from Aurelius, as though this explains Commodus’ wickedness. I wasn’t sold.

Notwithstanding Boyd’s performance, the cast is a treat. Guinness is spectacular as Aurelius, thanks to make-up, costumes, and that voice. James Mason, who plays Aurelius’ philosopher companion Timonides the Greek, has a similar knack for commanding a gentle and august presence on screen (see also 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Sophia Loren as Commodus’ sister has only a few lines, but she successfully grounds the sweeping political drama in an intimate, personal struggle.

While the supporting cast is a delight, most people will find the film notable because of the sheer scale of the thing: the scenery is splendid, the chariot race is real, and the battles are colossal (complete with fires in the forest, just like Scott’s remake). As has been noted before here at RBC, Anthony Mann’s films typically have a dynamism that – while flawed – makes them highly compelling to watch (see reviews of Railroaded!, The Naked Spur and Bend of the River, and Strange Impersonation). The difference is that in Fall, Mann has such a spectacularly overblown budget that it’s hard not to be enthralled by the sense of vision.

Others may disagree, but I think the three standout performance are those by Guinness, Mason, and (especially) Plummer. Commodus’ descent into fanciful delusion is a great surprise hit, as he switches from playful mischief-maker to incorrigible tyrant, just like John Hurt’s Caligula.

While it’s a flawed film, Fall is redeemed (if you’re willing to let it be so) by a spectacularly ambitious vision. Sit back and soak it all in, folks.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.