Stephen Boyd and Anthony Mann – “The Unknown Battle”, 1964

In mid 1963, as Stephen Boyd was wrapping up his role as the Roman General Livius in the epic production of “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” director Anthony Mann started to consider Boyd as the lead in his next project as well – “The Unknown Battle.” This movie was going to portray the true story of the top secret Allied mission to knock out the nuclear weapons plant run by the Nazi’s in Norway during the mid stages of WWII. Norwegians saboteurs, in a serious of heroic operations, destroyed a ‘heavy water’ plant in Telemark, Norway before if could be used to help develop a nuclear weapon which could have changed the outlook of the war in the most terrible way. Winston Churchill called it one of the most important single acts of World War II because it prevented the Nazis from developing the atomic bomb.

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The Vemork Hydroelectric Plant – the setting for Anthony Mann’s WWII adventure film, “The Unknown Battle”

Originally Mann was seeking to cast Charlton Heston (who had worked with Mann on “El Cid” in 1961) and Stephen Boyd (currently working with Mann) as the two leads in the project. Yes, a reunion of the iconic “Ben-Hur” antagonists was initially the main objective!

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Boyd was set up for a decidedly busy schedule for the next few months and even lamented to one reporter, ” When will I get in a round of golf?” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 6, 1963).
By February of 1964 stunner Elke Sommer (Boyd’ future co-star in “The Oscar”) was signed to be the female lead on the film (whose title had now changed to “High Adventure.”) Boyd told Hedda Hopper that Sommer was as “sexy looking as any actress around”, and asked for her to be his leading lady. (Los Angeles Times, Feb 5, 1964)

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Meant for each other – Sommer and Boyd would reunite explosively in “The Oscar”, 1965

Heston had not been signed, and then Mann considered Boyd’s counterpart in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, Christopher Plummer for the role. Then the merry-go-round of casting continued to some very curious participants!

For a key role opposite Boyd, Mann wanted Steve McQueen and offered him $500,000 plus a percentage of the gross.

Mann explained what unfolded next.

“McQueen told my representative : ‘I resent your calling me at home.’ So I forgot about him.

“Then I went after Marlon Brando, whose price is a million. I didn’t mind the price but he wanted to change the script.

“There were some actors in the cast he didn’t like. He insisted that they must play Nazis. I dropped him, too.” (The Progress Index, Feb 24, 1964)

Incredibly Anthony Perkins of “Psycho” fame, for a cheaper price than Brando of course, won the role.

So the main cast of “The Unknown Battle/High Adventure” was set – Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer and Tony Perkins.

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Boyd’s carousel of potential “Unknown Battle” co-star’s – from McQueen to Brando to Perkins!

In March Boyd was home in Hollywood to discuss the premise of the movie with the press. He seemed very excited about the story.

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Smoking rising from Vemork hydroelectric plant after Allied air raid, Telemark, Norway, 16 Nov 1943 ww2dbase

The story if based on a little-known incident of 1943. It was in the spring just 23 years ago that Hitler announced he has discovered the basic elements to destroy the Free World with atomic bombs of his own. A group of seven men, Norwegians and British, were selected by Allied Intelligence Service to be smuggled into occupied territory to blow up the secret Heavy-Water experimental station in the mountains 100 miles north of Oslo. How these men helped to save the cause of democracy is a story, Boyd feels, must be told. Elke Sommer, herself a product of Germany, portrays a Norwegian girl who helps her countryman in the dangerous mission. The account of the venture has been fictionalized by Ben Barzman… (St Louis Jewish Light, March 18, 1964).

Stephen had packed his bags once more and headed to London and the cold ice fields of beautiful Oslo, Norway to start filming on location. Boyd has been waiting – and waiting – for the production to actually begin. Terrifying flashbacks to the “Cleopatra” debacle of a few years prior were most likely clouding his thoughts! Frighteningly, Anthony Mann was producing and directing the project. It didn’t take long for the money to run short.

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In late March journalist Sheilah Graham broke the story that Stephen, after arriving in London, discovered that the production has been indefinitely postponed. He hurriedly called his agent to join him there to find out what was going on! By April Stephen had filed a $500,000 breach of contract suit against Mann for time wasted and other opportunities lost (Mann didn’t seem to mind to much- he was at the Cannes Film Festival when the suit was filed!).

Boyd has missed some other excellent film offers, including Sophia Loren’s project “Lady L.” Carlos Ponti, Loren’s husband/producer, had told Boyd that “your love scenes with my wife were the greatest (From “The Fall of the Roman Empire”). I’d like you to costar with her in Lady L.” (Los Angeles Times, Feb 5, 1964) Boyd wanted the role, and Loren was insistent that Boyd star as her lover, but as Boyd was tied up with “The Unknown Battle”. Loren had to settle for a lackluster and totally miscast Paul Newman! In addition, Boyd chose not to fly all the way back to Hollywood to attend the premiere of Paramount’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”

By July of 1964 Boyd had cooled a bit and explained to Sheilah Graham what had happened with the production.

“But I sat on my rear end in London, waiting for it to start. A major studio was supposed to provide 50 perfect if the finance. Two weeks before production, they backed out. Tony Mann, the director, has promised me we will make the picture later this year, when the snows come again in Norway.” (Asbury Park Press, July 2, 1964)

Two weeks after this interview, Kirk Douglas replaced Boyd in his role. Boyd had signed on to be the villain in “Genghis Khan” and he was off to make this film instead.

Stephen Boyd and Anthony Mann in 1963 during The Fall of the Roman Empire shoot in Spain

Mann did eventually get his project off the ground with Douglas, Michael Redgrave and Ulla Jacobssen. Richard Harris, who had been Mann’s original choice to play Commodus in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, eventually became the second lead. Harris had just finished up his role as Cain in John Huston’s epic “The Bible”, which also featured Boyd as Nimrod.

Mann’s film was renamed “The Heroes of Telemark” and it was released in 1966. It’s a taut adventure movie with some truly heartracing action scenes and spectacular Norwegian scenery. But I still wish it had been made with the original cast!

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Boyd missed this opportunity to star with his favorite co-star, Sophia Loren

Dec 31, 406 A.D. – “The Crossing of the Rhine”

 

One of the most famous and haunting tales of the late Roman Empire was the winter of 406 A.D. During this period, the barbarian incursions across the border into the Empire had begun to take their toll. In 376 A.D. the Goth tribes had crossed over the Danube, initially with Rome’s permission, to escape a new threat from the  the roving hordes of Huns which had pressured the Goths out of their settlement. After crossing the Danube, this refugee civilization had been cruelly exploited by the Romans, and in turn they took their revenge. In the Battle of Adrianople, August 9, 378 A.D.,  the hollow shell of the once great Roman military power was encircled by Gothic cavalry and surprised in a terrible defeat. The Emperor of the East, Valens, was killed in the struggle. The next Emperor, the virulently Christian Theodosius, allowed the Goth tribes to settle within the Empire itself. They actually served as a barrier and as troops for the Empire. However,  a Visigoth king named Alaric wanted more power, and he took his tribe on a rampage throughout Greece and eventually into Italy. Theodosius’ sons, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West, were left to deal with the situation after their father’s death. The Master of Both Services (Foot and Cavalry), Stilicho, a German-born Roman officer who wielded inordinate control of the West and Honorius himself, pursued and battled Alaric throughout the Balkans and Italy. Without a decisive battle, however, some even questioned Stilicho’s own loyalty to the Empire. Because of these battles, the critical troop detachments along the Rhine frontier were mostly withdrawn to protect Italy. This left Gaul critically exposed.

Flavius Stilicho confronts Goths

Amidst this backdrop came the brutal winter of 406 A.D.  A restless hordes of Germanic Tribes (Franks, Burgundians, Macromanni, Vandals, Alemanni) and non-Germanic Alans were poised across the Rhine River from Confluentes (Koblenz) to Rufiniana (Heidelberg), ready to move into more fertile, warmer lands to the south. Their intention was to invade and settle into Gaul, Spain and eventually Africa. When the cold winter froze the river, on December 31, 406 A.D., they crossed and changed the map and history of Europe forever. This was the Fall of the West and the Dark Ages were upon it. Britain was cut off from the Empire, and eventually the entire western Roman Empire came under the dominion of Germanic Tribes. All that Marcus Aurelius and countless other Roman Emperors had fought against in those dark, Germanic forests had been for naught!

“This memorable passage of the Suevi, the Vandals, the Alani, and the Burgundians, who never afterwards retreated, may be considered the fall of the Roman Empire in the countries beyond the Alps; and the barriers, which had so long separated the savage and civilized nations of the earth, were from that fatal moment levelled with the ground.”  (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chap. XXX)

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As if to mirror the drama it was meant to portray,  “The Fall of the Roman Empire” began filming in Spain during the harsh winter of 1962-1963. Ironically enough, the Rhine froze over this year as well! This was one of the coldest winters in modern Europe. Stephen Boyd lamented about Sunny Spain at the time: “The snow is up to my waist–the temperature is around zero. I could take it if I could wear long underwear buy you can’t wear longies under a Roman toga!” (January 27,1963, Santa Cruz Sentinal)  See below for some snowy pictures during this abnormally brutal winter season.

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s-l500I highly recommend this novel, “Eagle in the Snow”, by Wallace Breem for a great read about the later Roman Empire and the Crossing of the Rhine. The tale follows a no-nonsense follower of Mithras, General Maximus, as moves from Hadrian’s wall to help fortify the town of Moguntiacum (Mainz) and the Roman territory west of the Rhine against the forthcoming Germanic onslaught. It’s a fascinating tale of the new Christian era, the loss of Paganism, and the changing world of the late Romans.

“The Fall of the Roman Empire” – Film Review and Photos

The Leaf- Chronicle, Clarksville, Tennessee – Jan 22, 1965

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A tender moment for Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd in the Samuel Bronston epic production for Paramount, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” which opens Sunday at the Sunset Theatre. Boyd plays Livius, a Roman military tribune and Miss Loren is Lucilla, daughter of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Also included in the cast are Alec Guinness, James Mason and Christopher Plummer.

“THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE”

The long awaited Samuel Bronston epic spectacular, “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” opens Sunday at the Sunset Theatre. Starring such outstanding names as Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” is destined to become one of the great film re-creations of all time.

The story begins approximately 180 years after the birth of Christ. The Roman Empire is at the height of its glory under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), but after several years of warfare, Aurelius feels that his time to live is short and he must find a new heir to his throne.

Under normal circumstances the new Caesar would be Commodus (Christopher Plummer) his son, but Aurelius feels that he is not worthy and instead decides to name Livius (Stephen Boyd), one of his ranking generals and the sweetheart of his beautiful daughter (Sophia Loren).

This decision is well and good but before Aurelius can officially announce that he wants Livius to succeed him, he suddenly dies. Because there is no tangible proof that Livius is to be Caesar, Commodus ascends the throne and with his corrupt rule the Empire starts tumbling downward.

Sophia Loren is stunning as Lucilla, her performance ranging from poignant love scenes to intense drama, is superb. Stephen Boyd as Livius gives a powerful portrayal of a Roman general torn between the love for a woman and love for his country.

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Boyd with Anthony Mann and Sophia Loren on set in Sierra de Guadarrama

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Above FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE photos updated to Fall of the Roman Empire Gallery as well.

Stephen Boyd, a Rolls-Royce and a Chariot!

In early 1963 Stephen Boyd, a man who loved his automobiles, became the proud owner of a brand new Rolls-Royce, which apparently was delivered to him while he was filming “The Fall of the Roman Empire” in Spain. The two humorous anecdotes below about Boyd’s new car are from the Los Angeles Times.

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“Chariot Race Champ Drives Rolls-Royce”

Feb 17, 1963  Los Angeles Times

Stephen Boyd has become the unchallenged modern chariot champion. Because of his work in “Ben-Hur” and the currently shooting “Fall of the Roman Empire,” Boyd qualifies as the Sterling Moss of the chariot set and the Donald Campbell of the Roman racers. “Five years ago I made ‘Ben-Hur’ and people still call me ‘Messala,'” the actor said. “It makes you wonder how far you can go in life without a chariot. I figure they have taken me farther than a conscientious Roman Red Arrow messenger.”  A Rolls-Royce owner off the set, Steve says chariots compare favorably to modern vehicles as far as safety is concerned. “The auto driver forgets he has a hundred times more horses in his hands than the charioteer, but he isn’t one-tenth as careful.”

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Stephen Boyd shows off his chariot riding skills during the making of “The Fall of the Roman Empire” in early 1963 in Spain.

May 19, 1963  Los Angeles Times

Hardy passers-by braving a rugged location of Samuel Bronston’s “Fall of the Roman Empire” in the Guadarrama mountains of Spain, witnessed the arrival of a brand new Rolls-Royce from which alighted two royal Romans in full regalia and a man in a red snow suit. They were actors Stephen Boyd, owner of the car, Christopher Plummer and director Anthony Mann. En route, Boyd had extolled the virtues of his new auto, not even sparing that bit about hearing only the clock. As he and Plummer mounted their chariots, Mann growled to Boyd : “This AD 180, two horsepower, no stand-up top sports coupe is hardly as smooth running as your Rolls. But if you don’t give me a more exciting ride in it than you just did in that gold-plated hearse, I’ll let you lose this one too…just as you did in ‘Ben-Hur.'”

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Boyd, Mann and Plummer in snow-bound Spain during the filming of “The Fall of The Roman Empire”

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Stephen Boyd Behind The Scenes of “The Fall of The Roman Empire” (1964) photos 

Stephen Boyd can be seen in this collection of very interesting photos taken on the set of “The Fall of Roman Empire.” One photo shows Stephen admiring his chariot horses, with his stunt double looking on. The towering Roman Camp set in the Guadarrama Mountains looks especially impressive. Photos include Alec Guiness, Mel Ferrer, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Stephen Boyd and Sophia Loren. 

See also this previous  blog post where Christopher Plummer tells a hilarious story about Stephen Boyd when they were filming  “The Fall of the Roman Empire” https://stephenboydblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/christopher-plummer-tells-a-story-about-filming-the-fall-of-the-roman-empire/