“The Fall of the Roman Empire”, 1964 – The Final ‘Sword and Sandal’ Epic

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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 TroyGladiator 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!!!

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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 and Director Anthony Mann discuss cliche-free “Fall of the Roman Empire”, 1963 Interview; “Steve Boyd Flits Among the Lovelies”

Steve Boyd Flits Among the Lovelies

August 5, 1963

The Daily Intelligencer

By Erskine Johnson

Rome – Chunky, rugged, dimple-in-the-chin Steve Boyd has just completed movies with Doris Day and Gina Lollobrigida, Now he was playing love scenes with Sophia Loren.

So leave it to me. I came right out and asked him how they compared on his personal popularity chart.

There had been drama of a sort at Rome’s airport the day before. The two Italian film sirens were slated to arrive within 15 minutes of one another – Gina from Athens, Sophia from Madrid.

The photographers were told: “Sophia at Gate 3, Gina at Gate 22.”

One or the other could be missed between arrival times.

I was in the seat directly behind Gina on the plane from Athens. I didn’t know that the airport photographers faced a dilemma. 

Not until later did I check their popularity chart. With a choice, they waited for Sophia.

In Steve Boyd’s book it was the same story.

With a sudden, slightly startled smile he answered my candid question:

“There is no comparison. I wouldn’t die exactly for Sophia, but I’d come close to it.”

We were on the set here of Samuel Bronston’s latest big epic, “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” It was a big, colorful set, build for only two weeks work. Most of the filming had been in Madrid, and more scenes would be filmed there.

The size of the film and its colossal set put no damper on the small talk always associated with a movie set, at home or abroad.

Boyd talked about “Imperial Venus,” the movie he had made with Gina. It was a farce and this he regretted. He was sticking to straight drama from now on because:

“I just can’t play farce. When I say something, I mean it.”

Director Anthony Mann was delighted about the chance to be making a historical film about Rome “with positively no clichés.” He started counting them on his fingertips – the clichés the film did not have:

“No lions, no orgy, no shower of rose petals, no debauched emperor, no coliseum mobs.”

About the lack or orgy, he laughed:

“How can any movie have an orgy anyway? They always turn out to feature old men sitting around with young girls dropping grapes into their mouths.”

The film was in its 110th shooting day but Mann was right on schedule.

“We are filming history, not making history in putting this film on the screen,” he laughed, an obvious reference to “Cleopatra.”

On sets, in Rome or in Hollywood, the small talk is the same as always.

Anthony Mann and Stephen Boyd
Boyd as Livius
Stephen arrives in Madrid (?). Photo from http://www.lafototeca.com