Far and above anything else, this is my favorite movie of all time. When I saw this as a youngster in 1986 on TV it solidified both my passion as an Ancient Roman-phile and as a Stephen Boyd fan. It stunned me to see ‘Messala’ on screen again (as I had only seen Stephen in Ben Hur and Fantastic Voyage at that point in time). I thought to myself–‘Awesome! This guy specializes in Romans!’ The film not only has an outstanding international cast and an amazing musical score by Dmitri Tiomkin (that pipe organ introduction gives me goose-bumps each time I hear it!), but it also features some absolutely stunning set pieces and 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. It is full of quandaries and conflicts, none of which are truly resolved.
Some of the character names are familiar to people who have seen the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator. But the plot lines are very different. Gladiator is a more straight up revenge story akin to a 1960’s Italian gladiator peplums, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire has a more complex plot and much more complex characters. Neither film is truly historically accurate but at least The Fall of the Roman Empire doesn’t makes the ridiculous claim that Rome was going to be a Republic again as Gladiator does (what the…???).
The Fall of the Roman Empire is a dark movie with a very pessimistic ending, so it makes sense that it failed at the box office. It also was released some five months after the John F. Kennedy assassination, so a dark epic about Rome probably did not serve as a good touchstone for the American public at the time either. 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. However, when the Emperor dies abruptly due to poisoning without officially declaring Livius to be his heir, Livius is presented with a huge quandary. Should he stage a takeover and risk civil war but also rescue the woman he loves from an empty marriage to the King of Armenia? The risk is paramount: he would be doubted as the legitimate heir. ‘Caesar must be undoubted Caesar.’ So instead, Livius does the only thing left for him to do. He declares his friend and the son of the Emperor, Commodus, as Caesar, therefore ensuring continued peace in the Empire. Unfortunately, this choice comes at a huge cost; he loses Lucilla 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.” 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 echoing the revenge Germany will have in the final days of Rome when the Visigoths and other German peoples bring down the Western Roman Empire. How can you not love this stuff?
With his blond locks and blue eyes, Stephen really does look amazingly handsome in this film. Stephen Boyd is more muted than usual in his screen performance here, and some people would probably say it is a dull performance, but I disagree. For some reason I have always loved Stephen’s character and performance in this movie. Maybe it’s the blond hair; maybe it’s the regal way he carries himself in the Roman armor; 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. The script has its good and bad moments. 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.
So, as a fan of Roman history and Stephen Boyd, this movie ranks above all others in my opinion. It is an astounding piece of film making.
For more about the making of The Fall of The Roman Empire, see https://stephenboydblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/behind-the-scenes-of-making-the-fall-of-the-roman-empire/
See also this great analysis book called “The Fall of the Roman Empire” Film and History by Martin M. Winkler – with lots of essays about this great film and Roman history! https://www.amazon.com/Fall-Roman-Empire-Film-History/dp/1405182237/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1493691548&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+empire+martin+winkler
The Fall of the Roman Empire Photo Gallery
“SCREEN STORIES” from 1964 – THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE SYNOPSIS
Movies Illustrated “The Fall of the Roman Empire” Layout, July 1964