There’s something unnerving about watching Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) as 2017 draws to a close. Its apocalyptic vision of corruption, cruelty, and decadence eroding political institutions until the greatest political office in the land is merely a prize to be auctioned off to the highest bidder feels frighteningly contemporary.
The Fall of the Roman Empire marked a different kind of apocalypse in 1964, when it served as the harbinger of the end of the classic Hollywood epic. This expensive folly effectively ended the career of producer Samuel Bronston (who produced King of Kings, El Cid, and 55 Days to Peking), and like Joseph Mankiewicz’s troubled Cleopatra (which was released only a year earlier), Fall offers stunning example of excess as spectacle.
Mann, working in collaboration with cinematographer Robert Krasker and production designers John Moore and Vemiero Colasanti, crafts a film that is simply too huge to be believed (it holds the record for the largest film set ever created: a sprawling replica of the Roman Forum). But Fall‘s images are more than expensive. Mann stages the film as a series of dynamic and expressive tableaus. He transforms a bedroom conversation between the ailing Marcus Aurelius (invested with considerable gravitas by the great Alec Guinness) and his daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren, as radiant as ever, if somewhat hamstrung by the script) into a beautifully expressive sequence of poses that articulate the complexity of their relationship and its power imbalances.
Fall is not always so artful. Mann’s careful direction cannot entirely overcome an undernourished, albeit well-structured, melodrama with a wooden heroic lead. Stephen Boyd, as the blonde Livius, fails to elevate the stock material, and as such the film tends to stall in its second half, when he becomes a major driving force for the narrative (otherwise, the film feels more like an ensemble piece, with James Mason and Christopher Plummer delivering particularly fine performances). Some flourishes, such as two separate attempts to give characters internal monologues via voiceover, feel strained and silly. Other sequences feel like gratuitous plays to audience expectation, such as a gratuitous chariot race lifted from Ben Hur (admittedly, it boasts some great stuntwork). Still, the film’s thematic trajectory and and its consistently vibrant images make it altogether much more compelling than its more simple-minded remake, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which borrows many of Fall‘s narrative beats but none of its conviction.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is, like many of the classic Hollywood epics, a close cousin to opera, both in structural design and in its emphasis on music. The first thing to make an impression in The Fall of the Roman Empire is the overture for Dimitri Tiomkin’s maximalist score, a work of accomplished bombast that mingles orchestra and harpsichord and pipe organ and choir. I have long suspected that a viewer’s emotional admiration of the classic Hollywood epics will correlate closely to their attentiveness and receptiveness to the films’ musical scores, which, in the classic Hollywood epics, do not function as mere window dressing, but as a pillar on which the film rests. In these stately films, the (often stilted) quasi-Shakespearean dialogue functions like a spoken libretto to the more passionate, vital underscore. If Tiomkin’s score is not as complex as some of its peers (like Alex North’s rich, precise work on Spartacus and Cleopatra), it nevertheless provides the clearest articulation of the film’s dramatic impulses.