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.
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…
…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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!)
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.