The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

History fascinates me. Not the dates, not so much the politics (though that can be often very interesting, too), but society, culture. How people lived, and how—if you really think about it—mankind hasn’t, fundamentally, changed too much over the past few millennia.

Look at The Fall of the Roman Empire, for instance: a tale of a dying emperor, realizing that his own son—the heir to the throne—is too debauched, too fond of gladiators and wine, to ever be able to fulfill the dying man’s dream of a united Roman Empire. What ensues—as a seeming upstart is nominated successor, as jealousy and hatred arise where there had been camaraderie and boisterous affection—could be true of anything happening today.

Christopher Plummer as Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire

But, to get down to this film, which boasts of some of the biggest names in the British-accented cinema world of the 60s (I don’t say British, since one of the leading lights here is Canadian): Alec Guinness, Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, James Mason. With Mel Ferrer and John Ireland. And the exquisite Sophia Loren. And house favourite Omar Sharif. After a brief voice-over in which we learn how the Roman Empire took more time (300 years) to fall than most empires live, we plunge into the first scene, set in the snowy mountains near the Danube.

It is 180 AD. Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) has been fighting the barbarians here, and when the film begins, is awaiting the arrival of his allies and commanders. He’s standing on the ramparts of the wooden fort, talking to friend/assistant/general confidante Timonides (James Mason, an old favourite of mine) when a newcomer arrives, all gleaming armour and helmet. This is Livius (Stephen Boyd), Commander of the Northern Army. A man whom Marcus Aurelius had adopted, and who appears to have grown up pretty much with Caesar’s own children…

Livius arrives to meet Marcus Aurelius

…one of whom, the glorious Lucilla (Sophia Loren) we meet soon after. Livius, having greeted Caesar and been given a warm welcome by the emperor, goes to meet Lucilla even as she stands at an outdoor altar, praying to Vesta for protection for her father and the Empire.

Lucilla, and Livius

From the brief conversation between Lucilla and Livius, it’s obvious that there is affection here. Lucilla, as she’s going, shyly admits that if Livius has the time to spare from his duties, she would welcome his company.

The next day, however, Caesar has to address the hordes of allies who’ve arrived. In a grand parade across the mountainside, they march: proconsuls, generals, princes and kings from all corners of the Roman Empire. From Britannia to Egypt, Syria to Athens, Africa to Armenia (the latter represented by its ruler, Sohamus—played by Omar Sharif). Caesar salutes them all, acknowledges their greetings, addresses each by name. And, in his speech to the assembled crowd, talks of his dream of a unified Rome, one nation.

Caesar addresses his allies and commanders

Even while he’s giving his speech, Caesar shows signs of being in pain. He dismisses it quickly, but it’s obvious to Livius that this is nothing trivial. Later, in the seclusion of his chamber—and with only a worried but still dignified Lucilla in attendance— Caesar admits the truth: he is dying. And, before he dies, he wants to declare Livius his heir.

Livius is shocked. No, he doesn’t want to be Caesar. He is an officer; he only knows about war, not about administration. And Caesar already has an heir, a declared heir, who has even sat beside Caesar’s throne, ruling alongside him. Commodus, Caesar’s son.
Caesar is not convinced. He had hopes of Commodus, but all these years Caesar has been away at war—17 years, a long time—Commodus has gone downhill, and taken Rome downhill with him. All Commodus cares for is games, gladiators, mindless bloodshed. He will not make a good ruler.

Livius baulks at the idea of being Caesar

Livius goes away, disturbed. The next day, news arrives that Commodus is approaching. Livius sets out to receive him, and they ride back to the fort together.

Two old friends meet after a long time

Commodus (Christopher Plummer), wild-eyed and laughing, is very much as Caesar has described him. He’s ruthless, he’s irreverent, he’s not the diplomat, the unifier of Rome Marcus Aurelius is. There’s a telling sequence in which Commodus, dismounting and about to enter the fort, is introduced to two Roman generals. He, in turn, introduces them to a man he’s brought along to lead his army: Verulus (Anthony Quayle), a gladiator. The generals look supercilious: what can a gladiator teach them? To kill, says Commodus.

Commodus with his commander, the gladiator

But if Commodus appears cruel and despotic before these men, he is far from that with Livius, who is like a brother to Commodus. Livius is friend and brother and comrade. When they are alone together and raise a toast to their friendship, the toast is long and messy, and ends with them laughing drunkenly together.

Commodus’s revelry and high spirits, however, come to a swift end, because Livius—who cannot get over the guilt of being chosen heir by Caesar—tells Commodus of Caesar’s decision. The news, of course, stuns Commodus. He is angry, coldly and bluntly so. So much, in fact, that the next morning, when the Roman army under Liviius’s command gets ready to fight the barbarians in the woods, Commodus asserts that he and his men—his gladiators—will be the lure to bring the barbarians into the trap planned for them. Livius tries to dissuade him: this is certain suicide.

Ire and jealousy mar a relationship

Commodus does not listen, however, and leads his men into the forest. The barbarians are drawn out, and attack. Livius and his army join the battle, and there’s bloody fighting. The chief of the barbarians, however escapes—mostly thanks to Commodus and Verulus, who aren’t able to contain him. This invites disdain from Livius’s commanders, but Commodus shrugs it off.

Meanwhile, two important events have taken place. Firstly, Marcus Aurelius has decided that, in order for Rome to be strengthened, she needs the support of her eastern provinces. And, to achieve this, a marital alliance would be useful. He has therefore arranged a match between Lucilla and Sohamus, the King of Armenia.

Sohamus, King of Armenia...

 

When Caesar tells Lucilla this, she is torn. On the one hand, she loves Livius, and she knows that she can never harbour any love for Sohamus. On the other hand, she knows that her father loves her deeply; if he has had to sacrifice his own daughter thus, there must surely be good reason for it.

... and betrothed to a reluctant Lucilla

The other important event is a plot that’s brewing. Caesar’s blind soothsayer, Cleander, had overheard—unknown to Caesar or to Livius—Caesar’s decision to make Livius his heir. Cleander has shared that piece of vital information with various high-ranking officers, and they have come together to discuss this matter. They realize that as soon as Caesar makes the proclamation, Livius will be the official heir, and Commodus will be out of the reckoning. With Commodus’s downfall, they too will be left powerless.

The solution? To kill Caesar. They even have the weapon for it: a knife, its blade smeared on one side with a virulent poison. An apple cut with the knife can be shared with Caesar, leaving the culprit free of suspicion. Cleander takes it upon himself to do the work. Who will imagine a blind man guilty? And since the poisoned side of the blade is engraved with a snake, Cleander will know, by touch, which side is which.

Cleander plots to murder Caesar

Caesar is poisoned, and though he does not die immediately, he’s gasping, his voice slurred, as he lies on his deathbed. Lucilla, Livius and Commodus hurry to him. Caesar sends the two men away, and when he is alone with Lucilla, gasps out one coherent word: “Livius!” And then he dies.

Lucilla, once she’s recovered somewhat from the shock of her father’s death, goes to Timonides and Livius with the news: her father’s dying declaration obviously was to proclaim Livius his heir. Timonides however points out the sad truth: they have searched Marcus Aurelius’s papers well, and there is not a single document in support of that. “Caesar must be undoubted Caesar,” Livius says…

Livius tries to explain to Lucilla while Timonides looks on

…and that is how he hails Commodus, at Marcus Aurelius’s funeral. The torch for the funeral pyre had been handed to Livius, but he—realizing that he doesn’t have any tangible claim to the throne—passes it on to Commodus. And, standing before the hordes of Roman and allied armies, proclaims Commodus Caesar. Commodus, in return, proclaims Livius Commander of all the Roman armies, second only to Caesar himself.

Lucilla, thinking Livius has betrayed her father, turns aside.

Caesar is proclaimed, and proclaims his chief commander

From there, from the snowy mountains near the Danube, the scene shifts to Rome. Crowds throng the Forum as the new Caesar comes through, riding his chariot and waving to the crowds. As he steps off the chariot outside the temple, the white-robed slave riding in the back of the chariot whispers, as is customary, “Remember, thou art mortal”—but the look on Caesar’s face shows that he does not believe that. He is all-powerful, he is Caesar, lord of all he surveys.

A grand parade in Rome

And, after he’s laid his royal wreath at the altar of Jove—as a sign of reverence to the gods—but with a sly grin, as if to say he knows who’s God here—Commodus sets about doing what he’s always wanted. To undo all that his father had done. Peace, brotherhood and unity is all hogwash, as far as Commodus is concerned. What Rome needs is joy, laughter, wealth, games. To fund that, he orders the Roman commanders of Egypt and Syria to raise taxes, to send more grain to Rome. When they protest, saying that such a move will antagonize the people of these provinces, Commodus is brutal in his rebuttal. So be it. Let them be antagonized; let them protest. Rome, mighty Rome, will crush them.

Caesar starts ruling

This is just the start. Because Commodus is a selfish, luxury-loving, tyrannical megalomaniac who will stop at nothing to have his way. He will not listen to logic, he will not see what is plain to the eye of reason. He has no conscience. And he has enough sycophants, men eager to please him for their own gains. This is not the end of Rome, but it is certainly the beginning of the end…

What I liked about this film:

The Fall of the Roman Empire has a stellar cast; it features some fine acting. It is certainly epic, and it brings together a lot—romance, tragedy, political intrigue, history, philosophy. And, the scale of the production is impressive. Despite that, few people talk of this film in the same breath as Ben Hur. I can see why, to some extent: it’s very long (nearly three hours of it), it does get somewhat tedious at times, and to the easily-distracted, it could appear too slow.

But it has its merits, and there are several of them. Firstly, the sheer spectacle of it. This film is on a lavish scale (its budget was $20 million, and it shows—the outdoor set depicting the Roman Forum, for example, still holds the record for the largest outdoor set ever made). The fortress in the snowy mountains , the outdoor scenes in Rome, even the indoor scenes—from Commodus’s palace to the Temple of Jove—are all impressive, splendid.

A view of an outdoor set from the film...

... and an indoor set.

Then, there’s the acting. Alec Guinness and James Mason, in particular, are excellent as the two idealist philosophers who try their hardest for peace and harmony, but end up being—what? Voices crying in the wilderness? Optimistic, perhaps not too realistic, but trying their hardest against a world where the odds seem increasingly stacked against them.

The most impressive for me, though, is Christopher Plummer as Commodus. Several years passed between my first viewing of this film and my subsequent rewatch of it; enough time for me to have forgotten all but the gist of the plot—and Plummer’s acting. He’s brilliant, his Commodus more than slightly mad, drunk with his own power, completely despotic and amoral. And yet, there occasionally appear moments when he’s almost human: the scene where he meets Verulus and Lucilla, for instance, or Commodus’s last scene. Both show a man who may be a megalomaniac, but who is also emotionally fragile enough to be stunned by a shock he hasn’t expected (and—in keeping with Commodus’s ruthlessness—which still doesn’t weaken his resolve to be all-powerful).

Christopher Plummer as Commodus

Plus, some scenes which stand out. The very last one, the frame on which the film ends, is for example, a telling one: it shows just how greed and blind ambition led to the fall of Rome.

What I didn’t like:

On the other hand, what drags down The Fall of the Roman Empire is the scale of it: the scope of the narration is too vast. It tries to draw together too much. Despite the close to three hours of the film, there isn’t space enough to give sufficient importance to the many threads that run through the story: the love of Livius and Lucilla; Commodus’s megalomania, the greed and ambition of him and his men; Timonides’s efforts to unify Rome and to establish a brotherhood of man. The turbulence among the barbarians, the Persians, the Eastern Provinces. Cleander. The Roman senate, and the lone voice there which calls for reason, for temperance. There is just too much going on. As a result, little of it is explored in enough detail. As an example: we never come to know anything of the relationship between Sohamus and Lucilla (for me, the very fact that Omar Sharif gets a mere four lines in the film is bad enough!)

Omar Sharif and Sophia Loren as Sohamus and Lucilla

Plus, the pacing of the script is patchy. The first half or so proceeds at a leisurely pace, taking its time, even meandering over Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy. Then, as it moves towards the end, it suddenly begins to gallop, skimming over things far too quickly to make much of an impression.

If you like sword and sandals epics, do give this at least a try. It was a massive flop, but it is still worth a look. And though it may not teach you much about ancient Rome (it’s pretty much fictional, even if some of the main characters—Marcus Aurelius, Lucilla, Commodus and Cleander—did exist), it’s quite spectacular.

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18 thoughts on “The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

  1. Madhu,
    Coincidentally, this DVD is sitting in my shelf along with several, still to be opened and watched. In spite of the flaws you mention, the spectacle and Alec Guinness are reasons enough to watch it. I hope to come back later.
    AK

    • Sadly, Alec Guinness isn’t there for too long in the film – I’d have preferred him in a longer role (incidentally, according to IMDB, he himself didn’t get around to watching more than 20 minutes of the film – I wonder if he watched only the section he was in?) But it’s really not a bad film, AK. Some of the acting (Plummer, notably) and all the sets are worth it.

      Whenever you do get around to watching it, let me know what you thought of it!

    • Oh, I’ve only heard so far of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum – have never seen it, and didn’t even know what it was about. I must watch this! Thank you for the recommendation, Abhik.

  2. I am downloading it already. I love a nice spectacle, especially if it’s historical. The name Sophia Loren sent me racing towards the downloader. :D

    Looks like it will take me three days to watch it. Maybe best to watch it that way. Can’t hang around for 3 hours at a stretch.

    • Sophia Loren is especially gorgeous in this, I thought. I’ve not seen too many films of hers, I must admit, but the Roman get-up (particularly the hairdos) really suited her, I thought.I just wish they’d focussed more on her and Omar Sharif. I really like both of them. Perhaps I should watch More Than a Miracle next – Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif in a deliciously fairy tale-like film. :-)

      It took me two days to watch it, too, Ava. Too long to be watched at one stretch. Tell me what you thought once you’re done with it!

        • I think I’ll rewatch More Than a Miracle someday soon, and review it. Then you can tell whether you think you’d like to watch it or not. I found it quite enjoyable, from what I recall. Quite Cinderella-ish, except that Sophia Loren’s character is quite feisty for a fairytale heroine.

  3. I had assumed you had gone on a holiday because I stopped receiving any notifications of your posts in my email. After seeing your comment in my blog, I was a bit curious and decided to check out your blog and what do I see? You have already done two posts. I guess I will have to subscribe once again.
    I do not recall seeing this film, I will have to see it to find out whether I have seen it or not. There are two good reasons why I would love to see it, one is I love the British accented English of the old- timers, Once Sean Connery recalled that those days actors were made to read pages of dialogue so that they got the pronunciation right, only then were they considered for a role. Thanks to that we had no problem following what they were saying. Nowadays each actor has a different accent and I have a tough time following what they are saying, thank God for the sub-titles. Besides all my favourite stars feature in this film.
    Then I love history, actually if it is BCE that is, the more ancient it is, so much the better, or maybe the early part of the common era also interests me, thereafter it reminds me of school exams, so I sort of stay clear of that part history

    • Shilpi, I totally agree with you about British accents – somehow they seem to fit these sword-and-sandals epics far more than American accents. Odd, I suppose, considering the Romans and Greeks didn’t speak English, but there it is… that is one reason for watching this film, besides the grandeur of the sets. (Incidentally, have you seen some of the newer sword and sandals films? There was one which I liked, called The Centurion, starring Michael Fassbender – where the British accents again helped in my liking of the film. Another, starring Channing Tatum – not one of my favourites, anyway – called The Eagle, had a good premise, but didn’t quite deliver as far as I was concerned).

      Do try and lay your hands on this one, though. And if you do watch it, let me know what you think.

        • Yes, have a look. It doesn’t have the charm of old films like Ben Hur or Quo Vadis (and it has an unusual setting – Roman England, rather than Rome or Italy), but I still thought it a good film.

          • Finally saw the film. I did not have the time to see it at a stretch, so i saw it gradually in parts. Going through your review, I can say honestly that I agree with your observations. There is however something that sets these films apart from the modern day films like the ‘Gladiator’ for instance, it is the actual sets and use of hundreds of junior artistes for the battle scenes. Nowadays everything is shot against a green backdrop and as for junior artistes, well all they do is shoot with a few artistes and then duplicate them as many times as they need to on the computer to get the requisite numbers. It definitely doesn’t look the same. I guess they do not have much of a choice, as Charlton Heston once pointed out that nowadays it is near impossible to make films on the scale of a ‘Ben Hur’ or a Ten Commandments’, it would be too expensive.

            • I agree, in this day and age it would prohibitively expensive to use actual ‘armies’ (though how badly an army – even of actual people – can be botched up was brought home to me the other day while watching Mahabharat, where the extras just flung themselves at each other like a mob going into a brawl, not trained troops. It was painful to watch).

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