Auteurs in the Arena: Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire – Bright Lights Film Journal

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Auteurs in the Arena: Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire

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Christopher Plummer in The Fall of the Roman Empire

It’s thumb’s up and thumb’s down for Mann’s sprawling, fascinating, multi-auteur epic that inspired “bone-headed” imitations from Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and Mel Gibson (Braveheart)

It’s difficult to think of an unpopular film by a major Hollywood auteur more ambitious or awe-inspiring than Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. Certainly it was one of the most ambitious films of any kind in terms of production: not only was it one of the most expensive ever made, with the largest set ever built, but it was made entirely outside the studio system. It was the penultimate achievement of Samuel Bronston’s independent production company, and, today, it is more well known for bankrupting Bronston than it is for any artistic achievement. Its massive financial failure was probably inevitable, considering how difficult it would be to turn a profit on such an over-budgeted colossus under even ideal circumstances, but, after a lukewarm reception at Cannes and a handful of snarky reviews from the likes of Bosley Crowther, the film was saddled with a long-lasting reputation for being a giant turkey. It has slowly earned some status as a lost classic, but audiences and critics alike overwhelmingly prefer El Cid, the previous collaboration between Mann and Bronston. El Cid may have reached a greater apotheosis of Mann’s style, but for its auteurist pleasures and smart entertainment, The Fall of the Roman Empire is an unpolished 30-carat gem.

Poster for The Fall of the Roman EmpireThe grandiose title bites off a fair bit more than it can chew — promising nothing less than a narrative about the downfall of an entire civilization — but Mann consistently grounds the film with his usual termite art preoccupations. The plot is expansive and has quite a few vestigial subplots, but Mann localizes the drama around the shifting psychologies of a small group of flawed people in or close to the royal family. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) decides he will pass on the crown to his beloved general Livius (Stephen Boyd) rather than his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), whom he loves but considers unfit for government. Livius and Commodus have been lifelong friends, and Livius is romantically involved with Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), though there seems to be an unspoken consensus that things will never work out between them. Aurelius dies before he can finalize Livius’ succession, and the plot bursts like a can of spring snakes when Livius hands the throne over to Commodus anyway, the characters scattering to the winds as they work their private political machinations until the final act brings them all crashing back together in a prolonged bloodbath. The opening and closing monologues by an unidentified narrator weakly frame the film as a pivotal series of events in the course of Western civilization, but Mann treats it like an isolated and incestuous Greek tragedy. During the climactic gladiator fight between Commodus and Livius in the middle of the Roman forum, soldiers form a square around them and box them in by forming a wall with their interlocking shields. The fate of the empire is on the line, but the dramatic weight of the scene is limited to this microcosm where the main thing at stake is how much pain these two friends are willing to inflict on one another. The surrounding mobs, raised up on temple stairs, clearly suggest an amphitheatre.

Mann’s obsession with classical tragedy was most obvious in his fixation on King Lear as an unending source of dramatic material, and Mann used The Fall of the Roman Empire as his final experiment in formula tinkering, rearranging the iconography of Lear to see how they manifest in different environments. Even more than The Furies and Man of the West, two Mann westerns that involve aging patriarchs trying to choose their heirs, The Fall of the Roman Empire borrows and alters most of the key components of the Lear story to satisfy its own dramatic needs. The Fool, for instance, is transfigured into a Stoic philosopher named Timonides (James Mason), and Lear’s descent into madness is transferred onto his son. Mann also continues his interpretation of Cordelia-like figures as avatars of Electra. The incestuous subtext between Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston in The Furies is more frenzied and, consequently, more interesting, but there’s an air of romantic (if not outright erotic) tension between Aurelius and Lucilla that fuses Shakespearean poetic loftiness with Euripidean psychological darkness. The ending is one of Mann’s most pessimistic, closer to the total tragic implosion at the end of Lear than any of his other endings: the hero lives, but he existentially disappears by abandoning the world to its own self-destructive drives. I suspect that Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from Mann when shooting his own Lear adaptation, the masterful and equally pessimistic Ran, which visually resembles the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire in how it treats isolated fortresses in barbarian-infested wildernesses as spatial reflections of Lear himself (this is especially true regarding Mann’s use of natural height variation and horizontal spaces, which seems closer to Japanese ‘Scope films of the time than typical Hollywood epics).

The final battle between Livius and CommodusWhile the level-headedness and integrity of Marcus Aurelius is almost a perfect inversion of Lee J. Cobb’s apocalyptic bluster in Man of the West, Livius is cut from the same cloth as Gary Cooper’s Link in the same film: a thoughtful, compassionate, and quiet man with a violent streak and dark secrets whose principal story arc involves his private struggle between personal grudges and social obligations. In other words, a typical Mann hero, a character type with no analogue in Lear that Mann frequently used to make his sources texts his own. The final confrontation between Livius and Commodus is essentially a restaging of similar showdowns between Mann’s heroes and villains, wherein the hero is forced to commit an act of vengeance, which is always portrayed as ugly, infantile, and pathetic. Mann’s refusal to glorify revenge as either a character motive or a plot device criticizes the popularity of revenge tragedies in classical theatre, which he seems to consider barbaric and crude compared to psychologically insightful works like King Lear. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, this specifically manifests as a partial fusion of Lear with Shakespeare’s gruesome and much maligned Titus Andronicus, which Mann tries to both elevate and critique by reinterpreting some of its plot elements in terms outside the context of revenge tragedy. Livius, like Andronicus, is set to become the new emperor after fighting the Goths for a decade when the dead emperor’s impetuous son claims the throne, but, unlike Andronicus, he retains enough humanity by the end both to survive his world’s deterioration into violence and to be utterly repulsed by it. The mass execution of rebels in the film’s final moments might technically be as bloody as the end of Titus Andronicus, but its gravity and tone completely deny the farcical nature of the play’s climactic cannibal feast.

Mann's directorial trademarks are unmistakable: Alec GuinnessIronically, Titus Andronicus was dismissed for centuries as an embarrassment that wasn’t really written by Shakespeare in the first place, and confusing issues of authorship might be part of the reason for the uneasy place The Fall of the Roman Empire holds in the Anthony Mann canon. Mann’s directorial trademarks are unmistakable, but the overall vision is equally Bronston’s. Churning out a steady stream of big-budget and high-quality period epics at the peak of his career, Bronston was something of a renegade DeMille, though he was more interested in being a consistent and socially conscious storyteller than a boisterous showman. For pure spectacle, nothing in any of Bronston’s productions can hold a candle to the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments or the destruction of the temple in Samson and Delilah, and, since Bronston never appeared in or directed his films himself, he never loomed over them like a puppetmaster the way DeMille did with his narrations and on-screen introductions. Instead, Bronston trusted a relatively small group of talented collaborators to bring his films to life, giving them tremendous freedom to work within his generic preferences. With the exception of Henry Hathaway’s Circus World (Bronston’s response to DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth), all of the films Bronston produced between 1959 and 1964 are built around issues of anti-imperialist rebellion, national disunity, and multiculturalism. The revolt against Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire is largely a reiteration of the American Revolution in John Paul Jones, the Boxer Rebellion in 55 Days in Peking, the interfaith conquest of Valencia in El Cid, and even the trial of Jesus in King of Kings.

It’s also due to Bronston’s skill as a wrangler of immense talents that the film has such an impressive pedigree with the rest of its crew, but it’s not clear to what extent they qualify as co-auteurs. Two of the three writers, Ben Barzman and Philip Yordan, were transgressive Hollywood liberals who worked on most of Bronston’s other films, and the script thematically coheres only roughly with their other work. Barzman was the blacklisted author of several smart Joseph Losey thrillers and a few religiously themed political dramas, while Yordan, like Mann, worked mainly in film noir and westerns prior to attaching himself to Bronston, including Mann’s The Man from Laramie. However, Yordan so frequently served as a front for blacklisted writers that his own voice is muddled at best, and, because Nicholas Ray (another transgressive) directed not only Yordan’s scripts for King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking but also his anti-McCarthy masterpiece Johnny Guitar, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Likewise, director of photography Robert Krasker was one of the most important and stylistically recognizable cinematographers of the ’40s and ’50s, but his influence on the film seems minimal. Mann’s aesthetics gestated in the same kind of shadowy potboilers that Krasker helped define with The Third Man and Brief Encounter, so Krasker’s emphasis on diagonal lines and other expressionist tendencies blend seamlessly with Mann’s typical style. On the other hand, the contribution of the most in-demand talent on the production, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, often seems at odds with the rest of the film. His bombastic score is considered by some music buffs to be the highlight of the film, but, compared to the inventive and vibrant mise en scène, it strikes me as hopelessly square.

Veniero Colasanti and Samuel BronstonAfter Mann and Bronston, the film’s most important auteurs may be the unsung John Moore and Veniero Colasanti, who designed the magnificent sets and costumes together. Their life-size replica of the ancient Roman forum is nothing short of breathtaking, but their attention to minor details is what gives the film much of its visual depth. They harmonized all design elements so that hues, patterns, and textures matched whether they were on the clothing or the sets. A solid white marble wall is subtly layered with minor patches of color variation to break up the monotony and imply wear, and the protagonist’s helmet is painted with slight gradients of brown to mimic the imperfect color of actual leather. Their costumes are almost unique for the time in looking just as good up close as far away; Technicolor had a tendency to make clothing dyes look washed-out and cheap, nearly ruining the credibility of a lot of period pieces (like Olivier’s Henry V), but Moore and Colasanti make their reds and purples deep and regal, their yellows saffron instead of bright canary, their whites naturally off-white instead of bleached out. Mann was such a master at shooting natural exteriors that his scenes shot on sound stages usually looked awful by comparison, but Moore and Colasanti’s interiors can actually stand up to the splendor of the Spanish forests and plains. One of the film’s most memorable scenes features representatives of all the Roman provinces congregating in Germania for a speech by Marcus Aurelius, and while the script seems mainly concerned with some mildly amusing but unimportant banter between Aurelius and his advisor, the scene mostly serves as a fashion show for the multiethnic lords and governors and their rainbow of exotic garb. This way in which the actors often seem to be little more than models for the art design occasionally causes the film to fall apart as a drama, but it also makes it one of Mann’s most visually pleasurable works.

Christopher Plummer and Stephen BoydOne of Mann’s more teasing habits was the way he played actors of radically different styles against one another, and The Fall of the Roman Empire has an eclectic cast of British stage veterans, movie stars, and Hollywood character actors. Unfortunately, their performances are wildly uneven. Stephen Boyd, a matinee idol who consistently gave entertaining and varied performances when given the chance (as in Ben-Hur), gives one of his most boring performances. Part of it is due to a near total lack of chemistry between him and Loren, and part to the dialogue having been written for the much hammier Charlton Heston, who turned down the part (though I’m personally glad Heston didn’t take the opportunity to crash another Mann film). Boyd only shines in his scenes with Plummer, which play to Boyd’s strong suit of reacting to more exuberant actors. Plummer himself is unforgettable as Commodus, using a schoolboy giggle like a musical instrument to hint at rolling oceans of tears underneath, but Loren only breaks away from her standard coy vixen type when she shows flashes of bloodthirst, a character trait largely cut from the film to make her more likeable (most of Loren’s directors at the time would have simply cut the necklines of her nun-like outfits for the same purpose). Alec Guinness supposedly wasn’t too impressed with his dialogue, and it shows: his dry line readings are professional but robotic, the character memorable mainly because of the impressively shot scenes he’s given center stage in. Other wasted talents include Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif, Mel Ferrer, and Finlay Currie, who get about one good scene each and just stand around the rest of the time, and John Ireland seems as out of place playing the Gothic king as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. This flabby and inconsistent ensemble is in stark contrast to the tight minimalism of The Naked Spur, Mann’s most dramatically cohesive film, which features only five speaking roles, all of them played to perfection.

James MasonThe only truly brilliant performance in The Fall of the Roman Empire belongs to James Mason. He plays Timonides like a blob of timid jelly that just barely holds a human shape through sheer force of will, and what seems at first to be the wincing and moaning of a pretentious coward is gradually revealed as the sincere humility of a man who doesn’t recognize his own profound inner strength. Mason doesn’t come close to being a co-auteur of the film the way James Stewart was in his collaborations with Mann — his role is too small and too often bogged down by less subtle scene partners — but he dominates nearly all the best scenes that actually involve dialogue. A scene where Timonides gives a speech before the Senate on behalf of Livius shows what a master Mason was at switching seamlessly between monologue and dialogue through the course of a scene, and it’s one of the most vulnerable moments in his screen acting career.

The same scene also exhibits some of the ways in which the film’s many cooks came close to spoiling the broth. A senator’s fascist outburst that only “Greeks and Jews” use the word “freedom” is clearly a jab by Barzman or Yordan at the xenophobia and anti-Semitism underlying American anti-intellectualism, and the overall atmosphere of a kangaroo court in a hall of legislature is a clear allusion to the McCarthy hearings, one stemming not just from Barzman’s blacklisting but Bronston’s own ambivalent relationship with the United States (Bronston was a nephew of Leon Trotsky, born in what was then part of the Russian Empire). However, even if it’s impossible for modern Americans to not interpret an English-language film about Rome as an allegory for America, Mann resists such easy identifications. Even in his westerns, he avoided the genre’s impulse to generate stories “about America.” Mann shoots the Senate like yet another amphitheatre, an indoor precursor to the one that concludes the film, matching it in color and texture. Aside from a few politically transgressive lines and Mason’s performance, the main appeal of the scene is how Mann shoots Livius from different heights and angles, using him as a sweaty splash of red and brown against the austere and sterile white of the Senate hall. Indeed, this kind of thing holds true in basically all of the other powerful and memorable scenes; Aurelius’ funeral, for example, is the plot’s major turning point, but it stands out mainly because of Mann’s careful attention to how falling snow and torch fire look at twilight.

Russell Crowe in GladiatorBronston biographer Mel Martin claims that part of the reason The Fall of the Roman Empire did so poorly was that the downbeat ending tugged at American anxieties following the Kennedy assassination, with Livius leaving his country in the hands of corrupt warmongers and sycophants (Boyd even looks a bit like a Kennedy). If so, ignoring the fact that this doesn’t take non-American audiences into account, it’s no less plausible that the success of Ridley Scott’s boneheaded remake, Gladiator, was due to the Republican fervor riding high during the 2000 election. The failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire essentially killed the epic in Hollywood for thirty years, aside from silly B-movies like Clash of the Titans and Caligula, and, while Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic Braveheart was the first to revive the genre, Gladiator solidified its new popularity. Some of the characters’ names are changed and a slavery subplot is transplanted in from Spartacus (along with the Stalinist implications of its hero), but its basic story is nearly identical to that of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Considering that nothing of the sort ever actually happened or was depicted in any classical text, it’s rather dubious that David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson were nominated for Best Original Screenplay by the Academy. Worse yet, the film itself, little more than a standard action movie in Roman drag, was awarded Best Picture for its efforts in dumbing down Mann’s work into a macho conservative fable.

The glaring differences between how Mann and Scott each treat the same subject matter is a clear indicator of how many leagues ahead Mann is as an artist. Livius and Commodus, like many other pairs of heroes and villains in Mann’s films, function not as opposites but as flip sides of the same coin, Commodus serving as Livius’ shadow and Livius representing Commodus’ failed potential. When Livius kills Commodus, it is only after he has recognized how much of Commodus is in himself and vice versa, such that it pains him to kill Commodus in the same way it would to lop off his own arm. Mann even makes room in this dynamic for same-sex love, sexual or otherwise, drawing villain and hero closer rather than pushing them apart. Livius and Commodus even share the most homoerotic scene in any Mann film I can recall: after meeting up with each other for the first time in years, they cross arms, stare into each other’s eyes, and grin as they lustily guzzle wine from the phallic end of gourd-shaped canteens, collapsing onto each other a moment later in doggy style position on the edge of a table.

Joaquin Phoenix in GladiatorGladiator puts on airs of being dark and gritty, but the only thing dark about its hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) is his indifference to decapitations and tiger blood. Scott’s notions of masculinity and morality are so reductive that Maximus might as well be wearing a white hat. Where Livius is a Stoic, Maximus is merely stoic, an innate badass who requires no discipline and displays no psychological change. He’s treated as a paragon of manhood — an impossibility in Mann’s cinema, where there are no paragons — one that has next to nothing to do with the ancient Roman concept of manly virtas and even less to do with Stoicism (it’s worth noting that Scott never thinks to mention Aurelius’ Mediations, an important prop in The Fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps assuming Gladiator‘s target audience had never heard of them). All he wants to do is serve his country and go home to his farm, but, alas, his wife is conveniently crucified, freeing him up for his destiny before he joins her in heaven. This is all in absolute contrast to Scott’s version of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who is less a human being than a cipher of any and all conceivable forms of queerness. He’s a mincing sadist, a fop, an androgynous hybrid of Michael Jackson and Cruella DeVille. He wants to impregnate his sister, never stops whining, and hints at closeted pedophilia. He even cheats in his gladiator fights, a slight against sportsmanship that’s treated like a mortal sin, even after Maximus bisects a slave woman with a chariot wheel spike. Most ludicrous of all is the fact that, because Marcus Aurelius gave Maximus the (historically laughable) charge of reverting the empire back into a republic, Commodus is nothing less than the enemy of democracy itself.

The message that folksy stick-to-it-iveness, faith in the afterlife, and raw machismo will always triumph over the perverts must have been one that a lot of Americans were eager to hear in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Ellen, but it’s The Fall of the Roman Empire that comes across as the most hip and relevant today. It’s not only that the film’s treatment of military corruption and hopeless populism has a lot to say about life in the post-Bush years, but also a simple matter of aesthetic luxury. The epic genre has taken off in the wake of Gladiator‘s success, but the results have been extraordinarily bland. Mel Gibson followed up Braveheart with The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, repulsive and pornographic films that only have the languages they were filmed in (Aramaic and Mayan) to recommend them, and Scott made two spiritual sequels to GladiatorKingdom of Heaven, a film predicated on the notion that the only Arabs worth a damn are the eloquent ones and that Westerners who bother with the Middle East are no better than they are; and the joyless and bloated Robin Hood, a third-rate Alexander Nevsky for the Tea Party crowd. None of them are a patch on The Fall of the Roman Empire, the shambling, beautiful beast that it is. Perhaps it’s an indication of just how much we’ve lost that one of the more inconsistent works by a long-gone genius like Mann still has more innovative visual pleasures to offer than any half-dozen so-called epics by “auteurs” like the Scotts and Gibsons of the world.

The Fall of the Roman Empire | Film Review | Slant Magazine

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The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire

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A darker, tougher companion piece to El CidThe Fall of the Roman Empire has always been unfairly overshadowed not only by its more popular predecessor, but also by the fall of its own behind-the-scenes empire. (The mammoth project’s disappointing box office led to the end of Samuel Bronston’s Europe-based super productions.) Both films benefit immensely from the sobriety and rigor Anthony Mann brings to a genre usually governed by mindless spectacle, though Fall hems closer to the director’s obsessive theme of the system collapsing from within, a motif Mann explored in settings as diverse as the noir city (T-Men), the French Revolution (Reign of Terror), and the American frontier (The Man from Laramie). In Mann’s epic, the seeds of Rome’s collapse are planted with the demise of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), whose dream of a unified Pax Romana gives way to the bitter conflict between his corrupt son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) and heroic general Livius (Stephen Boyd). Their brotherly bond turned to bloody rivalry, Livius seeks refuge in romance with his beloved Lucilla (Sophia Loren) while Commodus toys with his crown of laurels and barbarians prepare to cross the frontiers.

Put bluntly, the difference between El Cid and Fall is the difference between faith in a concept of heroism that can transcend even death, and the realization that the fate of the world rests not in the hands of brave warriors but in those of devious schemers who speak softly and carry poisoned daggers. The former is sun-dappled and hopeful, the latter is wintry and gravely Olympian: Plummer’s Commodus mentions the “laughter of the gods” that oversees the intrigue, a notion superbly visualized by Mann in various severe tableaux in which the howling wind seems to mock the characters. Robin Wood once praised Mann as one of the few American filmmakers able to convey the pain of violence, and, pictorially gorgeous as it is, the picture fully illustrates his claim; the torture by torch endured by the adviser Timonides (James Mason) is an instance of off-screen brutality to match Gloria Grahame’s collision with scalding coffee in The Big Heat, while the protracted duel between Livius and Commodus is authentically draining in its vision of a civilization’s cruel and virtuous sides canceling each other out. Indeed, in its profound disillusionment, Fall seems to owe its failure with mid-‘60s audiences less to being out of fashion than to being ahead of its time.

BUY
DVD
DISTRIBUTOR
Paramount Pictures
RUNTIME
185 min
RATING
NR
YEAR
1964
DIRECTOR
Anthony Mann
SCREENWRITER
Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, Philip Yordan
CAST
Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, Alec Guinness, James Mason, John Ireland, Mel Ferrer, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Eric Porter, Finlay Currie



FILM


‘He Roamed with Gypsies’- 1960 Stephen Boyd feature

He Roamed With Gypsies

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Detroit Free Press, March 11, 1960

Stephen Boyd, a rugged, good-looking actor with dark wavy hair and blue eyes, will try anything once – even to joining a group of Romany Gypsies with whom he traveled, ate and slept for three months when he was 17. Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1928—Stephen’s mother was Irish and his father Canadian and from early childhood he cherished the ambition to act.

He began his career with the Ulster Theatre Group under Joseph Tomelty and remained with them two years until he went to Canada at the age of 18, where he joined the summer stock companies and did a lot of broadcasting, before moving to the United States. Once in this country he joined the Clair Tree Major Co. and made a coast to coast tour in1950, playing the lead in ‘Streetcar Named Desire.’ He returned to Ireland at the end of 1950, and remained there doing theater work for two years. He moved on to Britain, and experienced a very bleak period. He took on a variety of jobs, including being a cafeteria attendant. This last job was sufficient to try even Boyd’s sense of humor, and he now says ruefully, “I NEVER want to pour another cup of coffee.”

He even resorted to playing his guitar in London’s Leicester Square. Stephen says this endeavor bought him a pound and six-pence for a matter of two hours. He then blew his whole ‘bundle’ on a meal, and even now he claims that meal lives in his memory as the most memorable one in his life.

Later he found  job in another part of Leicester Square as a cinema commissionaire. Michael Redgrave happened to speak to Boyd one day, and with that intuition typical of the profession, guessed that he was an out-of-luck actor, and on Redgrave’s introduction, Boyd joined the well-known Windsor Repertory Co. and within a fortnight was rehearsing the lead in a play,

Through this experience and some London TV work he was given a seven year contract by London Films and made his first important screen appearance as the Irish agent in ‘The Man Who Never Was.” The very impressive list of screen credits followed that with his memorable performance as Messala in ‘Ben Hur ‘topping them all. Six feet two inches  tall and well-built with a strong face that can switch from an engaging smile to sinister menace, Boyd is an actor with a future rich in promise.

Vital Statistics—

Birthplace- Belfast, Ireland

Birth-date – 1928

Hair- Dark Brown

Eyes – Blue

Height – 6 feet 2 inches

Motion Pictures – ‘The Man Who Never Was’; ‘Island in the Sun’; ‘The Bravados’; ‘Woman Obsessed’; ‘The Night Heaven Fell’; ‘The Best of Everything’ and ‘Ben Hur’

 

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Photo below may have been taken during Stephen’s performance in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.”

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Stephen Boyd: IRISHMAN IN A TOGA

The handsome villain of Ben Hur is slated for a second Roman epic—but he’s proving he can handle other kinds of roles, too.

By Peer J. Oppenheimer

The Evening Review Jan 12, 1963

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Stephen Boyd thundered into the movie spotlight as the villainous chariot driver Messala in ‘Ben Hur.’ But, to the distress of himself and his newly won fans, he thundered right out again in a series of unspectaculars that gave him little chance to prove his acting ability. There was new hope for stardom when the handsome Irishman landed another Roman role, that of Mark Anthony in ‘Cleopatra.’ But the production of that picture dragged on endlessly, and when the film was finally made, Richard Burton- as everyone knows by now- played the starring role opposite Liz Taylor.

Now, however, Steve’s career looks promising again. He is about to don a toga to portray the lead in a multi-million-dollar production of ‘The Fall of The Roman Empire’ opposite Sophia Loren. After that he will return to Hollywood to make ‘The San Franciscans.’

The later will be his second film for Joe Pasternak. The first is the newly released ‘Jumbo,’ a circus musical in which Steve shows talent as a song-and-dance man. Actually, his musical accomplishments came as no surprise to those who remembered that he is a skilled guitar player who once sang for his meals!

“When I was broke, I used to walk along the queues outside the theaters in London singing folk songs to my own accompaniment and then pass around my cap to collect coins. We call this ‘busking’ at home. I did all right till the buskers’ union caught up with me and chased me away from my favorite spot- thus cutting short my musical career!”

Steve’s trying years in London began when he arrived there at 20, fresh from his native Belfast in Northern Ireland. Life had been difficult at home for the youngest of nine children of a poor truck driver- but it turned out to be even more difficult in the big, impersonal British capital. Steve wanted to find theatrical work, but it wasn’t to be had, so he took whatever odd jobs he could get. At one time his invoice was so low that he became ill from malnutrition. Yet it was one of his odd jobs that finally got him a break as an actor.

He was working as an usher at the theater where the British Film Annual Awards were presented. When he helped Sir Michael Redgrave on stage, the well-known British star smiled and said, “I’m not sure that you aren’t one of the best actors on the stage tonight…”

“I am an actor,” Steve replied promptly.

“So what are you doing as an usher?” Redgrave asked.

Steve told him he was out of work. For the first time in his life, Redgrave backed a hunch by recommending someone for a job whom he had never seen act. The result was several weeks of work with a theatrical stock company, which soon was followed by bit parts in movies and tv plays.

The turning point of Steve’s career came in 1958 when he won the part of Messala in ‘Ben-Hur’ – a role that almost cost his life when he insisted on doing 90 percent of the chariot racing himself rather than use a stunt man. “I did my own dragging, and at  one point I had the chariot right on top of me. We were going about 30 miles an hour at the time. A good part of the skin came off my back.”

But after “Ben Hur’, the parts that followed did not live up to expectations. “So when Joe Pasternak offered me the lead in ‘Jumbo’ opposite Doris Day, I jumped at the opportunity- particularly since it was a musical and offered me a change of pace, “ Steve said.

Steve is not bitter about his struggle in Hollywood. His life has conditioned him to hard work and patience. He likes to tell of his first visit home after his success in ‘Ben Hur’. When he arrived at the Belfast airport, his father approached him, held out his hand, and said simply, “Nice to see you.” Steve leaned over to kiss his mother. “From then on, “ he recalled, “everything was back to normal, just as if I’d never left home.”

“To an outside this may seem formal, “Stephen admitted, “But it’s characteristic of the Irish. We don’t believe in a show of emotion, but affection is there and open to you when you want it and need it. I prefer this kind of attitude to that which I feel is so typical of Hollywood. Putting up a front to impress others can never have any meaning to me. Not the way I was raised!”

The 31-year-old bachelor puts into practice the philosophy he inherited from his parents. In spite of his success, he lives in a modest home, drives a rented compact car, associates primarily with non-movie people, and shows a disinterest in worldly goods that is particularly surprising considering the poverty he knew as a youth.

‘Noblest Roman of Them All’ – Stephen Boyd talks about Riding Chariots

Boyd’s Aim: Shine in Scene- and Save Skin, Too!

Salt Lake Tribune Nov 16, 1963

Stephen Boyd is at his physical peak for the most important role of his career. And the virile actor proved it by staging an impressive demonstration of muscle-taut fitness on the snow-blanketed mountain slopes near Madrid where Anthony Mann is directing the popular Hollywood actor in the Samuel Bronston production “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”

With fellow cast members Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer and mel Ferrer watching anxiously from behind cameras, Boyd opened his seven-month film assignment braced firmly in a quarter-ton chariot as he galloped up the treacherous trails of the Sierra Guadarrama range, rendered almost impassable by snow and ice.

Heightening the visual excitement, the rugged star then raced his stallion team up the slippery ramps of the fortified Castrum Romanum to make a dramatic bow in a role he believes will dwarf his outstanding effort as Messala in ‘Ben-Hur.’

Boyd attributes his opening day chariot performance to an intensive preproduction training program he initiated a month and a half before shooting started. Mornings were devoted to chariot racing and horseback riding; afternoons were given over to swordplay and physical exercise. At every stage of training, he called on specialists to perfect technique and to supervise progress.

“Chariot racing,” Boyd says, “cannot be mastered without complete muscular control. Enormous pressures challenge the driver every second of the way. To pull of galloping horseflesh, the weight of the Roman two-wheeler and unpredictable terrain features constantly threaten the charioteer. He must be prepared to react with violent resourcefulness to stay alive.”

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Stephen Boyd during the filming the movie ‘The Fall of Roman Empire’, Navacerrada 1964, Directed by Anthony Mann, Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gianni Ferrari/Cover/Getty Images)

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Gore Vidal on ‘Ben Hur’

In writer Gore Vidal’s memoir ‘Palimpsest’, he describes in detail how he developed the renowned homoerotic angle in the Ben Hur script that was used to develop the tension between the hero, played by Charlton Heston, and his nemesis,  played by Stephen Boyd. It’s fascinating to read and it’s also very interesting to see how Stephen and Gore conspired to pull this off.

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