“I’m afraid you would not find me suitable.”

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)

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17 Responses to ““I’m afraid you would not find me suitable.””

  1. Although it’s been a while since I last saw the film, I remember thinking the pace seemed appropriate to the theme. An empire weighted down with ceremony and burdened with it’s own success, I felt, would move slowly until the hint of its own demise brings out one last spasm of energy in its destruction.

    For the most part, I think of the film as being as good an epic as one could ask for, quite a bit better than El Cid. My only real problems with it were Sophia Loren, who all too often makes me doubt she can act, and the rather bizarre score by Dimitri Tiomkin, which, while seeming to be interested in epic themes, didn’t really seem to be very involved with the ones on the screen.

  2. Yes, the Tiomkin score sometimes seems off in its own world. He apparently pronounced it impossible to write music for Guinness’s monologue, and maybe he was having problems elsewhere? At any rate, as often with Mann, the best bits avoid score altogether (see Heroes of Telemark clip on previous post).

    The stately pace might well be appropriate… I would have preferred to have seen it energized by bolder transitions… but then, it seems likely I was watching a shortened version, so who knows how the three hour cut would play? I suspect Anthony Quayle would have had more to do, preparing us better for the nice plot twist involving his character.

    The UK DVD of El Cid is 16X9 so I’m refusing to watch it until I can get something better.

  3. It could be that I was just making a sort of internal defense of Mann’s choices in regards to pace since I was in the midst of a Mann-a-thon of my own when I watched it, and was possibly more apologetic than I would have been otherwise.

    My defense of Boyd was that he represented a basically good and decent man confronted by the bughouse, and that sort of decency is simply ill-equipped to deal with the kind of men he was up against. I thought that perhaps Mann was using him as a counter-example to Stewart’s almost deranged “heroes” in his westerns. In a sense implying that when faced with horror it is appropriate or even necessary to respond in a similar vein. I guess I was thinking that Livius was Mann’s version of Merkin Muffley or something along those lines.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    26 mill would be something like 150 million today (maybe more); only goes to prove that the best film makers do their best work when they have to “get creative” to find solutions to budget constraints. TFOTRE is not 200 times better than DESPERATE, for example.

    I almost wish Mann had just gone into TV in the late 50s (CIMARRON, for example, is just godawful) and quit movies altogether. Almost.

  5. Marty Scorsese loves this one, and it’s easy to see its influence on The Gangs of New York. Many interesting moments but they don’t add up. And despite the credited names the script seems to have been stitched together from a variety of sources. The whole thing screams out for a writer who actaully knew something about Roman history — say Gore Vidal. But it’s a maddening ,I.maudit that memorably ends with a voice over intoning “And this was the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire.”

    You mean there’s MORE?

  6. To highlight all the grace notes in TFOTRE all you need do is screen Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR, which recycles so much of Mann’s film as to defy description.

    CIMARRON is not good but it has a few merits. I liked the Oklahoma land rush sequence, some other things. There’s a scene where Glenn Ford is tracking some outlaw gunmen through the town that’s vintage Mann.

  7. Someone really should have sued over Gladiator, since it steals not only the historical edits but also a lot of fictionalisations.

    Mann was removed from Cimarron before the end, so it really belongs with his quasi-films, A Dandy in Aspic, He Walked by Night, Spartacus, Night Passage, none of which he was able to see all the way through.

    Barzman certainly did some research, but some of his alterations of history don’t make a lot of sense. Someone who really knew the territory would indeed have helped. But also someone with a stronger ability to create speakable dialogue for the ancients. (Cue Hawks: “I don’t know how a pharaoh TALKS.”)

    Prod designers Veniero Colasanti and John Moore seem to have retired from set design for YEARS after this, although Colasanti did costumes for Satyricon…

  8. True, but those costumes were based on Fellini’s drawings.

  9. GLADIATOR is a shameless neo-con spectacle that rips-off Mann and Kubrick’s roman epics to tell the opposite message that gladiatorial spectacle actually has meaning outside of the sado-masochistic show that it actually is(but then modern Hollywood is the same). Mann was Tin Can DeSade as Farber called him but he certainly wasn’t packaging it new and shiny and serious.

    For me THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE along with LAND OF THE PHAROAHS is the most mature of the Hollywood epics. The film, while flawed, is a brutal examination of power politics worthy of Marlowe and Webster. And since Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies are about as historically accurate as anything I don’t see why Mann or Yordan ought to be judged differently regarding history. The film is really powerful and Mann makes great use of the sets which as great as they are, are functional not advertisements for decor as in other epics and not the CGI crap primping as “sets” in GLADIATOR. I especially like it when Aurelius decides to change his mind about Sophia Loren’s marriage, he’s okay with Livius and they’re in love but when its the kingdom at stake, he’s ready to pack her off to Armenia purely out of political necessity. Way ahead of the sentimental paterfamilias played by Richard Harris(he got typecast late in his life playing lovable old coots).

  10. And speaking of loveable old coots —



  11. david wingrove Says:

    I was utterly traumatised by this film as little boy…probably because Stephen Boyd managed to save Sophia Loren from the climactic funeral pyre, but left everybody else to burn to death. I know they were mere extras, but it still struck me as somewhat callous.

  12. Yes, although I think we’re meant to regard their deaths as symptomatic of the generally screwed-up state of the world. It’s not sold as a happy ending. Mann’s movies generally end bleakly, or else they’re not quite satisfactory — it’s the noirness of him.

  13. “For me THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE along with LAND OF THE PHAROAHS is the most mature of the Hollywood epics.”

    Amen.

    What would really be interesting is a considered defense of CLEOPATRA as a Joseph L. Mankiewicz film. (I kinda like it, but I usually lie and say I don’t.)

  14. I would need to watch all 87 hours of it first. I will, sometime! (“The hardest five films I ever made,” ~ Joe M.) I bet it’s at least handsome.

    I have a bunch of anecdotes about the Gaby Pascal Caesar and Cleopatra which I should use sometime.

  15. Christopher Says:

    One of my faves and under appreciated of the big ROMAN pictures..No english trailer available

  16. I like “Fall” a lot — or, at least, I did the last time that I saw it. And that includes Loren and Boyd. Loren in “Fall” reminds me of heroines of the Corneille tragedies that I’ve read: stately and/or self-involved. You don’t look to this kind or character for emotional display, more for stature and visual appeal. All of which is perfectly fine by me. And Boyd … maybe it’s rationalization after the fact, but I thought half of the point was that this *wasn’t* a hero who could transform everything, as Heston did in “El Cid,” but rather a good-natured type unable to prevent the Fall of the film’s title.

    Here’s a bit of Loren being stately:

    (Somehow I keep thinking she’s going to break into “Even a man who is pure at heart …”)

    As for the “Funny Thing” except: I love that song, Sondheim in general, and Richard Lester in particular. And yet, and yet … the staging here doesn’t work for me. Like Foreman in “Hair” (a movie for which I have limited affection), Lester doesn’t connect with the music. Good gags are on display, but it don’t connect.

  17. dcairns, I would welcome hearing about your antedotes about Gabriel Pascal and his production of Caesar and Cleopatra. Regarding Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire, I recall seeing it in 1964 and thought how little used were the magnificent sets that were built in Spain. Considering their size, there were few exterior scenes that exploited thier imposing size and splendor. The triumphal march gave the view an impression of the size, and near the end of the film, during the buring of captives and the auctioning of the empire, show the sets but in lesser degree. So much was promised, so little was delivered, by Samuel Bronston.

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