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.

Quickie Review: Jason and the Argonauts (dir. by Don Chaffey)

While I have been buying and collecting dvds for some ten years now (collection around 2500-3000 titles) I have seen those purchases dwindle and wane to almost just a few a year now. I blame the convenience of Netflix and my resurgence in gaming with my Xbox 360 as the main cause for my slacking off in the dvd collecting. While  I still see myself collecting dvds and, most likely, moving onto blue-rays, I have seen why people love their Netflix accounts so much. Last night I was able to combine my love for my Netflix and my Xbox 360 and feed my need to always be watching a film. Using Netflix Instant I was able to watch streaming over my Xbox 360 one of the classic fantasy films ever made.

The film I speak of is the 1963 classic fantasy meets Greek mythology simply called Jason and the Argonauts. It is one of those films which has stood the test of time. I know of no film lover who hasn’t seen this at least once. It’s beloved and admired by millions of people of different generations for its simplicity and for the work of one man whose name overshadows everyone on the film from the director to the actors. This was the film which established for eternity the genius and imaginative creative of special effects guru Ray Harryhausen.

Jason and the Argonauts takes one of the more popular Greek myths about a son looking to re-take his father’s kingdom from a usurper but in the process goes through a journey that pits him against monsters, betrayers and the Gods themselves. The titular character and his crew must travel to the fabled island of Colchis at the edge of the world to find the legendary Golden Fleece purported to have magical properties of healing and even to grant peace throughout the land. I say that’s a piece of item worth fighting off a giant bronze warrior statue, screeching harpies, tempermental seaside cliffs and up to a many-headed hydra and skeleton warriors spawned from it’s teeth.

The acting is typical of most fantasy films of the 60’s and that’s they’re all bombastic, full of vigor and turns even the most simple dialogue into pronouncements of epic deeds to be done. Todd Armstrong leads a cast of British actors including such luminaries of their era like Nigel Green, Nancy Kovack, Honor Blackman and Douglas Wilmer. While the acting may seem quaint by today’s standards I still believe it’s what gives the film it’s timeless energy and quality. It makes the film flow like an epic poem that gave birth to it’s source material to begin with.

But what really makes this film stand out years after years and decade after decade since it’s release is the stop-motion animation effects created by the king of stop-motion effects himself, Ray Harryhausen. To say that the quieter moments where characters interact with each other almost feel like fillers to move the story along until it reaches one of several action sequences featuring Harryhausen’s work. It doesn’t diminish the work done by the actors or the efficient direction by filmmaker Don Chaffey. It just means that Harryhausen’s stop-motion work were so impressive that the audience just wants to see what new magic he has up next.

The climactic fight between Jason and his men versus skeleton warriors born from the teeth of a slain hydra (a stop-motion sequence which was in itself quite impressive) still goes down as one of the most impressive feats of filmmaking married with special effects today. There’s something to be admired about a four and a half minute action sequence where Harryhausen spent 4 months of meticulous frame-by-frame work to make the skeletal opponents come to life. There’s a reason why so many special effects magicians since then have pointed to this scene as one of their favorites and one reason why they got into the FX work to begin with.

Jason and the Argonauts may not have the technical wizardry of today’s fantasy epics and films with their million-dollar budgets spent on CGI-effects. It may not have the seriousness that today’s fantasy films have taken to heart (losing some of the fun, innocence of what makes fantasy films so great). What it does have is great storytelling which harkens back to a more innocent, hopeful and simple time. It also has the finest work of one of film history’s master magicians in Ray Harryhausen and that, in the end, is what makes this film of the the greatest of its kind and one every kid should be introduced to.