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.

A Movie A Day #127: Brass Target (1978, directed by John Hough)


Everything’s a conspiracy!

At least, that is the claim made by Brass Target, a twisty and unnecessarily complicated thriller that argues that General George S. Patton (played here by George Kennedy, who is even more blustery than usual in the role) did not, as widely believed, die as the result of a car accident but was actually killed by an assassin using rubber bullets.  Why was Patton targeted for assassination?  Was he targeted by Nazis angered by Germany’s defeat or maybe Russians who knew that Patton had argued in favor of invading the Soviet Union towards the end of the war?  Would you believe it was all because Patton was investigating the theft of Nazi gold and his subordinates, the flamboyantly gay Colonel Donald Rogers (Robert Vaughn) and Rogers’s always worried lover, Colonel Walter Gilchrist (Edward Herrmann), were fearful that he was getting too close to discovering the truth?

John Cassevetes, who hopefully used part of his paycheck to fund either The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, or Gloria, plays Joe De Lucca, the burned out OSS colonel who is assigned to track down the Nazi gold but who really just wants to go back home to New York.  Patrick McGoohan, sporting an accent that is supposed to be American, plays De Lucca’s former friend and colleague, Colonel Mike McCauley, who now lives in a German castle.  Max von Sydow is the assassin, who also has a day job as the chairman of a refugee relocation committee.  Sophia Loren plays Mara, a Polish war refugee who, by pure coincidence, has slept with not just De Lucca but almost everyone involved with the conspiracy.  Bruce Davison is the young colonel who acts as Du Lucca’s supervisor.  Even Charles “Lucky” Luciano (played by the very British Lee Montague) is featured as a minor part of the conspiracy.

That is an impressive cast for a less than impressive movie.  Brass Target never provides a convincing reason as to why the conspirators would decide that killing Patton was their only option and, once the conspiracy gets underway and the movie starts to follow around Von Sydow for some Day of the Jackal/Black Sunday-style preparation scenes, the search for the Nazi gold is forgotten.  For some reason, though, I have a soft spot for this frequently ridiculous movie.  There are enough weird moments and details, like Vaughn’s twitchy performance, McGoohan’s accent, the way Kennedy blusters about the Russians being rude to him, and glamorous Sophia Loren’s miscasting, that Brass Target is always watchable even if it is never exactly good.

2014 In Review: Lisa’s Top 10 Non-fiction Books of 2014


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I should admit that the title of this post is misleading.  While it is true that listed below are 10 of my favorite non-fiction books of 2014, I’ve specifically limited my picks to books that dealt with entertainment, pop culture, and the creative process.  With that in mind, here are my 10 favorite non-fiction books of 2014:

(And yes, you should read everyone of them.)

  1. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life As A Fairy Tale by Sophia Loren
  2. Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris
  3. Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland
  4. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed by Paul Cronin
  5. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
  6. The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller
  7. Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
  8. Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama From the Golden Age of American Cinema by Anne Helen Petersen
  9. As You Wish by Cary Elwes
  10. Heavy Metal Movies by Mike McPadden

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Tomorrow, I conclude my look back at the previous year with the list that everyone has been waiting for: my 26 top films of 2014!

Previous Entries In TSL’s Look Back At 2014

  1. 2014 In Review: Things Dork Geekus Dug In 2014 Off The Top Of His Head
  2. 2014 In Review: The Best Of Lifetime and SyFy
  3. 2014 In Review: Lisa’s Picks For The 16 Worst Films Of 2014
  4. 2014 In Review: 14 Of Lisa’s Favorite Songs Of 2014
  5. 2014 In Review: Necromoonyeti’s Top 10 Metal Albums of 2014
  6. 2014 In Review: 20 Good Things Lisa Saw On TV In 2014
  7. 2014 In Review: Pantsukudasai56’s Pick For The Best Anime of 2014
  8. 2014 in Reivew: Lisa’s 20 Favorite Novels of 2014