The Fall the Roman Empire (1962)

The title says it all, or so you'd think... read on. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is nearing the end of his life. Livius (Stephen Boyd) is his chosen successor and commander of Rome's Northern Army. Livius refuses the offer however, for fear of confusing the Roman people and the historical lineage of power. This delights Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus (Christopher Plummer), who feared he'd lose his chance to be emperor. Once in power, Commodus sets forth selfish and maniacal events which lead to the destruction of the mighty Roman Empire.

The main problem with The Fall of the Roman Empire is that it too often chooses to focus on spectacle over story. There is indeed an epic story to be told here, but the film would rather us concentrate on the vastness of the Roman Empire instead of it. I understand the importance of establishing how big the Empire was, as it is crucial to the story, but it takes up too much screen time and ends up holding the story back. For example, there comes a moment early in the film where seemingly a million horses are paraded in front of the camera. Yes, the Empire was huge and had millions of horses. But from a storytelling standpoint, it does nothing for the audience. Nothing but horses for ten minutes straight is boring. Soon after, a scene comes where Marcus Aurelius and his advisor Timonides (James Mason) greet representatives from other areas of the Roman Empire. This scene lasts forever, without any noticeable point except to eat up time.

Another strike against the film is the heavy emphasis on the romantic clichés of the era. There are way too many soft focus close ups of Marcus Aurelius' daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) as her eyes are tearing up, or too many instances where someone (usually Loren) is struggling with his or her romantic feelings so forcefully that they have no choice but to clutch a pole or a tree and place their hand against their forehead in emotional turmoil.

The only saving graces of The Fall of the Roman Empire are the production design, some outstanding performances, and some decent action sequences. The sets in the film are tremendous and effectively show the sheer enormity of the Empire at the time. Nothing about them is cheesy in the slightest, giving the film a very realistic feel. Modern day efforts would certainly use digital effects. And while their appearance does tend to make the film drag, the constant parading of horses and extras in front of the camera for the film is amazing. If I remember my trivia correctly, The Fall of the Roman Empire boasted the largest amount of extras ever for a Hollywood film (a record which still might stand today). Christopher Plummer shines in this early performance in his long career. Plummer plays Commodus with just the right mix of subtle slyness and flat out dementia to make the character believable and not a cliché. Surprising me most however, was James Mason in his role of Timonides. I've never paid much attention to Mason before, and I've only seen a couple of his films. He has two very strong scenes in The Fall of the Roman Empire... one where he tries to convince a tribe of Barbarians to join the Empire and is tortured as a result, and another where he gives a passionate speech about the benefits of ending slavery to the Roman Senate. I'll be seeking out some of Mason's films now as a result of his performance here.

Two action sequences stand out, both involving battles between Livius and Commodus. The first comes early in the film, when the two men have a difference of opinion on the execution of army deserters. This leads to a fight as the two men race each other on chariots along a perilous road. The other comes during the film's finale, as Livius and Commodus fight to the death over control of the Empire. Neither scene stands up to the action sequences of today, but both are good when considering the era which they're from. The most disappointing moment of the film comes at the very end, when a narrator (whose presence would have been a benefit throughout the story, clueing us in on the passage of time and key events which take place off camera) announces, "This was the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire..." Really? Well, I paid to see the FALL of the Roman Empire, not just the beginning of it. Maybe audiences in the 1960s just didn't mind being lied to.