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!!!
As a prelude to TCM playing “The Fall of the Roman Empire” next Thursday I thought I would let everyone know there is a fantastic critical essay book out there, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” – Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler. There are still copies available on Amazon.com. This is an amazing collection of critical essays about Ancient Roman, reviews of the film by Anthony Mann, Edward Gibbon excerpts, and cinema and historical photos all relating to this era of Roman History. This came out after the release of “Gladiator” in 2000 to give due credit to this amazing film, which is so readily and tragically forgotten. I really hope people get to enjoy seeing it for the first time on TCM next week! Spread the word!
A detachment of Praetorian Guards met Livius, Claudius and Claudius’ aides at the bridge over the Tiber and accompanied them through Rome to the emperor’s palace on the Palatine Hill.
As Livius was escorted up the palace steps, he glanced out at the yellow eyes of Rome by night, the flickering candles and oil fires, the thick shadows and the glow of torches illumining the obelisks and temples. He was home and he felt as excited as a small boy.
Claudius remained with him as the Praetorian Guards escorted them across the entry into the state room where slave girls and the patrician youth of the city drank and laughed together. But as Livius came in sight, the laughter ebbed and silence spread over the place like a shroud.
Cornelius, the chief of the Praetorians, came forward, and led Livius along along the corridors to Commodus’ private chambers.
This suite looked out on the palaestra. as though Commodus was truly happy as long as he was in sight of the gymnasium and his gladiators.
The spacious room was softly lit by oil lamps suspended on delicate clains from the ceilings and walls. Commodus looked lonely, a brooding figure in the shadowy chamber. Behind him on the cavernous walls were huge maps of all the Roman provinces.
Commodus did not look up, seeming not to notice that Livius and Cornelius had entered his presence. Cornelius glanced at the emperor, then at Livius. He withdrew, leaving Livius alone some distance from Commodus.
Commodus spoke in low tones, “Oh Livius. My friend – my brother! Why did you leave me?”
Commodus descended from the throne, moved slowly toward Livius. Livius hesitated only a second longer and than rushed to him. They embraced fiercely, then parted.
Livius, only now looking at his great friend, realized how much he had missed Commodus and all he represented. Gazing at Commodus, he found it hard to credit all the rumors and whispers Timonides had retailed to him at Ravenna.
“I am alone, Livius.” Commodus’ voice was odd, ready to break. “This is a fiercely lonely place I exist in, Livius. I try to lighten my terrible burdens with some pleasures– music, gladiators, excitements–and terrible talk starts about me. I imagine you have heard much of it–even as far away as Ravenna.”
Livius smiled. “I’ve heard whispers.”
Commodus sighed. “And I suppose you disapproved, too?”
“I didn’t believe everything I heard.”
“But you disapproved what you did believe?”
“It was not for me to approve. You are undoubted Caesar. You must become disheartened, tired–”
“Oh, I do, Livius, you’ll never know how tired I become. If it were not for my pleasures, I couldn’t endure it all…Still, I can see by your face that you don’t apporove.”
“You can’t see that, Commodus, for it is not there in my face. I have no right to censure you. You do not live as I would, but your tastes are not mine.”
“How I’ve missed you, Livius! Why can’t the world understand me as you do?”
Livius didn’t speak, and Commodus persisted. “What’s the mater, Livius, is it my fault the world does not understand?”
“I need you here, Livius,. I am so alone. There is no one like you. No one I can trust. No one I can talk to, ask advice, speak my heart to. They all want something of me. I can never know what they’re thinking.” He smiled at Livius, great love showing in his face. “Only you, when you speak, I know it’s the truth–and for my good.”
“I have not wanted to be away, Commodus.” He spoke tensely. “I have been isolated. I have hear only rumors. What really has happened?”
Commodus’ face shadowed, tightening in helpless frustration. He spoke in a whisper. “Rebellion– the whole East has rebelled. Syria, Egypt.”
Livius shook his head, staggered. “Syria? Egypt? That is Virgilianus, Marcellus. It cannot be! They were soldiers with me. They were the most loyal.”
Commodus laughed in rage.
“They were loyal to my father. Now they are raising armies against me–against Rome.” he glared about him, eyes bitter. “They’re always hated me. Marcellus. Virgilianus. They’re waited all these years for the right moment.”
Livius turned away, prowling the huge room as though it were suddenly a breathless cage. He was deeply disturbed.
Commodus said, “Even Sohamus has joined them.” When Livius heeled around, scowling, Commodus peered into his face, studying it. “He forced Lucilla to flee with him.”
At the sound of Lucilla’s name, Livius felt something flare inside him and he winced as if an old wound that had lain dormant were suddenly ripped open, raw and bleeding.
Commodus stared into his face. “And there is more, Livius. More I haven’t told you. The rebellion is spreading in your name.”
Livius looking squarely at Commodus, their gazes clashing. In the deep silence, the remove sounds of the palaestra filtered through the heavily curtained windows.
At last Livius said in a quiet, hard voice, “Rebellion cannot be made in my name, Commodus.”
“Yet they are using it that way. Your name has spread over the whole East–as the new Caesar.” His mouth taut, Commodus quoted, ” ‘Bring in the new Rome–the Rome of Livius Gaius Metellus.’ And now there are echoes of that same cry in the North and West. Do you say you have not even heard it?”
“I do say that, Commodus. I remain loyal to my country, my Caesar, my oath.” He prowled the carpeting, staring at the map of the provinces, the shadowed walls, the old lamps, the emperor waiting. He heeled around, mouth bitter. “Why did you recall me, Commodus?”
“I wanted to hear from your own mouth that you loved me still, Livius.”
“You knew that.”
“The whispers are shouts, the rebellion is real, growing.”
“Why do you call on me, Commodus? Where is your Eastern Army?
There was a protracted silence. At last, as Livius waited tensely, Commodus gave a weary gesture of his hand. “Our Roman legionnaires have been so long in the East, they are no longer Roman.” His voice lowered, becoming almost inaudible. “The Eastern Army has gone over to the rebels.”
Livius retreated as if struck physically, staggered by this news. Commodus straightened, eyes bitter. “Why do I call on you, Livius? Because you are the only man the Northern Army will follow in battles against–other Roman legions.”
Livius stared at the emperor inn the thick silence. At least he said, “This is a filthy task you impose on me–to throw Roman against Roman.”
“It must be done. if the empire is to survive, it must be done. And even more, Livius. It will have to be as in the old days old punishing armies. Cities destroyed. Evey living thing killed. Before the rebellion spreads. Before our enemies attack. The whole world must know we have again become the Rome of old.”
Commodus waited, but Livius did not speak. Commodus lowered his voice to a wild, urgent whisper. “We are fighting for survival.”
Livius was shaken. “That Rome should have to fight for survival.”
“It’s true! I haven’t told you all. I–have to behead the chief of the Praetorian Guards and–give that head to the people of Rome to–to quiet them. We are in desperate trouble, Livius–everywhere. Even here at Rome. We must show them that we are strong, that we will destroy out own people if they oppose us.”
Livius barely heard him. “I’ve fought a dozen battles alongside of Virgilianus and Marcellus. They were my friends.”
Commodus swung his arm in a savage, cutting arc. “Friends? Jackals ready to destroy us. No. No. Destroy them! What other way is there?”
Livius stared at the emperor in the shadowed room, feeling his face ache with the ruts pulled into it. “What other way is there?” Neither spoke because there was no answer, they had said it all.
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.
“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.”
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.'”
“You’ve been too much at Rome, Commodus. You— should be more with your father.”
Commodus roared. “Will you tell me how I must live? Must I try to live as you do? Like a pupil, drinking in every word of my illustrious father’s? Live you do!” His voice was hoarse. “Oh, I’ve heard all the rumors. Why Father has gathered everyone here…Why you were at his side.” His voice broke suddenly, his mouth twisting. He shook his head. “No…No, Livius, don’t let it come from you….I need you as my friend. Don’t tell me any more…I don’t want to hear it.”
In the pregnant silence, Livius sighed, deeply moved. “I am your friend, Commodus.”
Commodus stared at him, his mouth pulled petulantly, for a long time. Suddenly then, he shook off his thoughts and heeled around, staring at Xenia.
“Ah, Princess,” he said. “You boast that you are a nation of warriors…Well, then, warrior, every solider knows that sometimes his side loses–and he becomes part of the spoils of war –even a princess becomes a slave. to be used as the master wishes.” When she did not move, he shouted at her. “Do you hear me? You are lost. You are prisoners of war.” He stood up. “Come here to me.”
Xenia did not move. There was no way to tell from her expressionless face even if she heard him at all. His voice rose. “Come! Drink with me. You may as well accept that you are lost. You may as well relax.” He laughed. “You may as well enjoy it. Wine will help you put a brighter edge on everything–Drink!”
When the slender young girl still did not move, he went around the table to her.
He knelt, offered the beaker of wine, but she turned her head away, stiffly.
Commodus caught her head in his hand, tried to pour the wine down her mouth. It ran trickling across her lips, filling her nostrils, discoloring her cheeks.
Suddenly, gasping, she struck at him savagely, spilling the beaker of wine all over him.
Commodus yelled at her, like a child in a tantrum. “I am sill Caesar’s son! Do you understand? I could have you burned alive.”
Commodus slapped at the droplets of wine splattered upon his clothing. His eyes were wild, fixed on her, his mind churning with the indignities that would degrade her, show her the depths a woman could reach when she fought him.
Suddenly he realized that Livius was watching him silently, shocked by his lack of self-control.
Commodus, trembling, managed to get hold of his emotions. He moved to gaze over Xenia’s body and then turned slowly to face Livius.
His voice was casual. “I don’t want this one after all, Livius. I thought I did. She rouses me more to rage than to passion and–that doesn’t fit my mood tonight.” He jerked his head toward Tauna. “I’ll trade you – even before I’ve used the princess at all…This little blonde animal quivering like a frightened animal is more for me.”
Livius nodded. “Take Tauna then, Commodus. She’s yours.”
Commodus stared at Livius another moment. Then he walked to Tauna and grabbed her. She bit her lip, but did not cry out. She was quivering and kept her eyes closed. Pleased, Commodus knelt, swung her easily up into his arms and strode out of the room into his quarters.
Livius was shaken. It was as if Commodus were full of hatred and his only satisfaction came from venting it upon the helpless.
Livius took a long drink of wine, but it was tasteless, less than water. He was troubled, wondering if he would remain cold, and beyond the touch of wine for the rest of his life.
Xenia stirred slightly across the table and, remembering her, he turned, looking at her. he said gently, almost teasing. “Is it true, girl, as Commodus fears – that you think?”
She got slowly to her feet, came around the table to him, knelt between his knees, mouth parted, looking up, pale, as if waiting.
Livius did not touch her. He drew his tongue across his dry mouth, seeing the way she trembled before him, waiting, and he remembered this morning when Marcus planned with Lucilla to give her in a marriage-alliance to Sohamus of Armenia. The only woman he had ever loved; he had feared all his life that he would never marry her, now his fear was grounded, and he would not. What else mattered? Perhaps Commodus was partly right. If only he could hear the gods laughing as Commodus did. Perhaps this girl’s kiss might waken him, and make him forget for a little while.
Throat taut, he lifted his hands, cupped them over Xenia’s ears. He turned her pallid face up, holding her with more force than he realized, but she did not protest.
“A warrior who thinks?” he said. “You’re a fool–that’s what you are–just as I am a fool to forget I’m only a solider, and trying to think. What will it get us? Where?” He shook his head. “But I will not threaten to burn you alive–just for your crime of thinking.” His mouth twisted. “I will offer you a more generous treaty of peace. A treaty of peace. Rome and the barbarian who thinks.” His hands tightened on her head. Her eyes searched his face, shadowed, in fear and misunderstanding. Cruelty she could understand, the force of his hands, the use of her body, all this she understood–but the tone and quality of his voice troubled and frightened her. She drew her tongue across her parted mouth, trying to move closer to him, waiting.
Suddenly Livius got to his feet. Xenia fell back, eyes wide. Livius stepped over her and walked past the guard, going out of the tent. Xenia stared after him, bewildered and chilled.