The Roman-Period Epic was something of a staple of cinema in the 1950s and ’60s, and one of the films of that genre that tanked the hardest was The Fall of the Roman Empire from 1964, which is a bummer because it’s really not that bad.
The film basically covers the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the succession of his son Commodus to the throne, and Commodus’ eventual death. It is incredibly fictionalized and also if you’ve seen the later film Gladiator, a lot of that film’s beats map to beats from this movie – with some distinct differences during the middle portion of the film.
The movie’s focal points are on Commodus (Christopher Plummer in full ham mode), Lucilla (Sophia Loren – though the character is a combination of some of Marcus Aurelius’ daughters), and Livius (Stephen Boyd). During the campaigns in Germania, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), decides that for the health of the empire it would be better to expand eligibility for Roman Citizenship to a larger portion of the population, and that instead of his son Commodus ascending after his death, one of his generals – Livius – should ascend instead. However, before he can put any of this into action, Aurelius dies – poisoned by a supporter of Commodus, while Aurelius is already fending off ill health due to age.
Commodus takes the throne and is the sort debauched, self-indulgent Roman Emperor you get in films like these, putting the focus on tributes to Rome itself over the ongoing health of the providences, leading to rebellions, which Livius is tasked with putting down, before he decides to force Commodus to abdicate, culminating in a duel to the death between the two, leading to Commodus being slain, and Livius and his beloved Lucilla leaving for the outskirts of the Empire, as the Year of Five Emperors begins.
Every cent of this film’s budget is on screen, from a fantastic cast (including several notable names which I haven’t mentioned,) to massive lavish sets, and scenes with thousands of extras. This is absolutely the kind of gigantic historical epic you expect from this period. The problem is that while the film’s first half is very tightly plotted and scripted, the second half of the film is cluttered. It’s not that it drags, it’s that it’s cluttered. There’s just too much happening in the second half of the film that takes too long to play out.
To the credit of the film Gladiator, which is also set during Commodus’ ascension and reign, is it gets through a lot of the material from the first half of this film in that film’s first act – and then some. By the end of Gladiator‘s first half, Commodus has taken the throne, Maximus has been betrayed, trained as a gladiator, and is already fighting in the Coliseum. With Fall of the Roman Empire, Commodus’ coronation leads us into intermission, and all the debauchery and political machinations leading to his defeat take up the film’s last 90 minutes. If that sounds busy – that’s because it is.
It’s an enjoyable movie. In some respects, I like it more than Gladiator – I like Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius more than Richard Harris – Guinness has much more screen presence. Christopher Plummer’s hamminess is more delightful than Joaquin Phoenix’s as Commodus. Where Gladiator is stronger is in the realm of the arena.
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