It was the final nail in his financial coffin, the epic that would eventually close his by now infamous Spanish studios. After the troubled production surrounding his last epic, 55 Days at Peking, many believed producer Samuel Bronston would exercise some manner of restraint. But in true visionary form, he actually tore down his original Rome sets when actor Charleton Heston (who had appeared in El Cid) expressed interest in the Chinese spectacle. When the famous star eventually rejected a role in Fall, Bronston hired Stephen Boyd, and then rebuilt the entire Forum and most of the ancient city across 55 sprawling acres. Budgeted at $20 million (in 1964 dollars), Fall flopped, and even with its high profile cast, it couldn’t save the producer’s professional reputation.
That’s the great thing about DVD. It can help reestablish an unfairly maligned career. It can also argue for filmmaking facets that contributed to an already predetermined downfall. Both elements are present in the The Weinstein Company’s gorgeous restoration of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Presented over three discs and supplemented with a wealth of explanatory material, we get a chance to see Bronston’s vision the way he intended it (sans the 70mm Ultra Panavision Cinerama, that is). We also get an opportunity to witness the hubris that believed audiences would enjoy a scattered, three hour dramatization of the decline of the famed civilization. With the usual international casting conceit, and lots of expansive sets, director Anthony Mann was given a simple mandate - make it big. He frequently went further, making it boring as well.
While fighting Germanic forces north of his empire, Marcus Aurelius is poisoned by conspirators. Unable to name his beloved friend General Gaius Livius as his intended successor, the role of emperor falls on the ruler’s ineffectual son, Commodus. After marrying off his sister - and Livius’ lover - Lucilla to an Armenia king, he begins his reign. Believing that the road to peace is best paved with war and taxes, he causes rebellion amongst many of the outlying regions. In the meantime, Livius brokers a truce with the North, and uses his connection to Aurelius’ adviser Timonides to get the Roman Senate to endorse it. Of course, Commodus disapproves. As the leader’s hubris grows, his control on the empire wanes. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Lucilla is sentenced to death. She is joined by Livius, who has been set up by his own men. A final gladiatorial battle for the fate of Rome awaits our two competing conquerors.
On the opposite end is Bronston’s desire for more: more sets; more battle sequences; more extras. What we witness onscreen does indeed look impressive. While many marveled at Ridley Scott’s CGI version of the famed Italian city, Rome and its fantastic Forum look so much more real here. Of course, the tactile effect of a real practical backdrop does help. But there are other elements that are just as successful - the Temple of Jupiter (with the head of Commodus), the winter camp of Marcus Aurelius, the sweeping battlefields. Yet they seem to exist outside of the more intimate material at hand. The Fall of the Roman Empire can frequently feel like a character study played out amongst the very planets themselves. Scope and scale frequently countermand narrative and nuance.
Of course, that was the point. Bronston never thought that a non-spectacle would fill seats. The cinema was still battling TV for the all-important entertainment soul of the American public, and without something sensational to sell, the small screen’s convenience and novelty continued to win out. In many ways, such massive bombast was indeed revolutionary. It was mimicked as recently as the late ‘80s/early’90s, when the VCR and home video threatened to make movie-going obsolete. The studios responded with special effects laden efforts. To paraphrase the position - the viewer never starves when there’s eye candy around.
It was the same four decades ago. Of course, the sweets have soured a little since then. Much of Fall feels forced, pageantry played to the hilt simply because it can be. Plummer is wonderful as the egomaniacal brat, and Mason literally makes the movie. Of course, there are performers like Guinness who appear to be putting in the miles without delivering much of the necessary effort, and Loren was still in iconic beauty mode. She was much better back when she was battling Heston (off screen) during El Cid. Yet the optical wonder provided here, the sheer opulence of Mann’s moviemaking and Bronston’s approach give The Fall of the Roman Empire just enough to keep us going. It may be a tough road to hoe sometime, but the overall effect is impressive.
Equally extraordinary is this new DVD edition. Named after the Weinstein’s mother Miriam, the sheer wealth of added content here should make even the most amateur film historian weep with delight. The movie itself contains a commentary by Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin. While a tad too self-congratulatory (after all, they aren’t really going to criticize the man), it’s still a remarkable discussion. Disc Two trots out the Making-Ofs and the Behind the Scenes featurettes. One of the best highlights the “fact vs. fiction” way in which history is manipulated by Hollywood to fit its dramatic needs. Finally, a third DVD delivers a series of short films, commissioned by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which offers a classroom like take on Roman History (this material is only available as part of the limited edition package).
Frankly, anyone coming to this film hoping for historical accuracy should really seek some cinematic guidance. The Fall of the Roman Empire is meant to be nothing more than a sumptuous banquet of motion picture excesses served with a side dish of the slightest narrative accuracy. That Samuel Bronston saw this as the ultimate form of entertainment speaks as much for his approach as a producer as his fate as a filmmaker. It’s not surprising that he ended up going bankrupt when Fall tanked. Too much of what he was - and always would be - was wrapped up in this extremist ideal. And just like all outsized imaginations, a crash was inevitable. The Fall of the Roman Empire may not be the most notorious motion picture morass in the history of the medium, but for Samuel Bronston, it was the ultimate expression of what he was - for better and for worse.