The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

fall22016.37: The Fall of the Roman Empire (Network Airing)

Back when I saw Gladiator, people often seemed to talk about The Fall of the Roman Empire, and now I know why- the first twenty minutes or so of Gladiator is pretty much the first hour of The Fall of the Roman Empire. We meet Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), on a long campaign away from Rome battling the Germanic barbarian hordes. Vast dark forests, falling snow… just like in Ridley Scott’s movie. Noble Roman army Commander Livius (Stephen Boyd), who is in love with Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) is the man that Aurelius wishes his own son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), could have been. Surely I’ve seen this film before, I thought, only it starred Richard Harris, Russell Crowe , Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix? Indeed, other than the character of Livius being named Maximus in the Ridley Scott film, even the characters names are the same.

Aurelius is close to dying and advises Livius that it is he who Aurelius intends to be his heir. Unfortunately before Aurelius can put things in writing to ensure his wishes are obeyed, he is murdered by aides of Commodus and it is he who becomes Emperor.  It is only at this point that the two films diverge, Gladiator becoming a Ben Hur-inspired story of betrayal and revenge of a murdered family, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire descends into something of a long-winded potboiler. At least we care about what happens to Maximus- in this film, Livius, by allowing Commodus to the throne without any argument, actually dooms Rome. Some kind of hero. Even at the end of the film with half the cast dead and Rome finally falling apart, all I could do was point at Livius and say “it’s all his fault!” With heroes like that, who needs villains?

The Fall of the Roman Empire dates back to the tail-end of the period of big historical/ Biblical epics that gave us Ben Hur,Quo Vadis, The Robe, Cleopatra and Spartacus and so many others. The Fall of the Roman Empire may actually have been responsible for ending that cycle of films because it is pretty awful and was a terrible commercial failure at the time (less than two million earned against a $20 million budget, a shortfall that was catastrophic).

The problem is the script. This is an overlong and dreary film- at something around three hours long it actually feels much longer. Its certainly is ambitious -its huge scale alone is testament to that- but the film needs some solid foundation to its spectacle. The cast all seem to be woefully miscast (Boyd is a good villain, but a lousy hero, for instance) and all at the mercy of the terrible script- the dialogue really is simply awful. Director Anthony Mann seems more interested in the huge scale of the production and getting it on the screen than looking after his actors and giving them any meaningful direction. Yeah, he put impressive visuals on the screen but it’s all for nothing, a warning for future directors of blockbusters that doesn’t seem to have been heeded.

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Visually it really is quite spectacular. The sets are terrific and the photography really quite beautiful, particularly the outside location stuff- at times it looks quite modern. The scale is huge; The Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most impressive such films that I have ever seen- huge outdoor sets,with  vast armies of extras. The scale is quite breathtaking, particularly as it’s of the pre-CGI era when the massive crowds are real (an organisational nightmare I’m sure) and likewise the sets too. Sometimes I would look at some of the shots convinced it involved a matte painting but then the camera would move and the extras in the distance reveal its all indeed quite real. Incredible production design really- quite immense, but it only accentuates how terrible the story is. You don’t really care about any of the characters, none of them really convince. It’s a terrible mess of a film, well-intentioned that it may have been. A cast of thousands can be just as boring as a modern blockbuster with thousands of virtual characters. Maybe the film-makers thought that with such huge sets and vast extras that that would be enough, that their work was done. Alas, they hadn’t really started.

But it does really look beautiful.