The Fall of the Roman Empire: Limited Collector’s Edition
April 24, 2008
It’s a cliché to say but they really don’t make films like The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) anymore. Anthony Mann’s magnum opus is part of a grand tradition of big budget historical epics like Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961). Mann’s film features a star-studded cast with huge sets done years before the invention of CGI. At the time it was the largest set ever built for any motion picture covering 250 acres of Spanish countryside with interiors filmed on massive soundstages in Madrid and Cinecitta in Rome. The Fall of the Roman Empire has finally been given the deluxe treatment on DVD featuring a beautifully re-mastered print.
The film is set in the Second Century after Rome’s great leader Marcus Aurelius (Guinness) dies only to be replaced by his son Commodus (Plummer). Livius Gaius Merellus (Boyd) was originally supposed to be Aurelius’ successor – handpicked by the emperor himself – but when no official document can be found to prove this, the duplicitous Commodus proclaims himself ruler of the Roman Empire. If the story sounds familiar, it should because Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is based on the same events.
The film immediately announces its epic credentials with an overture to properly set the mood before the opening credits appear. The first thing that strikes you is the grand scale. There are scenes with hundreds upon hundreds of extras none of which are computer generated but actual human beings – unthinkable by today’s standards but that’s how it was done back then. The elaborate sets, like Aurelius’ mountaintop palace, are rendered with great attention to detail.
There is an amusing campiness to much of the film’s dialogue despite some of the actors spouting it: Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Christopher Plummer. They have the kinds of wonderful voices that can make almost any dialogue sound classy – almost. There is also the brotherly-like relationship between Livius and Commodus rife with homoerotic subtext. For added measure, the voluptuous Sophia Loren provides the requisite eye candy playing Livius’ love interest. However, Stephen Boyd is the weakest link in the cast, delivering his lines in stiff, robotic fashion.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is everything you’d expect from a film of this type: pretentious dialogue, a bombastic soundtrack, exciting battles on a grand scale, plenty of scenery-chewing performances, and vast sets rendered to historical accuracy. They really don’t make films like this anymore and that’s a shame because there is something personal and intimate about it despite the epic scale that is missing from the epics of today which rely too much on CGI to do the heavy lifting. Maybe it is the hand-made sets of Mann’s film that give it a more human feel than the often cold, distant feel of computer generated landscapes that dominate the films of today, like 300 (2007).
The first disc features an audio commentary by Bill Bronston, son of the film’s producer, and Mel Martin, author of a book about the films of Bronston. Bronston points out the relevance that the film has on our current political situation. Martin claims that no opticals or special effects were used and so all of the sets were real and built to scale. Bronston says that many of the extras were in fact tourists often recruited for a day’s work. Naturally, they touch upon the costume and production design and marvel at the scale, pointing out how it was all made from scratch. There are several lulls but considering that the commentary runs for almost three hours Bronston and Martin deliver an engaging and informative commentary.
“Rome in Madrid: 1964 Promo Film” is a fantastic, vintage featurette narrated by James Mason as he takes us through how the film came together. We see how the elaborate sets were constructed. We see the costumes being designed, weapons built, and the film’s stars in costume tests. There’s even an amusing bit with Guinness and Plummer playing a game of chess between takes. This is a good extra that is much more entertaining than the usual making of featurettes you find on DVDs.
Also included is a vintage trailer for the film from back in the day.
There is a “Stills Galleries” with behind-the-scenes photographs, a collection of lobby cards, and several theatrical posters.
There are “Filmographies” for the cast that is nothing you couldn’t find on the Internet Movie Database.
The third disc includes the “Encyclopaedia Britannica: Educational Shorts about the Roman Empire.” These are three featurettes that examine the historical fact about the events depicted in the film. There are recreations of Roman History shot on the actual sets of Anthony Mann’s film mixed with clips from the film itself. This extra provides a fascinating backstory to what is depicted in the film.