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BIGGER ISNT BETTER, BUT...

One of the rare Hollywoodized epics that correctly avoids Christianity as the catalyst to Rome’s collapse and instead zeroes in on the degenerate influence of money and power hunger as chief culprits, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire can’t match the hefty mission of its pretentious title but for sheer eyeball appeal it surpasses Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. Built in Madrid, this movie’s plywood Rome, designed by long-time collaborators Veniero Colasanti and John Moore, has never been matched and more than fifty years later, it’s still very impressive. (I’ve included below a sufficient number of images from the 2008 Weinstein/Miriam Collection release for a viewer who has yet to see it and to refresh the memory of those who have.) First meeting in 1948, Rome-born Colasanti and Moore, from North Carolina, quickly became a celebrated team of set and costume designers for theatre, ballet and opera productions throughout Europe, including the famed La Scala. Though Colasanti did some design work for movies previously (including costumes for Carol Reed’s Trapeze), his and Moore’s big movie break was David Selznick’s A Farewell to Arms, for which they did the set decoration, one of the bummer’s few attributes. Producer Samuel Bronston then offered them the opportunity to do the entire production design of El Cid, which would result in high acclaim and an Oscar nomination, losing to the cardboardish Westside Story. The huge box office of El Cid would give them the chance to continue working with Bronston on 55 Days at Peking, for which the team created a miniature Beijing circa 1900 that became the flop’s star. Movie design aficionados were (and remain) agog by it, but few were prepared for the jaw-dropping stuff they’d design for The Fall of the Roman Empire, even when advance word centered far less on the stellar cast than it did on what was being cemented, nailed and painted. Roughly the first ninety minutes or so are set in what is supposed to be the Danube frontier and its winter look is appealing in a glamorously gloomy way, especially the Germanic fortress, loaded with furs, torches, wood beams and pillars. (Would make a great Bavarian Club Baths.) The political shenanigans begin here: Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius is coming to the end of his reign and in order to have his dream of a pax Romana carried out, he’s less willing to see his evil son Commodus take over than daughter Lucilla’s love interest—the honorable (tho fictitious) Livius, a military commander. Edward Gibbon and Will Durant, the latter given special consultant status in the credits, believed that the death of Aurelius and the rise of Commodus were the events which started the three hundred year “process” that fell the Roman Empire. Christopher Plummer’s Commodus, eagerly the symbol of the depraved gladiator era, is more than up to the burden of accepting blame. When going into one of his frequent snits, he whips and hears the Gods laughing as he edges toward psychopathic; he’s so evil that Sophia Loren’s Lucilla attempts to assassinate him, in a revelatory sequence that’s often not shown on network television. Nearing intermission, Commodus as “undoubted Caesar” enters Rome and our eyes go a poppin’. The spread is over-the-top resplendent, so ostentatious that it’s not within the powers of viewers to respond in any other way than in dumbfoundedness. The publicity machines called the project the 8th wonder of the modern world and it became a top tourist attraction in Madrid while the sets remained intact; the expensive indulgences, however, caused Bronston’s empire to collapse. (And Oscar, already having awarded three previous Roman-era spectacles—Ben-Hur, Spartacus and Cleopatra—for their art direction, ignored Colasanti and Moore.) During the second half, the obscenely gorgeous sets, operatic in size and appointments, are assaults on good taste, yet epics are juicy for a lack of it. Connoisseurs really dig those painted interior columns resembling pleated drapes out of a Warsaw bordello. Only there’s not enough tasty nastiness going on in the constructions; a pall of depression hangs over the settings. The one moment of joy—the newly Romanized Germanic tribe’s folk dancing—ends with spears and burnings. And when breathtakingly disheveled Sophia mourns for all of Rome on her way to being set ablaze at the stake, you know your prayers to the Gods for a little Mel Brooks intervention won’t be answered. As with the city in 55 Days, this faux marblized Eternal playground was fully functional, with usable interiors pre-readied for the roving camera, and director Mann and cinematographer Robert Krasker maximize their utility to vary the views. What they don’t achieve is fluidity with the actors. There’s a rare pan, and sometimes two or three faces will share the same shot. But mostly one actor is alone facing an actor whose back faces us, then the camera reverses angles; you want to scream from the monotony. Stephen Boyd goes blond for the good Livius and he is much better than you’d think he could be opposite the limited gamut of Loren’s “Oh, Livius!” emotions; James Mason gives great closeup; Omar Sharif, whose part feels chopped, is a guest victim. (Boyd and Sharif reversed adversarial roles the following year in Genghis Khan, with Mason once more a wise man, this time in Chinese drag.) Way too many loads of horse and furious sword-swinging and spear-throwing pageantry and with the obligatory chariot showdown that poops out absent a victor. Dimitri Tiomkin was Oscar-nominated for his score, which overwhelms just about everything except the splendiferous decor. Oh, those fanfare trumpets and funereal organ and funeral parlor entr’acte! Why doesn’t Tiomkin ever sound integrated, part of the whole? He seldom reciprocates with what’s happening on the screen; his morose concerts divorce us from receptiveness. For years the epic’s conclusion drew derisive laughs, indicative of a near-fatal weakness in the American propensity to reject the reality that government could be sold to the highest bidders; now, of course, the ending has the power of a boomerang. With Mel Ferrer, John Ireland, Anthony Qualye, Eric Porter, Finlay Currie, Douglas Wilmer, Guy Wolfe. Second Unit Direction: Yakama Canutt. The bonus material included in the Miriam Collection edition confirms the discovery of footage that may be inserted in a subsequent release. Remake by Ridley Scott as Gladiator. In Ultra-Panavision. (Opening 4/17/1964 at the Michael Todd, running 15 weeks.)

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com 

Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  Revised 2010 All Rights Reserved.