Director: Anthony Mann
By Roderick Heath
Anthony Mann’s penultimate film was a failure that, along with another Samuel Bronston production, Nicholas Ray’s last feature, 55 Days in Peking (1965), ended Hollywood’s efforts to outpace television with super-expensive historical epics. The irony, that two of Hollywood’s most talented directors of the 1950s foundered in working for Bronston on inflated fare, was bitter, especially considering that both flops were entertaining films. Mann himself seemed exhausted by the experience, making the negligible but beautiful-looking The Heroes of Telemark (1965) before dying while working on A Dandy in Aspic (1968). With Tinseltown still reeling from the cost of Cleopatra (1962), the paltry take by Mann’s film condemned it to a long limbo when it ought to have been regarded as one the finest, certainly darkest and most intelligent of the old-style blockbusters. To rub salt in the wound, some 36 years later Ridley Scott’s far less complex, musclebound Gladiator, a film that recycled the basic plot of Mann’s film, became a giant hit and won a Best Picture Oscar.
Mann had provided a hit for Bronston only three years earlier with the heroic El Cid, and like that production, The Fall of the Roman Empire was shot in what was then the go-to low-cost location for big movies, Franco’s Spain. If El Cid captured the overheated passion of a titanic folk myth, The Fall of the Roman Empire plays as a tragic, poetic counterweight built around Mann’s favourite theme, the breakdown of social order. Rather than merely nailing down the coffin lid of the big classical saga, Mann almost succeeded in taking a genre and style of filmmaking, often used as a by-word encompassing camp and elephantine self-importance, into new, mature territory. Much of the familiar, oft-cumbersome paraphernalia of the epic are in place—a big, blaring music score by Dimitri Tiomkin, a multitudinous cast getting a few bucks for extra work amongst staggeringly scaled sets and rowdy battle scenes, and a storyline quoting the borderline homoerotic friendship turned poisonous found in Ben-Hur (1959), as well as a well-staged chariot battle clearly indebted to that MGM hit.
And yet The Fall of the Roman Empire is closer to the kinds of smart epics Luchino Visconti and David Lean were making at the time, and its themes and visual totems look forward to more probing, ambiguous, modernistic films about history, war, and politics, such as Ken Russell’s The Devils, Fellini-Satyricon, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The title, for instance, conjures images of hordes of lusty Vandals laying waste to Rome’s marbled colonnades. The opening of the film reveals a different spirit, in a brief, but spellbinding vignette of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) and his intellectual Greek slave Timonides (James Mason) keeping a watch on the rampart of the emperor’s base of operations in his wars against the blonde barbarians still resisting the Empire in the forests of Germania. Having heard the ill-starred augury of their blind soothsayer Cleander (Mel Ferrer), the two philosophers discuss what makes them take pleasure in a cruel life; Aurelius confesses his childhood anxiety just before the dawn breaks that the sun might never rise.
This scene’s muted, philosophical mood is a keynote, and the feeling of life subsisting somewhere on a frontier of life and night as well as of empire continues to preoccupy the style. Livius (Stephen Boyd), one of Aurelius’s most respected generals, arrives in anticipation of a grand gathering of all of the Empire’s governors and allies, and is also eager to see Aurelius’s daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren). She’s a melancholy, haunted progeny who remembers her mother’s many plots and infidelities against the wise father she idolises, and dreads being forced by reasons of state to marry Sohamus (Omar Sharif), the King of Armenia, to secure an ally on Rome’s eastern frontier. Aurelius announces to the gathering that he is close to realising a true Pax Romana, one of amity and citizenship. But the emperor is troubled by debilitating pain, and many believe he’s dying, a process which a group of conspirators, including Cleander and cunning statesman Niger (Douglas Wilmer), decide to speed up, when it becomes clear that Aurelius means to disinherit his unstable son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) in favour of Livius.
Commodus, they expect, will be a more malleable, belligerent, and thus profit-bringing emperor. Commodus, anti-intellectual and combative with his sister, prefers the company of gladiators, especially old pro Verulus (Anthony Quayle), and brings them with him to the front line to protect him in a risky effort to trap the barbarian leader Ballomar (John Ireland). Stalwart soldier Polybius (Andrew Keir), however, despises the gladiators and executes several he feels let down in battle, an act that results in Commodus and Livius battling out their resentments. Livius, after being offered the throne, is conflicted by the thought of betraying his life-long comrade and drinking buddy, but is still willing to do so. Aurelius dies after Cleander feeds him poisoned fruit without a finalised will, however, and Livius, at the emperor’s pyre, rather than make a risky claim, insists the army hail Commodus as Caesar.
Commodus joyfully promises lifelong gratitude to Livius, but when installed on the throne, he begins promoting his own imperial grandeur and that of Rome at the expense of starving colonies and political ties. Commodus is characterised not as an outright psycho a la Joaquin Phoenix’s version in Gladiator or like many portrayals of Caligula and Nero, but as a deeply disturbed young man raised in an air of recalled deceit and elegant emotional brutality desperately implementing a political programme entirely at odds with his father’s. The truth of his parentage—that he isn’t Marcus’s natural son at all, but the result of an affair between his mother and Verulus—explains a lot, but he’s not aware of it, and when he does learn this, it becomes a means to finally act out his patricidal fantasies as he descends deeply into grandiosity. In the final scenes of the film, Commodus appears within a great sculpture of a hand giving the imperial salute, having turned all the machinery and architecture of state into extensions of his own psyche.
Although he occasionally lapses into arch affects as a still fresh-minted film actor, Plummer attempts to imbue Commodus with something far more detailed than the average ranting screen dictator, alternating sweet yet menacing smiles and pleas with bitter punishments, disappointed snarls and giddy, fatalistic laughter. Early on, he and Livius bond, like Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad, by sleeping with barbarian slave women; when one of them resists him, he cries “I’m Caesar’s son, I could have you burnt alive!”, a threat that later proves all too cogent, although his anger here quickly fades. When Livius tells him of Aurelius’s wishes, Plummer’s Commodus gives a wincing laugh of deeply anguished amusement: “He must really hate me!” he exclaims, unable to see the throne as anything more than personal right and this as anything other than emotional rejection. He more often than not resembles a deeply callow, narcissistic teenager enacting childish psychodramas with godlike power, treating the empire like a toy.
Lucilla, his opposite, possesses her father’s cool temperament and philosophical streak, flushed with her own version of the same traumas, but destined as a female to be a pawn in schemes of power. Finally, used once too often and cheated of her chances to be with Livius, Lucilla becomes her brother’s committed enemy, joining with Sohamus and rebellious regional governors in revolt against Commodus’s authority. Whilst this foreground drama is unusually nuanced, it’s still relatively familiar. The Fall of the Roman Empire’s expansive efforts to suggest the whole social and military failure of the Roman world are, however, quite complex, not always successful but admirable and near-unique, as subplots describe some of the genuine causes of the empire’s rot that Commodus’s reign commenced, such as the inability to make friends with new northern rivals, the corruption of the army, social inequality, and collapse of civic responsibility.
When Livius finally manages to subdue the last of Ballomar’s tribe in their sacred cavern, Timonides tries to convince the captives that they will be treated fairly within the empire, but Ballomar and other barbarian men grab the philosopher and test his faith in his civilised world by thrusting a burning torch against his hand and challenging him to resist reaching out and touching their statue of Wotan. It’s a classic Mann scene in its mixture of brilliantly suggested physical pain being suffered for commitment to a principle. Although Timonides finally collapses in shame after deliriously touching the statue, his show of grit is so impressive that Ballomar and the other barbarians agree to his terms. Livius and Timonides present them to the senate and, in defiance of Commodus’ wishes, argue for them to be granted citizenship and land to prove the empire can prosper through peaceful annexation rather than punitive action.
This scene with the senate is fascinating in its attempt to dramatise not merely an historic question, but also a principle of all political life, as Commodus’ reactionary partisans argue for maintaining Rome’s ruthless hegemony, whilst Timonides and an elder senator (Finlay Currie) argues that the rule of life is to adapt or die: the relevance to regular debates over immigration, terrorism, and other similar questions is perhaps stronger now than it was when the film was made. “Equality. Freedom. Peace. Who is it that uses these words other than Greeks and Jews and slaves? Our enemies will say we are weak,” sneers Julianus (Eric Porter). Timonides settles with Ballomar and his tribal fellows on abandoned farmland, and they soon manage to construct an idyllic pastoral life (in scenes that unfortunately look a bit too much story-of-mankind book illustrations) that sees Aurelius’s multicultural ideals coming to life. That dream dies a swift and gruesome death soon enough. Livius, answering Commodus’ pleas to aid him in putting down the revolts, succeeds in defeating Sohamus in battle with the help of some Roman rebels who come back to fold when it turns out Sohamus has made alliance with the Persians. Sohamus is killed and Livius safely extricates Lucilla, but when Niger and other emissaries of the emperor insist he instigate grotesque retaliations, he imprisons them and sends them back to Commodus. The emperor casually orders the massacre of the barbarian citizens, and Timonides dies with a spear in his gut still trying to plead for sense and fellowship.
Fighting, as ever in a Mann film, doesn’t look like the usual balletic stuff, but instead damned hard, awkward work, especially when Boyd and Sharif duel, trying to heft their heavy hunks of steel with effect (it’s worth noting that, in a distant context, Masaki Kobayashi was out to achieve a similar effect in making his Seppuku the same year). The film’s several battle scenes are staged with concussive force and terrific stunt work (via Yakima Canutt). Equally familiar in Mann’s oeuvre is a strong sense of physical atmosphere tied with great intricacy to the onscreen drama. The dawn that so arrests Aurelius gives way to the first battle with the barbarians staged in the hazy beauty of early morning, the Romans cast as a legion of light penetrating the dark forest; later, when Commodus bribes Livius’s army to hold them at bay, the scene is dusk, as rot irrevocably sets in. The finale, in blazing midday, sees the sky blackened by a pall of portentous smoke. The action, commencing on the very fringes of the empire, concludes with a battle and an atrocity in the heart of the city.
Mann’s compositions lap up the mind-bogglingly detailed Roman sets, and contain their own mosaic messages, as in one scene in which Commodus escorts Livius to see Lucilla, and the general finds his amour sprawled on a couch; Mann shoots their clinch from high overhead, rendered part of the design of the room with its decorated floor and circular form, making it clear they’re trapped by their obligations and the dictates of the dictator. The most striking scene in the film, most often noted by fans like Martin Scorsese, is that of Aurelius’s funeral, where the major characters stand in silent attention—Timonides sternly clutching a firebrand, Lucilla wearing a look of frigid dread as Livius proclaims Commodus—whilst the wind drives snow at them and makes wheezing noises that resemble the laughter of the gods that Commodus is constantly listening for. In the final scenes, Commodus has Ballomar, his daughter and Timonides’ lover Helva (Lena von Martens), and other former barbarians and liberal Romans chained up to be burnt alive. Commodus tests his divinity once too often by challenging Livius to a duel to the death. He dies in Livius’s arms, bellowing for the prisoners to be burnt. Livius only just manages to extricate Lucilla from the blaze whilst the rest are engulfed, Ballomar shouting his plea for Wotan to destroy Rome, something Wotan’s followers, hordes of Visigoth already massing on the borders, will eventually do with relish.
Historically speaking, The Fall of the Roman Empire isn’t exactly accurate, though it’s built around genuine incidents and persons. Commodus’ sister Lucilla really did conspire in his attempted assassination. Commodus did institute a general liberalisation in Roman citizenship, not out of idealism, but out of a cynical tax grab that did more harm than good. But unlike almost every other film of this type, and in spite of some daffiness (I can’t take John Ireland seriously as a blonde barbarian), it actually feels like it’s set in the past and not in some picture-book fantasy. The Fall of the Roman Empire details with intricacy the mores of a vanished society, if still not with the kind of in-your-face grit offered by recent creations like television’s Rome series. After the battle with Sohamus and the Persians, Mann’s camera takes in the great severed head of a stone giant, evoking the shadow of Ozymandias-like tyranny and autocratic idolatry, presaging a similar motif in Apocalpyse Now.
What the film lacked to make it a big hit was melodramatic clarity: the foreground love affairs and conflicts are considered with a cool, ironic distance rather than immediate urgency. Boyd, potent and swaggering as a villain, was wooden playing heroes, and his romance with Lucilla never feels very important. Loren, who normally played earthier roles, is appropriately muted in playing the thoughtful, troubled Lucilla, but she, too, fails to generate heat in the romance. There’s a cunning symmetry, however, in the scenes where her father, meditating on his ebbing life, alternates between spoken and internal comments, and later when Lucilla pushes her way through an orgiastic throng of Romans, surrounded by men in leering masks, exulting in similar alternations in the disintegration of the civic sanity of the city she loves. The film’s biggest misstep is in the conventionality of Livius saving her from the pyre made of Rome’s humanity and dignity: Mann should have gone all the way in evoking moral and social apocalypse. It couldn’t have hurt the film at the box office.