Thursday, August 18, 2016
THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
A dying Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), great Caesar of the Roman empire, must make a choice of who will replace him, and chooses not his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), but Commodus' friend, the leader of the Roman army, Livius (Stephen Boyd). Obviously this does not sit well with Commodus, and before you can say "Ben-Hur" -- this film's obvious model -- the two men are caught in a lifelong love-hate rivalry. The emperor's daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), who is in love with Livius and vice versa, is also not happy that she is forced to marry another man, Sohamus (an unrecognizable Omar Sharif). Livius hopes to unite the barbarians who are ill-treated by Rome and periodically try to seize the city, while an uncaring Commodus -- who becomes emperor only due to his father's untimely death -- basically wants to turn everyone in the outlying areas into slaves. Whatever historical accuracy this movie does or does not possess, it is well-made and quite entertaining even if nearly three hours long (with an intermission). It lacks the great story of Ben-Hur, but Mann's direction is good, the pace never flags, and the performances are mostly expert, with Guinness, Boyd, and especially Plummer [Dracula 2000] at the top of their game. Loren is also fine, and there is notable work from James Mason (especially during a harrowing torture scene, although, oddly, he seems to recover from the ordeal much too quickly), Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer [Born to be Bad] , and others. Naturally there's a fairly well-done battle between the two major antagonists on the expected chariots, and the climactic duel between the two men in an arena is the film's highlight. There is some stunning scenic design, an excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and some striking widescreen photography by Robert Krasker.
Verdict: Essentially a Roman soap opera, but quite entertaining on that level. ***.