‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ or — The Best Torch Action You’ll Ever See in Your Entire Life?!
Earlier this year I was talking to someone vastly more knowledgeable about cinema than myself about the appeal of Anthony Mann’s historical epics and, for myself, it came down to one specific element — nobody shoots flaming torches in daytime better than Mann. So if you’re a fan of that particular style then you’ll be in heaven with ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ (1964) because this film is almost nothing but three hours of the best flaming torch action you’ll ever see put to film.
It’s also, essentially, ‘Gladiator’ only much, much better.
Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) knows he is dying. He wants his successor to be someone who will protect and continue the peace Aurelius has fought so hard for and to guarantee the fundamental rights of every citizen of the Empire. Unfortunately his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), is a total asshole (did the Roman Empire fall because Aurelius’ wife had an affair?) so Aurelius declares the upstanding General Livius (Stephen Boyd) as his heir instead.
However, before this declaration can be announced publicly Aurelius is poisoned by his political enemies thus allowing the nasty Commodus to claim the throne, an action that puts the Empire on the road to chaos. Sure, there are Barbarians threatening the borders and the “purity” of Rome but if Rome is to fall it won’t be because of external forces but the cancerous darkness within.
So yeah, as I said — it’s pretty much ‘Gladiator’.
Yet what elevates Anthony Mann’s historical epic above the nearly all the others (even if this is FAR from a perfect movie) are the incredible set-design, a script laden with portent, metaphor and doom, a truly remarkable and intelligent use of landscape and nature, some sophisticated sound design and, most importantly, all that aforementioned torch action. This is frequently a sonic and visual marvel.
The opening 45 minutes or so illustrate all this wonderfully. It’s an extended sequence taking place in the snow-swept north of the Empire where Aurelius is greeting the many tribes under his command. His words hint of his own demise yet he could be speaking of Rome itself (the dialogue here can be easily dilated from the personal to the Imperial and back again with ease) or the fact that all of us will one day die (this is a film about death with no “Christ” to save us). Meanwhile secret schemes are being hatched.
All this takes place against a stunning backdrop of snow-filled swirling air, dark green forests, distant mountains; jagged geological formations (Mann’s rocks contain a vast amount of visual information) and towering fortifications. The way Mann places his characters within this landscape is mesmerising and exact and his reliance and trust on the scale of the natural world means there’s a sort of purity of image to everything we’re witnessing. It all looks and feels so right.
This natural scale is exploited to a level of inspired genius when the Germanic hordes attack Commodus’ men in the forest with Mann simply letting the trees themselves do all the work. Canopy, leaf and trunk are all utilised for maximum effect to provoke the notion of numberless forces hidden amongst them. Combine that with some precise editing and an incredible score by Dimitri Tiomkin and the build up to this opening forest battle is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s also quickly followed by a blisteringly energetic chariot race/fight that puts most modern day car chases to shame.
This use of landscape is most spectacularly employed during a shot just over two hours in when we witness an almost limitless army marching across the terrain that blew me away so much the only equivalent I could think of was when Aragon first sees the Uruk-hai horde in ‘The Two Towers’ (2002), except Mann has staged this for real!
Indeed, there almost seems to be a reluctance to use special effects or studio work. Sure, there’s impressive effects and model work going on, specifically for ancient Rome itself, but you get the feeling Mann was almost dragged inside against his will and would still rather be shooting outside. Still, the studio work is excellent (there is a studio-bound battle inside some caves that’s like Mario Bava on steroids) and all powered by some gorgeous set design — just look at Christopher Plummer’s reflecting bathing pool surrounded by those pillars of flaming marble for proof of that.
Sonically the film probes and opens psychological areas, most notably in the scene where a voice over accompanies Guinness’ Aurelius only for us to realise that he is engaged in a conversation with himself discussing his approaching death with his own conscience. Or how about the subtle use of reverb in marbled halls that lets us know whose point of view we’re inhabiting?
But it’s all that precisely, highly choreographed and beautifully filmed torch action that I loved the most. They just give everything — those cold landscapes and stone towers — such a sense of depth, movement and atmospheric contrast as orange heat flickers against blue chill. And they’re more than just fancy decoration as it is flames like these that will, ultimately, burn everything to destruction. Commodus, at the end, even holds a torch up to Livius and states that it is the repayment of his debt. These are highly meaningful flames and were all along.
The film is far from perfect. There’s an unhurriedness to the overall dramatic momentum (although that’s something I quite like about it) that some might term sluggish; Sophia Loren is, unbelievably, somewhat inert whilst Boyd is a tad wooden so there’s hardly any chemistry between these two lovers (you get the feeling Loren isn’t so much gazing lovingly into Boyd’s eyes as staring with bemusement at the dimple in his chin).
‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ has, like the Empire itself, faults and flaws that threaten to destroy it from within but the handling, the control, Mann’s eye for detail, the expansiveness, the depth of the script, the cohesion of every visual and sonic element elevate it all into something truly unique, enthralling and captivating.
It’s far from perfect but its quality and force is undeniable.