If the decline of the Roman Empire is one of the great concerns of history, then an equally interesting issue is the decline of the Epic genre in Hollywood. From D.W.Griffith's Intolerance to Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus it seems that the genre was capable of surviving changing tastes in much the same way as the Western and the Musical. Why then did it enter decline in the mid-sixties and basically die out, with the obvious exceptions such as last year's Oscar winning Gladiator ? Not an easy question to answer, but what makes Anthony Mann's The Fall Of The Roman Empire so fascinating is that it seems to be infused with an elegaic sadness and sense of loss, as if the genre is dying in front of us. The box office failure of Mann's film, following the disaster of Cleopatra, set the seal on the genre, since never recovered its former popularity. Yet, nearly forty years on, a film like Fall, indifferently greeted by critics and public alike, seems fresh, vibrant and full of passion while the more successful Ben Hur comes across, to me at least, as turgid. The difference, the 'x' factor if you like, is Anthony Mann, a director who is certainly in my list of the Hollywood Greats.
The film deals with roughly the same historical events as Gladiator, namely the disastrous handover of power from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus at the end of the second century AD. This, it is suggested, was the beginning of the end for the empire since Commodus rejected Aurelius's plan for peace with the Eastern countries and, instead, embarked on a campaign to subdue all of Rome's "enemies". Commodus is depicted, by a furiously camping Christopher Plummer, as a childish sadist who sulks when he doesn't get his own way, while Alec Guinness's glorious performance as an infinitely wise Marcus Aurelius seems to pre-empt bits of his Obi-Wan-Kenobi, Charles I in Cromwell and George Smiley. Into this historical context we get a rather dull romance between Aurelius's daughter (Loren) and his bravest General, Livius (Boyd), but, thankfully, this isn't allowed to take up too much screen time. Wheras in El Cid the love story is integral to the meditation of heroism which powers the film, in this later movie it's just a distraction from a much bigger theme.
Basically, Mann wants to show us characters caught up in a huge historical process, the fall of Rome, which is an inevitable as the turning of the earth. He seems to suggest that nothing can be done once the damage is inflicted, and there's a genuine sense of sadness and even despair, as Commodus becomes increasingly cruel and starts burning his supposed enemies at the stake. The atmosphere is quite the opposite of El Cid; the earlier film is filled with glorious energy and hope, while the later one is doom-laden and reflective. It's often exciting, especially in the excellent chariot race (a lot shorter than the one in Ben Hur and about a hundred times more effective) which was chorographed by the great Yakima Canutt, and always intelligent even if that sometimes translates as verbose. Needless to say, the film looks gorgeous with careful widescreen compositions - which are used on several occasions as metaphors for the action - and gorgeous cinematography by Robert Krasker.
The main flaw in the film is in the central performance of Stephen Boyd. He's not only wooden, he's also amateurish with an inability to convince us of the characters emotional journey from loyalty to resistance. This hobbles the film to some extent. Luckily, Sophia Loren is at her best here, not only heartbreakingly beautiful but also such a strong presence that she carries the romantic scenes. As for the rest, it's an honourable collection of performances from a variety of screen greats. Christopher Plummer is a delight as the mischievous Commodus, dominating his scenes with ease due to his presence and charisma. When he goes totally bonkers at the end, it's both funny and a little unnerving. Alec Guiness is great, and James Mason makes something very touching out of the role of the Greek slave turned kingmaker. Omar Sharif, top-billed on the cover, actually only appears for about ten minutes. Thankfully.
Most of all, this is a big film, in a way that films aren't any more. The forum set, built in Spain by Veniero Colasanti, was reputed to be the biggest ever constructed and, whether that is true or not, it is immensely impressive. There's a realism to the sets and the people that you just can't achieve with CGI, as Ridley Scott's recent revival of the Roman epic demonstrates. The script manages to avoid the usual anachronisms as well, even if the character of Commodus seems to have wandered in from a sixties Bond spoof. It's very hard to depict the loonier Roman emperors without giving them the "Batman villain" treatment - John Hurt's Caligula in "I Claudius" had a similar problem. Most of all though, Mann has an epic vision of history - there is a consistent vision of historical inevitability underlying the film, much more so than in Wyler's Ben Hur. For an example, look at the funeral of Aurelius, which takes place as the snow is coming down at the end of the day - there's a gentle sadness to this, a sense of fragility and loss as something noble dies and we hear the gods laughing. We might be watching the death of the genre at the same time as the death throes of the empire. Because of this consistency, the factual errors are, frankly, irrelevant. Writers have been glamming up the Romans with scandal ever since Suetonius, and the blatant inaccuracies in Fall are part of a long, if not exactly noble, tradition.
Please note, this is a review of the Danish Region 2 disc distributed by On Air Video under the title Romerrigets Fald. The Region 2 release from Universal UK is a travesty. Not only is it grainy and packed with artifacting, it's also severely cropped from 2.35:1 to 1.66:1. For an RRP of £17.99 it's a bad joke. So, to sum up that point, DO NOT BUY THE UNIVERSAL UK RELEASE OF THIS FILM.
The Danish release, which cost me about £5 delivered from DVDoo, has severe limitations but is not too bad for the very low price.
The film is presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. This is the huge advantage of this release; as far as I know, it's the only way to get hold of the film in the original aspect ratio. The problem is that the image is exceptionally soft, almost blurry in places. This is a serious issue in some of the more expansive scenes but improves dramatically during the medium and close shots. It's not consistently poor however, and there is no severe artifacting to be seen. Nor is there too much grain, which is surprising. A certain amount of print damage in places, but the film desperately needs restoring and has a generally faded look. The colours are particularly bland now. It's a shame that this film is so neglected when, in my opinion, lesser epics such as Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia get the five star treatment.
The soundtrack is mono. Now, it appears that the laserdisc was in stereo and the original 70MM presentation presumably had a stereo track. Anyway, what is here is adequate but often features hiss and crackling. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin sounds pretty good but the dialogue is sometimes too quiet to be easily audible. English is the only audio track and there are no forced subtitles.
The only extra is a collection of 4 biographies of Anthony Mann, Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer. Quite well written and obviously taken from a film reference book. No other bonus material. We also get 40 chapter stops and static menus.
Ideally, we would be able to see this film on the big screen, but for the low price this cheap Danish R2 will do quite nicely. It reminded me of why Anthony Mann is one of my favourite directors and I look forward to the On Air release of El Cid which should arrive next week.
N.B: Thanks to Markus Osterrieder who e-mailed me to tell me that an anamorphic version of this film is available from France. I would appreciate it if anyone with any more details would get in touch.
If the decline of the Roman Empire is one of the great concerns of history, then an equally interest...