The Fall of the Roman Empire (film)  

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The Fall of the Roman Empire is a 1964 English language epic film produced by Samuel Bronston Productions and The Rank Organisation, and released by Paramount Pictures. It was directed by Anthony Mann and produced by Samuel Bronston with Jaime Prades and Michal Waszynski as associate producers. The screenplay was by Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina and Philip Yordan. It was photographed in 70mm Ultra Panavision by Robert Krasker, with an original music score by Dimitri Tiomkin. The historian Will Durant was engaged to advise on period detail and plot.

The film starred Sophia Loren (Lucilla), Stephen Boyd (Livius), Alec Guinness (Marcus Aurelius), James Mason (Timonides), Christopher Plummer (Commodus), Mel Ferrer (Cleander), and Omar Sharif (Sohamus, King of Armenia) with Finlay Currie (Caecina), Anthony Quayle (Verulus), John Ireland (Ballomar), Eric Porter (Julianus), Andrew Keir (Polybius), Douglas Wilmer (Niger) and George Murcell (Victorinus).

The film was a financial failure at the box-office. However, it is considered unusually intelligent and thoughtful for a film of the contemporary sword and sandal genre.



The time frame of the film is 180-192 AD, from the last days of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to the death of his son and successor Commodus. The film opens with Marcus Aurelius conducting his war to pacify the Germanic tribes along the Danube frontier. He has just summoned the governors of all the Roman provinces to his camp in order to present to them Gaius Metellus Livius (a fictional character) as his heir and successor. This is conceivable because Livius indicates that he had been brought into the imperial family by the emperor, presumably by adoption, and the four previous emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius) had made their adopted sons their heirs.

What is foremost in Livius's mind is to marry his beloved Lucilla, the emperor's daughter, but Marcus Aurelius feels he must marry her to King Sohamus of Armenia to cement a peace treaty between him and Rome as a buffer on Rome's eastern border to the hostile Persians (Parthians). Livius appeals to her to go away with him, but her duty overrules her heart.

Commodus is devastated when he learns of his father's intention to make Livius his successor. This makes Commodus reckless and hostile toward Livius with whom he had been a close friend and "brother." Later Commodus would explain that this was his way of letting the gods decide who would be successor. Conspirators, acting independently of Commodus, poison Marcus Aurelius, leaving Livius with only one choice: to proclaim Commodus as "undoubted Caesar." Commodus gratefully makes Livius commander of all Roman armies and second in power to himself.

Commodus begins his reign by opposing Marcus Aurelius's policy of peace and freedom, which he characterizes as weakness, and demanding more taxes and tribute from the eastern provinces of Syria and Egypt, driving them to rebellion. Meanwhile Livius pacifies the northern frontier by following Marcus Aurelius's policy of making "human frontiers" for the Roman Empire. He and Timonides, a Greek Christian freedman and friend of Marcus Aurelius, return to Rome along with the conquered German leaders (Ballomar, et al.) with the proposal to Romanize and settle them on abandoned farm land. This proposal is accepted by the Roman Senate, but it sets Livius at odds with Commodus, who all but banishes him to continued duty on the northern frontier. When Commodus is faced with the defection of the eastern provinces and Armenia, he has no one but Livius to turn to. Livius proves to be successful against the eastern rebellion, but he declines following Commodus's demand for brutal retribution. Livius answers Commodus with the demand for either a new Rome or a new Caesar.

Commodus reacts by bribing the city of Rome and the army to side with him against Livius. Commodus's success is apparent when one sees that in the temple of Jupiter the traditional head for the colossal statue is replaced with a likeness of the head of Commodus and in the senate it is proposed to change Rome's name to "the city of Commodus" and the empire's name to "the empire of Commodus." Livius is arrested and is ready to be executed with Lucilla, who had tried to assassinate her brother, when Commodus returns Livius's favor to him in proclaiming him undoubted Caesar by challenging him to a gladiatorial combat with the imperial throne as the prize. Livius prevails by killing Commodus and rescuing Lucilla from the flames of execution. Victorinus, who had been bribed by Commodus to deliver Livius's army to him, proclaims Livius Caesar, but Livius declines with the warning that if he were Caesar he would crucify them all (Victorinus, Julianus, Niger, et al.). The film culminates in an auction for the imperial throne. This actually occurred in the accession of Didius Julianus. The narrator sums it up: "This was the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire. A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."

History and fiction in the film

The plot of The Fall of the Roman Empire' may be called a fantasia on the various historical trends, events, and personages of the years 180-192 AD, which is seen as the time period in which the Roman Empire ceased to rise and began to decline and, ultimately, fall. The plotline of Marcus Aurelius choosing an adopted rather than a natural son as his successor had been the unbroken tradition since Nerva (96-98 AD).

Following a plausible interpretation of the historical records, Commodus is depicted as over-compensating for emotional vulnerability and soon descending into instability and corruption. The irony is in Commodus's directive that the empire should "forget the weakness of my father" with its implication that he would be a strong leader: it is Commodus' army of gladiators that proves to be cowards on the field with the German barbarians and Commodus' harsh policy toward the eastern provinces that had the tendency of weakening the empire by the threatened loss of the east. It is his father's true ideological heir, Livius, in contrast to him, who conquers both the Germans and Parthians as well as Commodus himself. In the film Livius is given the epithets "Germanicus" and "Parthius" and is invited to be emperor after the death of Commodus.

The death of Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as the result of a conspiracy to poison him, which was rumoured at the time. Commodus's liking for gladiators and for fighting as a gladiator himself is historically accurate: it led to rumours that he was actually the bastard son of a gladiator who had been the lover of Marcus Aurelius's wife Faustina. The film makes use of this as a subplot in making Commodus's gladiatorial trainer and comrade, Verulus (Anthony Quayle), his real father. This impresses upon Commodus that he is a bastard who never should have been emperor. In a fit of madness he commits patricide by killing Verulus.

Commodus' sister Lucilla's opposition to his rule is also historical: she was even executed for attempting to assassinate him. Her political marriage to the King of Armenia and her survival of her brother are not historically accurate.

The "Battle of the Four Armies" of loyalist and renegade Roman legions against Armenians and Persians is not a historical event. The Sassanid Persian empire did not currently exist at this time (they are standing in for the historical Parthians).

Toward the end of the film Julianus and other senators are shown attempting to bribe the military into making one of them emperor while Commodus and Livius are fighting below them. This makes use of the historical events three months after Commodus's death (he actually died by poisoning and/or strangulation) when Didius Julianus bribed the Praetorian Guard to proclaim him Emperor, outbidding his rival Claudius Pompeianus - a character not shown in the film, though it was he, not a King of Armenia, who actually married Lucilla.

A number of the film's minor characters approximate historical personages: Commodus's corrupt chamberlain Cleander (represented in the film as a blind man), his courtier Niger (who may be identified with Pescennius Niger a rival claimant with Didius Julianus to the imperial throne), and Livius's comrade Victorinus (probably based on the general of the period named Aufidius Victorinus). Other characters of similar political and social standing appear to be completely fictitious.

It is believed that though the film was highly spectacular and considered intelligently scripted, its failure was partly attributable to what was considered the wooden performance of Stephen Boyd as the loyal general Livius (a fictitious character). In contrast, the performance of Christopher Plummer as the unstable Commodus was considered highly charismatic. As a fledgling motion picture performer—The Fall of the Roman Empire was only his third appearance on film—he began to emerge as a major Hollywood star. Template:Fact

The part of Marcus Aurelius was considered to be well portrayed by Alec Guinness, notably in a long soliloquy that was largely quotations from the emperor's own philosophical work The Meditations. The composer Dimitri Tiomkin said he found it impossible to write any music for this soliloquy.Template:Fact

The production

The Fall of the Roman Empire was one of Samuel Bronston's superproductions in Spain, with Marcus Aurelius's winter camp on the Danube shot in snow in the Sierra de Guadarrama, northern Madrid. The 'Battle of the Four Armies' involved 8,000 soldiers including 1,200 cavalry and was shot on an undulating plain at Manzanares el Real which allowed large numbers of soldiers to be visible over a long distance.

The film's reconstruction of the Roman Forum at Las Matas near Madrid, at 400 x 230 meters (1312 x 754 feet) holds the record for the largest outdoor film set. The various ancient Rome settings covered 55 acres.

The Fall of the Roman Empire was a costly financial failure for producer Samuel Bronston who, after making such epics as John Paul Jones (1959), King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), and 55 Days at Peking (1963) had to stop all business activities. A bankruptcy notice in the New York Times on August 6, 1965, stated the cost of The Fall of the Roman Empire at $18,436,625. He announced his return with a planned epic about Isabella of Spain, but the film was never made.

The Fall of the Roman Empire was one of the few Ultra Panavision 70 films not exhibited in Cinerama.

In later years, Miramax would acquire the US rights to the film. After the founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein split with Miramax parent Disney, they formed the Weinstein Company, who currently owns US rights.

UK rights would pass to PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and subsequently Universal Studios.

The music

Tiomkin's award-winning score is one of the notable features of the film.Template:Fact He composed over 150 minutes of music for large orchestra with an important part for organ, and several sections are extended compositions in their own right. These include the sections Pax Romana in which Marcus Aurelius summons the governors of all the Roman provinces (claimed by Christopher Palmer to be a march; it is actually a bolero), The Roman Forum accompanying Commodus's triumphal return to Rome as newly-installed Emperor, a percussive scherzo for a barbarian attack, and the Tarantella danced by the Roman mob on the evening presaging the gladiatorial combat between Livius and Commodus (which seems to be modelled on the Tarantella movement from the Piano Concerto of Tiomkin's teacher Busoni). The score was recorded at Shepperton Studios and produced by George Korngold, son of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Fall of the Roman Empire (film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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