Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) - ★★★★

Director: Anthony Mann
Writers: Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, Philip Yordan (Screenplay)
Stars: Stephen Boyd, Sophia Loren, Christopher Plummer, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif

The Fall of the Roman Empire (FRE) is probably the most visually stunning film I've ever seen. Life of Pi has the most brilliant special effects I've ever seen, but FRE takes the prize for greatest set production... by far! Scene after scene, gasp after gasp, the grand vision of Rome, the costumes... everything had me mesmerised. The story is epicly amazing, which is a given considering ancient Rome is arguably the most interesting period in history. I loved the performances (for the most part), I adored the score, but above all I adored the way they rebuilt ancient Rome. It's like it never left! The pacing is a bit too slow, and Stephen Boyd's performance was pretty annoying, but I'm still in awe of how epic this movie is.

If you want to know the plot of FRE, think Gladiator by Ridley Scott. It's pretty much a carbon copy of this film, but with double the cheese and a more tear-jerking story. Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is the emperor of Rome, who's dying in his old age. He seeks to leave behind a legacy of peace among his great empire, which is why he wishes to name his good friend Livius (Stephen Boyd) his heir. Livius decides that Marcus' cruel and slightly insane son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), should become emperor, which is what eventually happens. Thus Commodus' reign of terror spreads far across the empire, displaying to us the nature of man in a brutal era of history.

There will always be comparisons made when one talks of FRE. It has similar sequences and relationships as the hugely successful Ben-Hur, and it's practically the same as Gladiator (minus the gladiator sub-plot). I liked Ben-Hur and Gladiator better, but there are moments in this film that I think are far greater than those two epics.

Alec Guinness, one of the greatest actors that ever lived.
They were ever so lucky to get Sophia Loren as a supporting actress. Casting the role of Lucilla wrong would have been fatal to the quality of the film. Loren brought strength, conviction, and natural talent to the film. On the other hand, Alec Guinness was the most valuable of them all. He had the most powerful, memorable role in the film as Marcus Aurelius. Not only did he emit the power and intelligence of an emperor, he also made the character come across as more of a human than a historical figure. Christopher Plummer is one of the best at playing the villain in movies. He has the piercing eyes and amazing talent for making us despise his characters. Altogether, these three raised the film from good to great.

Christopher Plummer plays the gorgeous (but crazy) Commodus. 
Unfortunately, Stephen Boyd brings that quality down substantially. he's the main character, the heart of the film, the one we all need to get behind. While he has the strength and kindness down pat, I could not get past his wavering English/American accent. He comes across as an All-American quarterback, rather than a character from Ancient Rome. At times, his acting is worse than amateur. In fact, there were times I found him to be atrocious. He's not always bad though, I'm being a little bit unfair because he had his shining moments too. But when he reads a line badly, it's BAD.

Sophie Loren is amazing, Boyd not so much.
The costumes are among the most grand and authentic looking I've ever seen. I had a problem with Ben-Hur, because some of their props and costumes just looked like rubber, plaster, and cardboard. Here, I see nothing but lavish and breathtaking suits of armour, dresses, and cultural wear. FRE has the greatest set production in this history of film (in my opinion). Screw the special effects in Gladiator, this is the real deal! It must have cost millions to make such a beautiful, realistic recreation of Ancient Rome. It's jaw-droppingly stunning. I'm going to make a crazy statement... this movie makes the set of Ben-Hur look cheap. That's how amazing it is! Oh, and the score by Dimitri Tiomkin is gorgeous. It's one of the greatest epic movie scores of all time, and Tiomkin is definitely one of the greatest movie composers of all time.

The battle scenes were pretty cool. There are no moments of heart-stopping intricate sword fights (like we see in Gladiator and 300). The utter chaos during these fighting scenes come across as more realistic to me. If two groups, each with thousands of men yielding weapons, clashed with each other, I'd imagine it would look exactly the way this movie portrayed it to be. It looks disorganised, scrappy, and there's death everywhere. I will admit though, at times there were some pretty lame fight scenes. I wasn't a fan of the choppy and unrefined editing of these scenes though, but it wasn't too reductive.

The Senate, going "Rabble Rabble Rabble!"
Some of the sequences were downright amazing. I think my favourite part would have to be when Vilius and Commodus were fighting each other on chariots. They wound through the forest and fought on the edge of cliffs. The stunts were really cool and edited brilliantly. I'm not often thrilled by that sort of thing, but that sequence had me riveted. Another scene that made my jaw drop was when the Persian army marched to fight the Roman's. There must have been thousands of extras! That's more impressive to me than the spectacular use of special effects in the Lord of the Rings, Return of the King. They put so much effort into the visual grandeur, which made the movie so damn exciting!

This movie isn't to everyone's taste though. It's no longer than Ben-Hur, but it does feel very long. I'm a huge fan of Ancient Rome, from the wars, the politics, the religion, and the culture. The Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most visually beautiful movies of all time. With the mixture of many perfect performances and a riveting story, I found it to be very entertaining. I saw a documentary once that said this film was to blame for the 'demise of the epics.' It didn't gross as much money as it spent, and audiences didn't identify with it the way they did with Ben-Hur. Some people even laughed because it was 'too realistic.' That just doesn't make sense to me. I am indebted to the cinematographers, the set producers, the costume designers, and Dimitri Tiomkin. They treated me to such a beautiful masterpiece, and I for one will always treasure the splendour that is The Fall of the Roman Empire. 


  1. Good review. Pretty accurate.

  2. Agree with anon, this review is right on-- movie is a great spectacle with very mixed acting. Too bad