It was a pleasure to finally get a copy, however imperfect, of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE in the correct screen ratio. My earlier viewing of a 16:9 off-air recording had intrigued but failed to satisfy — you really don’t get a sense of the film’s insane size unless you can see the whole frame.
STILL haven’t got an adequate copy of EL CID, and may just have to buy the BluRay when I get a BluRay player… which I may have to do since I’ve just written an essay for a forthcoming BluRay only release, and I kind of want to see it…
EL CID’s success made THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE possible, but what made the whole Spanish-shot epic boom-and-bust blip in film history possible was General Franco’s ruling that profits from ticket sales in Spanish cinemas could not be taken out of the country. Producer Samuel Bronston decided to get the studios to spend their profits in Spain, on big movies which could then be exported and make more money around the world. EL CID, an epic from Spanish history, was a logical choice, but the following movies rather stretched the possibilities of what could be successfully faked in Spain — 55 DAYS IN PEKING really distends plausibility to snapping point.
(When Richard Lester was prepping A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM in Spain a few years later, he considered recycling the standing sets from TFOTRE, but he and his designer, Tony Dalton, worked out that it would be cheaper to build their own sets than remove the scaffolding from Bronston’s.)
But TFOTRE manages to mock up Germania, Armenia and Rome quite convincingly, with the aid of the biggest sets ever assembled (I think — I hope!). It’s all too obviously an attempt to repeat the success of the Roman-set BEN HUR, down to a chariot race arranged by Yakima Canutt. Charlton Heston, star or both HUR and CID, was offered the lead, but apparently refused due to his antipathy to co-star Sophia Loren, whom he’d had quite enough of on the previous Mann epic. So his BEN HUR opponent, Stephen Boyd, viewed as very much a coming man, was promoted to lead, a choice Mann later came to view as a mistake, especially after the film grossed less than a quarter of its cost (a then-staggering 26 million).
The “old friends” get reacquainted.
Boyd is indeed a problem, and so is Loren, surprisingly. Boyd, so effective in heavy roles (his psychotic gangster in THE SQUEEZE is exhilaratingly horrible, and BEN HUR gives him an excrutiating, powerful death scene), is just a wounded puppy as Livius, his Irish accent disguised beneath a generic American delivery — that slow, dumb speech pattern heroes always seem to use in “Epics”. And he can’t even be effective on that level because Livius is a rather passive, conflicted hero who doesn’t get much done — the whole story is a chronicle of his failure to save Rome, after all. Mann spoke of anti-heroes in his westerns who were nevertheless men who set out to do something, and did it. Livius isn’t that, which is potentially interesting, but demands a more complex and engaging performance.
Loren’s passion and sex appeal are entirely smothered in a sexless character. Her costumes may be nice (and one can imagine her wearing them to the Oscars, they’re theoretically period but snazzy and contemporary and very vivid) but her love story with Livius takes forever to go almost nowhere. We KNOW Loren’s a good actress, but she has quite a few long close-ups here where I felt like waving a hand in front of her face to check she was actually conscious.
The ponderous leads are compounded by a script which tends to paint in every corner and could really benefit from some bolder ellisions. The emperor is poisoned. He dies. There’s a funeral. A successor is named. There’s a plod to the narrative approach which compounds the seemingly unavoidable turgidity of the epic spectacular form. Thank God David Lean discovered the nouvelle vague while making LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and gave the film a certain zip. The lumber-lumber-zip rhythm of that film is a saving grace.
BUT — Mann’s film, apart from some genuinely mind-bending sets, has compensations. Alec Guinness is pleasurable, and gets the best line, early on, when Boyd offers to bring him the barbarian leader’s head. “No, don’t bring me his head, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” I was quite happy to watch the remaining two and a half hours of the movie (I don’t think this was the longest cut) just in case anybody said anything as brilliant as that again. They didn’t, but other cool stuff happened.
James Mason creates a warm relationship with Guinness at the start, soon cut short by plot exigencies, but helpful in a movie where often the dialogue and relationships lack the human spark. And Mason’s scene of torture by barbarians is the film’s most Mannly Moment, and maybe its best, vividly capturing the awful powerlessness of intellectual superiority in the face of brute strength and cruelty. Which may be one of Mann’s big themes.
If the hero is weak, the villain can be strong, and Christopher Plummer is very enjoyably psycho. He seems to be having the time of his life, although I have my doubts as to whether anybody enjoys making a big movie like this. Emperor Commodus is characterised by nice lines about the Gods’ laughter, a loony grin that turns his face into an idiotic death-mask, and a little twinkle-toed dance he does over a mosaic map of the Empire. He’s like a campy George W Bush, playing absurd, childish games with an entire world…
And then there’s a really terrific ending. The whole third act is a relentless slide into total destruction, almost as nihilistically savage as THE DEVILS or KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE. Not AS savage, but savage enough. Mann knew EL CID would work because of the terrific finish, and he has a similarly powerful climax here, but it’s not the kind of climax that’s a sure-fire hit-maker. It’s such a downer! And yet, strangely exhilarating, perhaps due to some thanatos deathwish in the human race that makes us enjoy the spectacle of tragedy and destruction.
The script, by EL CID’s Ben Barzman (blacklistee), Basilio Franchina (associated with Barzman and Loren) and Philip Yordan (whose best Mann script by a mile is MEN IN WAR), and if it takes its time getting anywhere (half the film is gone before we reach Rome), it compensates with some interesting narrational devices. The opening VO, which sets up a connection to Gibbons’ book and to the complexities of history which the film does its best to avoid from then on, is read by “king of the Dubbers” Robert Rietty, a master of vocal disguise who this time seems to be impersonating Mann himself. A little later, another voiceover appears, as Alex Guinness tries to bargain with Death — perhaps influenced by Olivier’s soliloquies in HAMLET, he switches neatly from internal to external monologue. In fact, there’s a slight precedent for this in Mann’s use of VO in RAW DEAL. Apparently the Emperor’s musings here are drawn directly from Marcus Aurelius’s real meditations. You don’t get that in GLADIATOR. And at the end of the film, Loren unexpectedly starts doing the same thing. It’s a little jarring, since there’s no other narration in the whole movie, but there’s some sense that the VO is meant to call to mind Guinness’s death, since what we’re now facing is the Death of Rome.
Another amazing set. Somebody will wind up dead in that pool, perhaps as a reference to Commodus’s real life demise: murdered by his own wrestlers in the bath. The most homoerotic political assassination ever?
Given the time the film was made at, and given JFK’s invocation of ancient Rome in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and especially given that this is a movie by expat Americans, it’s tempting to read THE FALL in metaphorical terms as dealing with contemporary, postwar American politics. If so, that might be another reason the public stayed away (plenty of people did show up, just not nearly enough to pay for a super-epic) — it’s a pretty scathing look at a society in freefall, financially, morally and militarily. But that despairing ending is put over with such enthusiasm, it’s genuinely thrilling, like a lot of the best tragedy.
The Fall Of The Roman Empire (Three-Disc Limited Collector’s Edition) (The Miriam Collection)