Thursday, 2 April 2015

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

This film should probably be titled The Fall of the Producer.  It was made by Samuel Bronston Productions (the company behind other "epics" such as El Cid), and its financial failure sent the company into bankruptcy and led to Samuel Bronston himself to be convicted of perjury.

Certainly, the title I suggest above would be more accurate than the one it bears.  As the movie itself admits in its first few minutes, the fall of the Roman Empire was a process, not an event.  The film covers the death of Marcus Aurelius and the reign of Commodus.  This is also the period covered by Ridley Scott's Gladiator.  The more recent film positions the death of Commodus as a new beginning for Rome, whereas this one identifies it as the beginning of the Empire's decline.  Obviously, these are very different theses, but the film's share several commonalities: they have similar plot points, for instance, and are similarly loose with the historical record.  They're also both rather too long: Fall of the Roman Empire beating out Gladiator's formidable 155 minutes by a full quarter hour.

The film begins in 180 AD, with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius campaigning against the Germanic tribes.  Aurelius summons his adopted son Livius and informs the younger man of his intention to name Livius his successor, rather than his actual son, Commodus.  This is because he wishes to reform the Empire, and believes that Livius is the best man for the job.  Gladiator has a similar conceit.  Historically speaking, there's no evidence that Aurelius intended anything but for Commodus to succeed him.  In fact, he would have had to quite explicitly nominate Commodus, as passing his rule to his actual (instead of adopted) son was a break from tradition.  Presumably both films do this so that when their main character goes up against Commodus, they do so as the "true" heir, rather than being rebels against the "lawful" Caesar.

Now it is certainly true that Commodus would go on to be an unpopular Emperor, though he ruled for 12 years - longer than either film suggests - and was assassinated rather than dying in individual gladiatorial combat with his challenger.  But I guess that doesn't make for such good drama.

However, a lack of historical accuracy would in itself not be enough for me to give this film a thumbs down.  Instead, it earns its 'not recommended' due to its squandering of an exceptional cast (seriously, look at the names on the DVD cover above) and its lethargic pace.  It is slow.  It takes over an hour for Marcus Aurelius to pop his clogs, for instance, and it is not until the last thirty minutes of the darn-near three hour movie that Livius finally mans up and opposes Commodus ... and even then he's not very good at it, ultimately winning only because his enemy has an idiot ball moment.  The film does try to justify the idiot ball, but you know what would be better than a justification?  No idiot ball.

Wasted potential.

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