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.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Ivanhoe (dir by Richard Thorpe)


Welcome to England in the 12th century!

That’s the setting of the 1952 best picture nominee, Ivanhoe.  It’s a green and healthy land, full of chivalrous knights and corrupt royalty and outlaws who steal from the rich and give to the poor.  King Richard the Lion Heart (Norman Wooland) left on a crusade and he hasn’t been seen for a while.  Richard’s evil brother, the cowardly King John (Guy Rolfe), rules the country and has little interest in making sure that Richard returns.  Even when Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers that Richard is being held for ransom, John declines to do anything about it.

Ivanhoe is determined to raise the money to pay the ransom and restore Richard to the throne of England, even if he has to secretly compete in a tournament to do it.  Of course, before he can do that, he’ll have to buy a horse and some armor.  Fortunately, he comes across Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).  Isaac and Rebecca give Ivanhoe the money necessary to purchase a good horse and equipment.  Rebecca falls in love with Ivanoe, despite the fact that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena (Joan Fontaine, who spends most of the movie looking rather bored).

Speaking of love, the king’s favorite knight — the hot-headed but honorable Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — has fallen in love with Rebecca.  That, of course, complicates matters when the anti-Semitic King John attempts to have the Jewish Rebecca burned at the stake for witchcraft.  When Ivanhoe invokes the “wager of challenge,” in an effort to save Rebecca’s life, Sir Brian is chosen as the court’s champion.  Needless to say, this leads to some awkward moments….

Listen, I would be lying if I said that it was easy for me to follow the plot of Ivanhoe.  It seemed like every few minutes, someone else was plotting against either Ivanoe or King John and it got a bit difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish.  By the time Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) showed up, I have given up trying to make sense of the plot.

Instead of worrying about the exact details of the plot, I decided to just enjoy the film as a spectacle.  If nothing else, Ivanhoe is gorgeous to look at.  The colors are lush and full and the costumes and the sets are all wonderfully ornate.  Apparently, 12 Century England was a very colorful place.  There’s a lot of battles and jousts and sword fights.  I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting who but at least the film moved at a steady pace.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine make for a dull leading couple but a young Elizabeth Taylor is stunning in the role of Rebecca and George Sanders transforms Sir Brian into a truly tragic figure.  Guy Rolfe is memorably evil as King John, though he’s perhaps not as much fun as Oscar Isaac was in Robin Hood.  Everyone in the movie looks good in their period costuming.  Really, that’s the most important thing.

Ivanhoe was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Greatest Show On Earth.

Film Review: Barabbas (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Who was Barabbas?

The simple answer to that is that Barabbas was the prisoner who, according to the Gospels, Pontius Pilate released during Passover.  As the story goes, Pilate gave the people the choice.  He could either release Barabbas or Jesus.  For what crime was Barabbas being held?  The Gospel of Matthew merely says that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark and Luke both write that he was involved in a recent riot and that he was a murderer.  The Gospel of John refers to him as being a bandit, which may have been another term for revolutionary.  Regardless of what crime he had committed, the people overwhelmingly called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  What happened to Barabbas after he was set free is not recorded but has been the subject of a good deal of speculation over the centuries.

(Of course, there are some scholars who believe that the Barabbas story was simply an invention of later writers, designed to shift the responsibility for the crucifixion away from the Romans.  There’s also some who say that Jesus and Barabbas were actually the same person and that the inclusion of the Barabbas story was meant to indicate that Jesus was actually a revolutionary who was working to free Judea from Roman role.  I imagine Dan Brown will eventually base a novel on this theory, so look forward to hearing your grandma debating the historicity of Barabbas at some point in the future.)

Back to the original question, who was Barabbas?

According to the 1961 film of the same name, Barabbas was Anthony Quinn.

Based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author, Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas opens with Pilate (Anthony Kennedy) making his infamous offer.  Barabbas or Jesus?  Perhaps the only person more shocked than Pilate by the people’s decision is Barabbas himself.  A brutish and violent man, Barabbas is looking forward to returning to his old life but, as he leaves the prison, he finds himself fascinated by the sight of Jesus stoically carrying the cross, heading to the fate that Barabbas was spared.  Later, Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and is shaken when, upon Jesus’s death, the sky turns black.

(Director Richard Fleischer shot the Crucifixion during an actual solar eclipse, so that the sky actually did turn black during filming.  It’s a stunning scene.)

For the rest of his life, Barabbas is haunted by both his narrow escape from death and his subsequent notoriety.  When Barabbas tries to reunite with his former lover, Rachel (Silvana Mangano), he discovers that not only does she now want nothing to do with him but that she has also become a follower of Jesus.  (Later, in a surprisingly graphic scene, Rachel is stoned to death.)  Barabbas becomes convinced that he cannot die and he becomes increasingly reckless in his behavior.  Over the next few decades, he finds himself sold into slavery and forced to spend 20 years working in the harsh sulfur mines of Sicily.  He befriends a Christian named Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, with him, is trained to be a gladiator by the sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance).  Eventually, Barabbas finds himself rejected by both the Romans and the Christians while Rome burns all around him.

Barabbas is a film that really took me by surprise.  I’ve seen a lot of Biblical and Roman films from the 50s and 60s and I was expecting that Barabbas would be another sumptuously produced but slow-paced epic, one that would inevitably feature stiff dialogue and overly reverential performances.  I mean, don’t me wrong.  I happen to love spectacle and therefore, I enjoy watching most of those old historical and religious epics.  But still, for modern audiences, these films can often seem rather … well, hokey.

But Barabbas was totally different from what I was expecting.  As wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn, Barabbas wanders through most of the film in a state of haunted confusion.  Even at the end of the film, after he’s met St. Peter (Harry Andrews), Barabbas doesn’t seem to fully understand what he believes or how he’s become one of the most notorious men in Rome.  Quinn plays Barabbas almost like a wild animal, one that has been cornered and trapped by his own infamy.  The more Barabbas struggles against his fate, the more trapped he becomes.  Barabbas may be a brute but, the film suggests, even a brute can find some sort of redemption.  Quinn gets good support from the entire supporting cast.  Jack Palance is perfectly evil as Torvald while Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, and Ernest Borgnine bring some needed nuance to characters who, in lesser hands, could have just been cardboard believers.

Barabbas is a surprisingly dark film.  When Rachel is stoned, the camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how cruel an execution that was.  Nor does the camera flinch from the violent brutality of the gladiatorial games.  When Barabbas is sold into slavery, the sulfur mines of Sicily are depicted in Hellish detail and practically the only thing that saves Barabbas from spending the rest of his life being smothered under a cloud of sulfur is a giggly Roman woman who decides to buy Barabbas so that he can serve as a good luck charm.  The scenes of Barabbas’s skill of a gladiator are contrasted with the bloodthirsty crowd demanding and cheering death.  Even when Barabbas joins the Christians in the Roman catacombs, he discovers that they want nothing to do with him, suggesting that they believe in forgiveness for everyone but him.  The spectacle of Rome is displayed but so is the terror of what lies underneath the city’s ornate surface.  If Barabbas is occasionally a ruthless or unsentimental character, one need only look at the world he lives in to understand why.

With the exception of a few slow scenes at the start of the film, director Richard Fleischer does a good job of keeping the action moving.  It’s a long film but it never becomes a boring one.  In the end, thanks to Quinn’s performance and the film’s unflinching portrayal of life in ancient Rome, Barabbas is a biblical epic for people who usually don’t like biblical epics.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Hamlet (dir by Laurence Olivier)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1948 best picture winner, Hamlet!)

Hamlet is a film of firsts.

It was the first British production to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  In winning, it beat out three American films (Johnny Belinda, The Snake Pit, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and one other British film (The Red Shoes).

It was also the first adaptation of Shakespeare to win Best Picture.  Of course, it wasn’t the first Shakespeare adaptation to be nominated.  That honor would go to 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet would be nominated in 1936, 1961, and 1968.  Henry V (which, like Hamlet, was directed by and starred Laurence Olivier) was a 1946 nominee.  Then there was 1953’s Julius Caesar.  The Dresser featured scenes from Shakespeare.  Shakespeare in Love imagined the circumstances behind the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  However, Hamlet was the first to win.

It also remains the only traditional Shakespearean adaptation to win.  West Side Story updated Romeo and Juliet while Shakespeare in Love … well, let’s just not get into it.

It was the first Best Picture winner to be directed by the man starring in the movie.  Laurence Olivier was nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor.  He lost the directing Oscar to John Huston but he won for his performance as Hamlet.  In winning, he became the first actor to direct himself to an Oscar.

Finally, Hamlet was the first of 24 films to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee!  In fact, this was Lee’s film debut.  Now, before anyone gets too excited, I should point out that Cushing and Lee don’t actually interact.  In fact, Lee doesn’t even speak in the film.  He appears in the background as a Spear Carrier and it’s pretty much impossible to spot him.  He has no dialogue and wasn’t even listed in the final credits.  From what I’ve read, I don’t think Lee and Cushing even knew each other at the time and, when they later met, they were surprised to learn that they had both appeared in the film.  For his part, Cushing plays Osiric, the courtier who everyone remembers because he had such a cool name.

It’s always fun to play “what if.”  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not appear in Olivier’s adaptation of the play.  To modern audiences, that might seem strange but, really, that’s just because we’re all familiar with the two characters from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  When Olivier filmed Hamlet, he excised portions of the play in the interest of time.  (Hamlet uncut runs over four hours.  Olivier’s version clocks in at nearly three.)  Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and the second gravedigger are all dropped from Olivier’s version and, to be honest, none of them are particularly missed.

And yet … as I watched Hamlet, I found myself wondering what would have happened if Olivier had kept Rosencrantz and Guildenstern around and had cast Cushing and Lee in those roles.  It probably wouldn’t have happened, of course.  Cushing maybe but Lee was a total unknown at the time.  Still, how amazing would that have been?

As for the actual film, Olivier’s Hamlet turned out to be far more cinematic than I was anticipating.  Olivier’s camera snakes through the darkened hallways of Elsinore Castle while Olivier’s Hamlet veers between self-righteous fury and apparent madness as he seeks revenge on his Uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney).  As Hamlet grows more obsessed with death and vengeance, the castle seems to grow darker and the hallways even more maze-like, as if the castle’s changing shape to conform with the turmoil in Hamlet’s mind.  Among the cast, Jean Simmons is poignantly fragile as Ophelia while Eileen Herlie is the perfect Gertrude, despite being 12 years younger than the actor playing her son.  Olivier gives a wonderfully physical performance as Hamlet, killing Polonious with a demented gleam in his eye and literally leaping towards his uncle at the end of the film.

If you’re one of those people who thinks that Shakespeare is boring … well, Olivier’s Hamlet probably won’t change your mind.  One thing I’ve noticed about the “Shakespeare is boring” crowd is that nothing can change their minds.  But, for the rest of us, Olivier’s Hamlet is an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s more difficult play.

You won’t miss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at all.  And seriously, Fortinbras who?