The Fall of the Roman Empire is one of those big Hollywood spectacle films that were so prevalent during the 50s and 60s. It was produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Anthony Mann who had teamed together three years earlier on another great sword and sandal epic, El-Cid. The Fall of the Roman Empire was a disappointment at the box-office in large part due to its lack of a big star in the male lead role. Charlton Heston turned down the role as he despised Sophia Loren who plays the female lead Lucilla. Kirk Douglas also turned down the lead role of Livius that eventually went to Stephen Boyd. Boyd was a very capable actor but didn’t have the sizzle of a Heston or Douglas. Besides Boyd and Loren, the cast also includes Alec Guiness (Caesar Marcus Aurelius), James Mason (Timonides), Christopher Plummer (Commodus), Omar Sharif (Sohamus), Anthony Quayle (Verulus) and John Ireland (Ballomar).
Surprisingly, the film is historically accurate on a number of different counts. While the Livius character is fictional, Marcus Aurelius was rumored to have been poisoned, Commodus had a well documented love for the gladiatorial games, and his sister, Lucilla, did oppose his rule and attempt to assassinate him (Although this would be cut from the film so it did not make Loren’s character look bad). Many of the minor supporting characters are also based in historical fact. The film opens at a Roman fortification along the Danube frontier as Roman forces battle the barbarian Germanic tribes. Marcus Aurelius believes Rome’s best option is to make peace with the Barbarians and wants their leader, Ballomar brought in to discuss terms. Commodus opposes his father’s views leading to Marcus naming Livius as heir to be the next Caesar instead of his own son. But before he can document his will, Marcus is poisoned by conspirators and Commodus becomes the next Caesar.
Commodus reverses his father’s pacifist and diplomatic policies and sets out to conquer the barbarians and stirs up hostilities by taxing his allies from Armenia and Egypt. Once like brothers, Livius and Commodus are now bitter enemies and Livius is banished to the Northern frontier as Commodus continues to abuse his powers. Now bordering on madness, Commodus becomes a prime example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is a true epic spectacle in every sense of the word. The recreation of Rome in full scale is absolutely stunning. However, the cost of building the sets on such a massive scale coupled with the poor box-office returns resulted in financial ruin for Producer Sam Bronston and his production company was forced to file for bankruptcy. You have to appreciate the dedication to historical accuracy, right down to the costuming as the uniforms worn by the soldiers of various nations was said to be thoroughly authentic. Without the modern use of computer technology, the films grand “Battle of the Four Armies” was staged with as many as 18,000 extras.
The performances in the film are generally strong. Boyd and Plummer definitely do their best to upstage each other and are guilty of hamming it up a bit much. On the other hand, Alec Guinness is outstanding as a serene and intelligent Marcus Aurelius. His calm wisdom will make modern fans think of his more famous role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films. Loren gives an understated performance and she’s miles away from the sex queen idol roles she’d become known for most.
This is an outstanding boxed set collection. The three DVD Special Collector’s Edition set comes with host of fantastic extras including:
Reproduction of Original 1961 Souvenir Program
Six Color Production Stills (Collector’s Edition Only)
Feature commentary by the producer’s son Bill Bronston and film expert Mel Martin
Rome in Madrid Featurette
Fall of the “Real” Roman Empire Featurette
Making of Fall Of The Roman Empire featurette
Hollywood Vs. History featurette
Encyclopedia Britannica On The Roman Empire – 5 featurettes
Original Theatrical Trailer