The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964


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, but it also features some absolutely stunning set pieces and scenery.  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 peplum gladiator flick, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire has a more complex plot and is also more historically accurate. It contains much darker adult themes and quandaries. I like both movies, but my heart is with the 1964 Anthony Mann flick. Stephen plays Livius, a Roman General and also a friend of the Emperor’s son, Commodus. Marcus Aurelius, played superbly by Sir Alex Guinness, prefers Livius to his son as his heir. However, when the Emperor dies abruptly due to poison, our hero is presented with a huge quandary. There is no document declaring him as Marcus Aurelius’s successor! Should he stage a takeover, 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, and avoiding strife and civil war. Unfortunately, this choice is also rife with danger, as he temporarily loses Lucilla, and he puts power into hands of the unstable and reckless Commodus. Livius is second in command to Caesar, and he, along with his Greek friend Timonides (played brilliantly by James Mason), tries to incorporate the German barbarians into the realm of Roman citizenship. Of course Livius eventually ends up confronting his friend Commodus in a riveting hand to hand battle in the midst of the Roman forum.

Stephen is more muted than usual in his screen performance here- Christopher Plummer gets all the scene stealing moments- but 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 the romantic scenes) are repeated almost verbatim in Star Wars- Attack of the Clones and Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith. Nevertheless, 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. If you have never seen this movie, try to find the Blu Ray version which does exist for Region 1 if you are in the USA. It was released in South America, and it is so worth seeing this epic movie enriched by the enhancements of the Blu Ray format.

For more about the making of The Fall of The Roman Empire, see
See also this great analysis book called “The Fall of the Roman Empire” Film ans History by Martin M. Winkler – with lots of essays about this great film and Roman history!






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