I reviewed the DVD of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire for MSN, but could offer little more than a capsule there. Here’s a more in-depth look at the film:
Mann’s staging of the processions and ceremonies is majestic, but his handling of the action scenes is both grand and dynamic. From the savage battles with the fierce Barbarian warriors in the German forests to the massive clashes of armies in the plains of the east, Mann not only fills the width of the frame with action, he stages the battled in depth, creating a rich canvas of furious combat. With the help of second unit director Yakima Canutt, the legendary stunt man and stunt coordinator who helmed the chariot race on Ben-Hur, Mann stages his own chariot battle, this one through the German forests where Commodus and Livius careen down a winding path and tip precariously on the edge of a cliff. And for the climax, Mann stages a glorious mano-a-mano gladiatorial combat amidst a grotesque celebration in the Roman forum as decadent as any Cecil B. DeMille pagan spectacle. Such grandeur came at a high cost. The Fall of the Roman Empire became Bronston’s most expensive production and, in adjusted dollars, one of the most expensive pictures ever made. It almost bankrupted the independent Bronston, who had to seek funds from outside investors, finally striking a deal with Paramount to pay off his debts and finish the film.
The Fall of the Roman Empire, shot Ultra-Panavision by Robert Krasker (whose resume includes photographing the intimate Brief Encounter for David Lean and the expressionist The Third Man for Carol Reed as well as El Cid) is surely the most magnificent period piece of its era. Bronston tops himself in terms of sheer physical spectacle and Mann puts every dollar on screen, but it suffers from a less focused story and a weaker leading man than El Cid…. Mann suggested Stephen Boyd, who played Charlton Heston’s boyhood friend turned nemesis in Ben-Hur. With his wide shoulders and Kirk Douglas cleft, Boyd certainly looks the role of the mighty and noble Roman soldier, but he lacks the screen presence and dramatic strength of Heston, who could hold the center of a massive drama and hold his own against overwhelming sets and locations. Boyd tends to be diminished by the scale of the production, not to mention Loren (who is truly larger than life as Lucilla) and the rest of the film’s grand supporting cast. In addition to Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer (who suggests Commodus’ corruption with impish smiles and blazing eyes and a provocatively casual manner), Bronston and Mann cast James Mason as the former slave turned patriot philosopher Timonides, John Ireland (under a wild red wig and beard) as the Barbarian leader Ballomar, Mel Ferrer as the blind seer Cleander, and Anthony Quayle as Commodus’ champion gladiator Verulus. Omar Shariff, the Egyptian matinee idol who became an international star with Lawrence of Arabia, is given little screen time as the King of Armenia, but his presence burns through his every appearance.
The entire essay is on TCM here.