THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE suffered a fate common enough in movieland’s realm: it ‘fell’ at the wrong time. By the date of its release in 1964, the public had enough of ancient epics to hold them for a spell, after the ballyhoo over Cleopatra. Cheapo silliness like the Muscleman Epics pouring in from Italy put too much garlic in the feast; highbrow critics from New York were busy elevating their clout by denigrating reputations of older film-makers and mocking genre entries.
This smart, stupendously produced giant also suffered from being too long, with weakly designed romantic elements—and it just plain cost too darn much ($18,500,000). Bringing in only $4,500,000 in the States, and not much more elsewhere, it collapsed the personal empire of its legendary producer, Samuel Bronston, and put a serious dent in the career of leading man Stephen Boyd.
Boyd plays a decent Roman general, in love with the daughter of wise, ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness). She’s played by Sophia Loren, looking like a million bucks, the record amount that the actress was paid for appearing. Her power-mad brother, Commodus, is Christopher Plummer. Gladiator took this story and remixed it to great success 36 years later, when the public was ready to try on togas again.
Boyd and Loren’s chemistry doesn’t mix, their scenes are not written well, so when they’re on, your concentration drifts to the costumes, lighting,etc. Boyd made a fine villain in Ben-Hur, but here he’s just too serious to rouse sympathy. It’s not her finest hour either: she put three times the gusto into her native Italian films that bracketed this—Yesterday Today and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style.
Plummer has fun jumping into crazy-Roman-leader mode (kind of a win-win category for actors), plus there’s James Mason, Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, John Ireland and Omar Sharif; a rich music score from Dimitri Tiomkin; a couple of massive battles expertly arrayed (one of them involving 8000 extras and 1200 horses), great costumes, beautiful photography—plenty to admire over 188 stately minutes. The stilted love scenes apart, director Anthony Mann gets a lot of bang for his denarius.
The most outstanding element within the stunning overall production design are the fabulous sets, done on as grand a scale ever laid out for a movie, 55 acres worth, including the largest single outdoor set ever built, for the Roman Forum. Bronston’s expense account soared to Caesarian heights, as the sets were not false fronts, but three-dimensional and fully outfitted with mosaic tiles and enough statuary to placate Jupiter and Juno. The crowd scenes in these constructions are jaw-dropping.
Tiomkin’s mass-orchestra score seized the films only Oscar nomination. It’s criminal that the Art Direction wasn’t even on the roster. It was ripped off by My Fair Lady‘s fakey backdrops. That wildly over-awarded musical elephant also grabbed Cinematography and Costume Design, and this Roman saga was left in B.C. Mars!
In retrospect, beyond the flaws in the scripts love angle, it’s hard to see how they thought this generally intelligent, but downbeat story (no Savior to uplift, no sex orgies to titillate) could surmount its outlay enough to bring in crowds. Time healed its reputation. With Eric Porter, Finlay Currie, Andrew Keir, Douglas Wilmer.