Film Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir by Anthony Mann)


Why did the Roman Empire fall?

Well, historically, there were several reasons but they can all basically be boiled down to the fact that the Empire got too big to manage and that having two separate capitols certainly didn’t help matters.  The Empire got so large and overextended that the once fabled Roman army was no match for the barbarians.

Of course, if you’ve ever watched a movie about the Roman period, you know exactly why the Empire fell.  It all had to do with decadence, gladiators, human sacrifices, and crazed emperors with unfortunate names like Caligula and Commodus.  The Roman Empire fell because the imperial government descended into soap opera, complete with love triangles, betrayals, and whispered plotting inside the Senate.

Another thing that we’ve learned from the movies is that the fall of the Roman Empire was damn entertaining.  Between the orgies and the men wearing those weird helmets with the brushes on top of them, there’s nothing more fun that watching the Roman Empire fall.

Case in point: the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

This three and a half hour epic begins with the last of the good Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness), battling to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading the empire.  Marcus is a wise man and a great leader but he knows that his time is coming to an end and he needs to name a successor.  His daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), is an intelligent and compassionate philosopher but, on the basis of her sex, is not eligible to succeed him.  His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), may be a great and charismatic warrior but he’s also immature and given to instability.  Marcus’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason), would never be accepted as a successor because of his Greek birth and background as a former slave.  (Add to that, Timonides is secretly a Christian.)

That leaves Livius (Stephen Boyd).  Livius is one of Marcus’s generals, a man who is not only renowned for his honesty and integrity but one who is also close to the royal family.  Not only is he a former lover of Lucilla’s but he’s also been a longtime friend to Commodus.  Unfortunately, before Marcus can officially name Livius as his heir, the emperor is poisoned.  Commodus is named emperor and things quickly go downhill.  Whereas Marcus ruled with wisdom and compassion, Commodus is a tyrant who crushes anyone who he views as being a potential threat.  Lucilla is married off to a distant king (Omar Sharif).  Timonides is declared an enemy after he suggests that the conquered Germans should be allowed to peacefully farm on Italian land.  Rebellion starts to ferment in every corner of the Empire and Livius finds himself trapped in the middle.  Which side will he join?

Despite all the drama, Commodus is not necessarily an unpopular emperor.  One of the more interesting things about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that Commodus’s popularity grows with his insanity.  The crueler that he is, the more the people seem to love him.  Soon, Commodus is fighting as a gladiator and having people burned at the stake.  While some Romans are horrified, many more love their emperor no matter what.  People love power, regardless of what it’s used for.  Perhaps that’s the main lesson and the main warning that the final centuries of the Roman Empire have to give us.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is surprisingly intimate historical epic.  While there’s all the grandeur that one would normally expect to see in a film about the Roman Empire, the film works best when it concentrates on the characters.  While Boyd and Loren do their best with their thinly drawn roles, the film is stolen by great character actors like Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Christopher Plummer.  Plummer, in particular, seems to be having a blast playing the flamboyantly evil yet undeniably charismatic Commodus.  Even with the Empire collapsing around then, both Plummer as an actor and Commodus as a character seems to be having a blast.  Add to that, there’s all of the usual battles and ancient decadence that you would expect to find in a film about the Roman Empire and the end result is a truly enjoyable epic.

As I watched The Fall of the Roman Empire, it was hard for me not to compare the film to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  That’s because they’re both basically the same damn movie.  The main difference is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is far more entertaining.  The Fall of the Roman Empire, made in the days before CGI and featuring real people in the streets of Rome as opposed to animated cells, feels real in a way that Gladiator never does.  If Gladiator felt like a big-budget video game, The Fall of the Roman Empire feels like a trip in a time machine.  If I ever do go back to 180 A.D., I fully expect to discover James Mason giving a speech to the Roman Senate while Christopher Plummer struts his way through the gladiatorial arena.

Finally, to answer the question that started this review, why did the Roman Empire fall?

It was all Christopher Plummer’s fault, but at least he had a good time.

A Movie A Day #54: Daleks — Invasion Earth: 2150 (1966, directed by Gordon Flemyng)


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When London Special Constable Tom Campbell (Bernard Cribbins) spots a robbery at a jewelry store, he runs into a police box to call for backup.  But this is no ordinary blue police call box.  Not only is there no phone but it’s bigger on the outside than on the inside and it’s inhabited by Dr. Who (Peter Cushing), an eccentric inventor, and his niece, Louise (Jill Curzon) and his granddaughter, Susan (Roberta Tovey).  The call box is a time machine that’s known as a TARDIS and Tom just happens to stumble in at the exact moment that the Doctor and his family are heading into the future.  When they arrive in London in 2150, they discover that Earth has been conquered by the Daleks.

Daleks — Invasion Earth: 2150 was the second and last Doctor Who film to be produced by Amicus Pictures.  As both a sequel to Dr. Who and the Dalekand an adaptation of the televisions serial The Daleks Invasion of Earth, Daleks — Invasion Earth: 2150 shares many of the same flaws as the first movie.  Of course, the main one is that, as any true Whovian can tell you, the Doctor was not named Dr. Who, he was not human, and he did not invent the TARDIS.  He also never had a niece, at least not one named Louise.  Hearing the Doctor introduce himself as “Dr. Who” just sounds wrong.  The comedic relief also feels as out of place here as it did in Dr. Who and the Daleks but at least Bernard Cribbins’s Tom isn’t as annoying as Roy Castle’s Ian.

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Even taking all of that into consideration, Daleks — Invasion Earth: 2150 is still a clear improvement over the first film.  The futuristic location, with a London made up of the ruins of recognizable landmarks, is well-realized and far superior to the cardboard sets of the Dr. Who and the Daleks.  The moment when the Daleks first appear, rising out of the Thames, is a great Dr. Who moment and, for once, the Daleks comes across like a real threat instead of just oversized salt and pepper shakers with attitude.  Unlike the first film, the Daleks use their “EXTERMINATE” war cry and they exterminate almost everyone that the Doctor and his companions meet.  Since the Daleks are killing Brits instead of Thals, the stakes are higher in Daleks — Invasion Earth: 2150.

Even though he was playing a human version of the character and therefore, cannot be considered canonical, I have always liked Peter Cushing’s interpretation of the character.  Cushing’s firm but grandfatherly Doctor was quite a contrast to William Hartnell’s strict and abrupt version.  (Cushing’s Doctor has always reminded me more of a combination of Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee than William Hartnell.)

Daleks — Invasion Earth: 2150 may have been far better than the first film but it was also a flop at the box office, ending plans for any further Dr. Who movies.

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #26: Cleopatra (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


Cleopatra_posterWhile watching the 1963 best picture nominee, Cleopatra, I had many thoughts.  The film lasts over 4 hours so I had a lot of time to think.

For instance, I often found myself impressed by the sheer size of the production.  I marveled at the recreation of ancient Greece and Rome.  I loved looking at the ornate costumes.  I loved feeling as if I was taking a look back at what Rome may have actually looked like at the height of the Roman Empire.  Making it all the more impressive was that this film was made in the days before CGI.  When the film’s Romans walked through the streets of Rome, they weren’t just actors standing in front of a green screen.  They were walking down real streets and surrounded by real buildings.  It reminded me of the awe and wonder that I felt when I was in Italy and I was visiting the ruins of ancient Rome.

(I don’t know if any of the cast accidentally flashed everyone like I did when I visited during Pompeii on a windy day but considering how short some of the skirts on the men were, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did!)

And, as I marveled at the recreation of Rome, I also thought to myself, “How long is this freaking movie?”  Because, seriously, Cleopatra is an amazingly long movie.  It’s not just the film is over four hours long.  It’s that the film feels even longer.  Gone With The Wind, The Godfathers Part One and Part Two, Once Upon A Time In America; these are all long films but, because they’re so great, you never find yourself checking the time while watching.  Cleopatra is the opposite of that.  Cleopatra is a film that, at its slowest, will make you very much aware of how many seconds are in a minute.

I found myself marveling at the lack of chemistry between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  If anything, this is the most shocking thing about Cleopatra.  If Cleopatra is famous for anything, it’s famous for being the film where Elizabeth Taylor (cast in the role of Cleopatra) first met Richard Burton (who was playing Mark Antony).  Their affair dominated the gossip headlines.  (If TMZ and YouTube had been around back then, there would be daily videos of Richard Burton punching out paparazzi.)  Cleopatra was the first of many big-budgeted, overproduced films that Taylor and Burton co-starred in.

(Then again, they also starred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a film that is almost the exact opposite of Cleopatra.)

In the role of Mark Antony, Burton spends most of the film looking absolutely miserable.  Elizabeth Taylor, meanwhile, seems to be having a lot more fun.  It’s almost as if she understood what Cleopatra was going to become so she went out of her way to give the type of over-the-top performance that the film deserved.  The same can also be said about Rex Harrison, who plays Julius Caesar and who, perhaps because he appears to have shared her attitude, actually does have some chemistry with Taylor.

Actually, if anyone gives a truly great performance in Cleopatra, it’s Roddy McDowall.  McDowall plays the future Emperor Augustus with a mesmerizing intensity.  Again, McDowall’s performance is not exactly subtle but Cleopatra is not a film that demands subtlety.

As the film finally neared its end, I found myself wondering how Joseph L. Mankiewicz went from directing two close to perfect films, A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve, to directing this.  Even more amazing, Mankiewicz had previously directed one of the best Roman Empire films ever, 1953’s Julius Caesar.  (When compared to Cleopatra, the low-key and thoughtful Julius Caesar appears to have been filmed on an entirely different planet.)  Well, in Mankiewicz’s defense, he was not the original director.  He was brought in to replace Rouben Mamoulian, who had previously attempted to make the film with Joan Collins, Ben-Hur‘s Stephen Boyd, and Peter Finch.  When Mankiewicz was brought in, the cast was replaced with Taylor, Burton, and Harrison.  Between the expensive stars, the troubled production, and all of the offscreen romantic melodrama, Mankiewicz probably did the best that he could.

Today, Cleopatra is mostly interesting as an example of a film from the “Only Gigantic Productions Will Save Us From Television!” era of Hollywood filmmaking.  Cleopatra started out as a $2,000,000 production and ended up costing $31,000,000.  It was the number one film at the 1963 box office and it still nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.  While the film does have some kitsch appeal, the critics hated it and it’s easy to see why.

And yes, it was nominated for best picture of the year, a tribute to the size of the production and the determination of 20th Century Fox to get something — anything — in return for their money.

Cleopatra is a bit of a chore to sit through but it can be fun if you’re in a snarky mood.  It’ll do until the inevitable Angelina Jolie remake comes along.

Horror Film Review: Dracula, Prince of Darkness (dir by Terence Fisher)


Draculaprinceofdarkness“My master is dead but he left instructions that the house should always be ready for visitors.”

“Who was your master?”

“His name was Count Dracula…”

— A snatch of dialogue from Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is notable for many reasons.

First off, this movie marked Christopher Lee’s return to the role that he played 8 years earlier in The Horror of Dracula.  After being forced to make one Dracula film without Dracula, Hammer Films was finally able to make a direct sequel to The Horror of Dracula.

As a result of Lee returning, this was also the first of the Hammer Draculas to feature the previously destroyed Lord of the Vampires being revived through a splash of blood.  This was a plot element that all subsequent films in the series would feature and, to a certain extent, you have to admire Hammer’s efforts maintain some form of continuity.  Whereas it would have been easy enough to just have Dracula show up with no explanation as to why he’s back, the Hammer films at least  tried to make sure everything followed some sort of identifiable logic.  (Or, at least they did until Dracula A.D. 1972 but we’ll get to that movie later…)

This was the first Dracula film not to feature (with the exception of the footage from Horror of Dracula that opens the film) Peter Cushing in the role of Van Helsing.  And while the film probably would have been improved by the presence of Cushing, the film does come up with a more than adequate substitute in the form of Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor.  Whereas Cushing’s Van Helsing always seemed to be a rather rational vampire hunter, Keir brings a truly demented energy to the role.

And finally, Dracula, Prince of Darkness is probably best remembered for being the Dracula film in which Dracula does not speak.  He does hiss a few times but, for the most part, Dracula is silent throughout this entire film and, instead, relies on his servants Klove (Philip Latham) and Ludwig (Thorley Walters) to do most of the talking.

Why Dracula doesn’t speak is a matter of debate.  Christopher Lee has claimed that he refused to say any of the dialogue that had been written Dracula while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster wrote, in his autobiography, that Dracula was specifically written to be a silent role.  (Or, as Sangster put it, “Vampires don’t chat.”)

Regardless of why Dracula is silent, it actually works quite well.  Sangster’s right.  Vampires don’t chat and Christopher Lee’s haughty Dracula would be the least likely of all to make small talk.  Dracula’s silence both reminds us of the contempt with which he views the living and it also plays up the animalistic aspects of the character.  It helps, of course, that Christopher Lee is one of those actors who can do more with one dismissive glare than most actors could do with 20 pages of the most florid and overwritten dialogue.

As for the film itself, it serves as a reminder that the only thing that need happen for evil to be triumphant is for stupid tourists to take a holiday in Transylvania.  Ignoring the warnings of practically everyone else on the planet, the Kents — Alan (Charles Tingwell) and wife Helen (Barbara Shelley) and Charles (Francis Matthews) and wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) — spend the night at Dracula’s castle.  Dracula’s servant, Klove, murders Alan and drains his blood over Dracula’s ashes.  Soon, Helen is a vampire, Diana has been selected to be Dracula’s latest bride, and it’s up to Sandor and Charles to save everyone’s soul.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a lot of fun.  It’s full of all the usual Hammer touches — melodramatic dialogue, ornate castles, pretty costumes, plentiful gore, unfriendly villagers, and not-quite-brilliant heroes — and, best of all, it’s got Christopher Lee proving that Dracula doesn’t need to speak to be frightening.  Subsequent films in the Hammer Dracula series would grow increasingly uneven but Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a worthy entry.