The amazing cast of The Fall of the Roman Empire. From left to right; Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, James Mason, Stephen Boyd, Alex Guiness, Sophia Loren, Christopher Plummer, Omar Sharif and John Ireland
The Fall of the Roman Empire was produced by Samuel Bronston, directed by Anthony Mann (el Cid) and filmed in Spain in the winter and spring of 1963. This is my favorite movie of all time, so I will say emphatically that I cannot be objective about it. I simply love it too much. The film not only has an outstanding international cast, incredible performances and an amazing musical score by Dmitri Tiomkin (that pipe organ introduction still gives me goose-bumps each time I hear it!), but it also features some absolutely stunning set pieces, realistic Roman battles, Roman architecture and stunning scenery. The Fall of the Roman Empire is actually a favorite flick among Roman scholars because it truly captures the mood and tone of Gibbon’s dark second century Rome brilliantly. Gore Vidal, in his book Palimpsest, says “the only ‘accurate’ Roman film that I’ve ever seen- in appearance that is- was The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” In fact historian Will Durant was on-set to offer his advise about the script. I’m sure he received a handsome paycheck to overlook some of the historical inaccuracies. Nevertheless this film is as close as you can get to a true depiction of Roman Imperial life in the 2nd century A.D (at least, Hollywood-style). It is full of quandaries and conflicts, none of which are truly resolved. In my opinion it is a film that reflects a Stoic perspective on life itself.
It contains an assorted of characters, all of which are flawed in one way or another; the philosophic emperor (Alex Guinness) who is idealistic and grand yet the father of a profligate son (Christopher Plummer); the daughter of the emperor (Sophia Loren) who is beautiful yet bitter and hateful towards her mother; the imperial son (Commodus) who not worthy of his father but who ends up ruling anyway, only to discover he is the bastard son of a gladiator (Anthony Quayle); the emperor’s advisor (James Mason) who is a philosopher himself despite being born a slave; and finally the Roman General (Stephen Boyd) who is loved by the emperor, his son and his daughter because he is a moral man and the ideal stoic Roman, but yet is a tacit force in the downfall of the Empire he so loves. Livius is powerless to control the events taking place around him, or at least unwilling to take power himself until no options are left. He walks away from his chance to become Emperor…twice! But after we see the kind of conniving and evil men in the political machine, do we blame him for giving up and walking away at the end of the film? Its questions like these which make me watch this movie over and over again. Besides that, it perfectly captures the Roman world teetering on the brink of the “Time of Chaos”, which would take place at the end of the Severan era around 235 AD, 55 years after the death of Marcus Aurelius.
To summarize the movie, Marcus Aurelius, played superbly by Sir Alex Guinness, prefers to have the morally upright Livius to his corrupt son Commodus. Livius is in love with the Emperor’s daughter, and his is good friends with the Emperor’s son as well. The Emperor reveals his desire to name Livius his heir to become the next Emperor. Livius i stunned – if not downright shaken by the prospect. He reveals this turn of events to none other than Commodus himself, who has just arrived from Rome. The revelation sinks into Commodus and produces taut friction between the two men. A stunning chariot race is the product of this tension which careens down the road of a steep mountain and alongside a rushing river. It has the shades, of course, of the famous “Ben-Hur” race, especially seeing Stephen Boyd in the mix, but this time he is driving the team of white horses!
However, when the Emperor dies abruptly due to poisoning by a scheming haruspex (Mel Ferrer) without officially declaring Livius to be his heir, Livius is presented with a huge quandary. Should he stage a takeover and risk an ugly civil war and at the same time marry the woman he loves, keeping her from the King of Armenia? The risk is paramount: he would be doubted as the legitimate heir. ‘Caesar must be undoubted Caesar,’ he gently tries to explain to his love, Lucilla. So instead Livius does the only thing left for him to do. He presents the logical successor to Marcus Aurelius – his friend and already co- emperor Commodus – the the troops as Caesar. This ensures continued peace in the Empire and the undying loyalty of Commodus as well. Unfortunately, this choice comes at a huge cost; Livius loses Lucilla to an Armenian Prince (Omar Sharif) and he puts the power of the Empire into hands of the unstable and reckless Commodus. As Livius states: “There are only two possibilities, and both are impossible. That is a dilemma.”
Once Commodus has consolidated his power, a battle of wills ensues between his favorite General – our Livius- and Timonides (James Mason) and the Senate concerning the settlement of German tribes within the territory of Rome and offering them citizenship. Timonides and Livius win the Senate, the barbarians are settled, but Livius’s defiance of Commodus’ wishes create a discord between himself and Commodus, especially with Lucilla’s scheming as well. Livius is banished to a lonely patrol back up in the Danube. Commodus softens his stance after a while as a plague ravishes Rome. He invites Livius back to his confidence and construes upon him the task of quelling an Eastern Rebellion (which Livius will soon find out has been instigated by Lucilla herself, along with her Armenian husband (Omar Sharif). Livius is relectant (once again) to accept a position of high authority and tells Commodus, prophetically, “Do not give me this power.” Commodus disregards the warning, fatefully.
After defeating a rebellion of the Eastern Provinces, Livius himself turns his army against Rome and ends up confronting his friend Commodus in a riveting hand to hand javelin battle in the midst of the Roman forum. Commodus dies while embracing Livius in a touching reflection of their earlier friendship. Livius rescues Lucilla from the flames of the burning sacrificial pier and carries the dead Commodus with dignity (and ease) up the steps to the Roman altar. Livius is offered the chance to be Caesar once again by the same men who had rallied around Commodus. In one of the best last lines of any film, Livius turns to them and says, “I don’t think you’d find me suitable, for my first official act would be to have you all crucified.” Fin!!! Queue the dark pipe organ music again as the camera sweeps upwards, following the billows of smoke carrying the ashes of Germanic people being burned alive at the stake, their cries of “Wotan Avenge Us!” echoing the revenge Germany will have in the final days of Rome starting with the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD and ending when the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire. How can you not love this?
The Fall of the Roman Empire is dark movie with a pessimistic, albeit epic ending. The marketing for the film was astounding – see here for all the many beautiful slides and booklets! It even had a theme song performed by none other than 1960’s top crooner Johnny Mathis. Because of its tone, or perhaps because of audience burn-out for Roman epics (the ‘Cleopatra” hullabaloo had just been released less than a year before), it failed at the U.S. box office, although it did well internationally. Another perspective is that the film was was released in April of 1964, just shy of five months after the John F. Kennedy assassination. A dark epic about the slow decline and collapse of Western Civilization did not serve as a good touchstone for the American public at this point!
With his blond locks and blue eyes, Stephen Boyd really does look amazingly handsome in this film. Boyd is more muted than usual in his screen performance here and some people would probably say it is a dull performance (compared to Messala in Ben-Hur) but I disagree. I have always loved Stephen’s quiet, thoughtful and powerful performance in this movie. Maybe it’s the blond hair; maybe it’s the regal way he carries himself in the Roman armor (has anyone ever looked more handsome in a Roman helmet?); maybe it’s the soft, gentle way he speaks; or maybe it’s the way he seems totally in awe of Sophia Loren. He has some truly tender and touching scenes with Italian super-star Sophia Loren. They look absolutely stunning together on screen as well.
The script has its good and bad moments. Most of the actors were displeased, especially coming at the heels of some really excellent epic scripts like “Lawrence of Arabia”. Some of the dialogue reminds me of ‘George Lucas speak’. In fact some of the lines (especially in the romantic scenes) are used almost verbatim in Star Wars- Attack of the Clones and Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith. And the fact that you have Alec Guinness being about as Jedi as a Roman-philosopher-Emperor could be, I can’t help but see Star Wars-isms in The Fall of the Roman Empire as well.
It’s very fitting that The Fall of the Roman Empire, which essentially ended the ‘sword-and-sandal’ film era, would be the tacit inspiration 36 years later for Ridley Scott’s Oscar winning epic Gladiator, which kick started a whole new era of ‘sword-and-sandal’ movies in the 2000’s like The 300, Alexander and Troy! Gladiator seems to owe more to Spartacus than The Fall of the Roman Empire, but nonetheless it is a fitting conclusion to the amazing inspiration of The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Enjoy Turner Classic Movie’s airing of The Fall of the Roman Empire on January 17th, 2019!!!