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.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Hands of the Ripper (dir by Peter Sasdy)


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The 1971 Hammer film Hands of the Ripper tells the story of Anna (Angharad Rees), a woman living in Victorian England who has a few issues.

What type of issues, you may wonder?  Well, first off, she’s the daughter of the infamous serial killer known as Jack The Ripper.  When she was just a baby, her father killed her mother while Anna watched from her crib.  Now, years later, the teenage Anna is working for a fake medium named Mrs. Golding (Dora Bryan).  It’s Anna’s job to stand behind the curtain and provide the ghostly voices whenever Mrs. Golding is holding one of her fake seances.

One such séance is attended by both a sleazy member of Parliament named Dysart (Derek Godfrey) and a progressive psychiatrist named Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter).  When Mrs. Golding’s ruse is discovered, she decides to “give” Anna to Dysart.  However, this plan falls apart when Anna suddenly goes crazy, grabs a fireplace poker, and murders Mrs. Golding.  Dysart flees the scene, leaving Anna, who claims to have no memory of attacking anyone, with John.  Assuming that he can cure her, John takes Anna in and set her up at his house.

Well, it turns out that curing Anna will not be quite as easy as John assumed.  For one thing, Anna is extremely repressed and often refuses to open up to him.  Also, there’s the fact that Anna keeps killing people.  Whenever anyone stands to close to Anna or kisses her on the cheek, Anna goes into a trance and hears her father’s voice demanding that she kill.  John, convinced that he can save Anna, continues to cover up every murder.

I really wasn’t expecting much from Hands of the Ripper.  In fact, I have to admit that the main reason I dvred it off of TCM was because I thought this might be the film in which Klaus Kinski played Jack the Ripper.  I was wrong, of course.  The Kinski Jack the Ripper film was called Jack the Ripper and it was directed by Jess Franco.  Hands of the Ripper, on the other hand, is a Hammer film that was released in 1971, at a time when Hammer was struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing cinematic landscape.  Perhaps that’s why the murders in Hands of the Ripper were gory, even be the bloody standards of Hammer Films.

Interestingly enough, though the film was made over 40 years ago, the murders themselves remain quite shocking.  I can only imagine how audiences in 1971 reacted to them.  The scene where Anna suddenly attacks a housekeeper made me flinch, as did a later scene in which one of Anna’s victims stumbled out onto a crowded street, minus an eye.  Angharad Rees gave a good performance as Anna, one that keeps you guessing as to whether or not she’s just crazy or if maybe she really is possessed by the spirit of her father.

Hands of the Ripper is a good Hammer film, one that combines the usual Hammer tropes with a bit more psychological depth than one might expect.  This is one to keep an eye out for.

Lisa Reviews The Oscar Nominees: Nicholas and Alexandra (dir by Franklin J. Schaffner)


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(Depending on how much you know about world history, the review below may contain spoilers.)

It was nearly four years ago that I decided that my goal in life was to watch and review every single film — no matter how obscure or potentially disappointing — that had ever been nominated for best picture.  Of course, that’s not my only goal.  If anything, I may have too many, often contradictory goals in my life.  But seeing all of the best picture nominees was definitely one of them and, all these years later, it’s a goal that I’m still trying to achieve.  With the help of TCM and their nonstop schedule of movies made long before I was born, it’s also a goal on which I am slowly but surely making progress.

Last night, as I scrolled through the guide, I noticed that TCM would be showing Nicholas and Alexandra, a three and a half hour film from 1971.  Now normally, I would be hesitant about watching a film that long, if just because I have ADHD and I doubt I’d be able to concentrate on it.  In a theater, watching the action unfold on a big screen, it wouldn’t be a big deal.  However, it’s totally different when you’re talking watching a movie on TV in a house that is full of potential distractions.  Add to that, Wednesday night is when I usually watch shows like Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, and South Park.

But, here’s the thing.  The title Nicholas and Alexandra sounded familiar to me and not just because I’m an obsessive history nerd.  I did some checking and I discovered that, regardless of how obscure the film may be today, Nicholas and Alexandra was nominated for best picture.  It lost to The French Connection but it was nominated.

So, of course, I had to watch it.

And you know what?

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It’s not a terrible movie.  It’s certainly not great.  It has multiple flaws and it’s hard to imagine this film being nominated alongside films like The French Connection, Last Picture Show, and A Clockwork Orange.  Watching the movie, I got the feeling it was probably nominated because it was a big, expensive epic and not because it was one of the best of the year.  But, if you stick with the film (which, if we’re going to be honest here, is much easier said than done), it’s not quite as disappointing as you might expect it to be.

Nicholas and Alexandra tells the story of the last monarch of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston).  Struggling to escape the shadow of his father and incapable of understanding what life is like for those not born into royalty, Nicholas is portrayed as being well-meaning but autocratic and blind to the fact that the days of royalty are rapidly coming to an end.  His wife, Alexandra (Janet Susman) is also unpopular with both the Russian citizenry and the royal court on account of being German.

Alexandra spends most her time doting on her youngest son, Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia.  When a flamboyant Serbian monk named Rasputin (Tom Baker) claims that he has the power to heal Alexei, Alexandra immediately brings him into the court.  Soon, rumors are flying across Russia about Rasputin’s relationship with Alexandra.

Meanwhile, men with names like Lenin (Michael Bryant), Trotsky (Brian Cox), and Stalin (James Hazeldine) are plotting to lead a “worker’s revolution…”

If you know anything about history, it’s not really a spoiler to reveal what happens in the second half of Nicholas and Alexandra.  (And if you’re not into history, you probably would not have any interest in watching the movie in the first place.)   Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, plunging the entire world into war.  Russia declares war on Germany and the German-born Alexandra becomes even more unpopular than before.  The rest of the royal court, jealous over the mad monk’s influence, plots against Rasputin.  The Tsar is forced from the throne and Nicholas and his family spend their last days as captives of the people they once ruled.  Now a powerless prisoner, Nicholas finally starts to understand the world beyond his palace walls.  However, in the end, Nicholas, Alexandra, their children, and their loyal servants are taken into a small room and violently executed.  End of movie.

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So, there are a lot of things wrong with Nicholas and Alexandra.  Not the least of the film’s problem is an unwieldy length and generally slow pace.  (The film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who also directed the still-fun original Planet of the Apes.  Little of the flair he brought to Planet of the Apes is present here.)  This is one of those films that is full of incident with various characters popping up and discussing the intricacies of international politics with little concern as to whether or not any of this is the least bit cinematic or even compelling on a narrative level.  The film has a huge cast but very few memorable characters.

Even worse is that neither Nicholas nor Alexandra never come across as being all that interesting.  The film makes the case that Nicholas’s downfall was largely a result of him being unlucky enough to rule at a time when people across Europe and Asia were rejecting the old ways for the new ways of revolution and industrialization.  Nicholas is continually portrayed as being well-meaning but isolated and that has the potential to be interesting but, at times, the film feels almost as emotionally detached as its characters.

That said, Nicholas and Alexandra does work as a spectacle, as a showcase for beautiful clothing and ornate scenery.  As a character study, Nicholas and Alexandra largely fails but, as a fashion show, it’s actually a lot of fun.    Early on in the film, there’s a lengthy sequence in which Nicholas and Alexandra walk down the red-carpeted hallways of their palace.  It’s shot through Nicholas’s eyes and we see a collection of guards and noblemen and women standing to the side and bowing their heads as the Tsar and his wife walk past.  It’s a good scene and one that perfectly shows not only the life that Nicholas is used to but also why Nicholas doesn’t want to change that life.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the first two hours of Nicholas and Alexandra work best when they focus on the flamboyant character of Rasputin.  Baker does a really go job as Rasputin, delivering all of his lines with a ferocious intensity while staring with obviously unhinged eyes.  When he’s with Alexandra, Rasputin is calculating and coldly conniving, providing just enough comfort to keep her under his control.  When he’s with Nicholas or any of the other male members of the court, he reveals himself to be an arrogant libertine, making profane jokes and bragging about his conquests.  It’s a really good performance but, as with so many other good performances in this film, it occasionally gets lost in the film’s dense production.

The best moments of Nicholas and Alexandra come towards the end, with the humbled Nicholas finally revealing his humanity and the Tsar’s family struggling to maintain their dignity even as their inevitable fate approaches.  At this point, the performers came to life.  The film suddenly had an emotional resonance.  It finally became about something!  For those final 20 or so minutes, Nicholas and Alexandra suddenly seemed worthy of being awarded.

In fact, based on those final 20 minutes, I would even be willing to see a sequel called Nicholas and Alexandra and Rasputin Makes Three.  

(Though I’m not sure how that sequel could ever be made.  As @Kev1Media pointed out when I suggested it on twitter, Adam Sandler would have to be somehow involved.)

As for Nicholas and Alexandra, it’s not a great film but if you’re into history or you’re an Oscar completist like me, the film has its occasional charms.  You just have to be willing to look for them.

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