Films Romana: The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Fall_of_roman_empire_(1964)Annex - Loren, Sophia (Fall of the Roman Empire, The)_02

Sophia Loren – Lucilla
Alec Guinness – Marcus Aurelius
Stephen Boyd – Livius
Christopher Plummer – Commodus
James Mason – Timonides
Omar Sharif – King of Armenia

“I loved you, Livius, but now you have to die – that’s the kind of joke the gods love best.”

In his dying days, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Guinness) chooses Gaius Metellus Livius (Boyd) as his successor, as he has no faith in his flighty, gladiator-loving son, Commodus. Livius wants to marry Lucilla, the daughter of Marcus Aurelius, but she has to be married to the King of Armenia (Sharif) to seal a peace. After arranging the death of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus becomes emperor anyway, and his selfishness, decadence and warmongering shocks no one. Rebellious factions form up against the Emperor, tearing Rome apart from the inside, and Livius does his best to stay loyal until his conscience prevents him from doing so. The film is 188 minutes long (yes folks, over 3 hours), largely because of so many long parades, long speeches and sad brooding looks.

This cerebral Roman epic has many themes, structural and story elements in common with the later Gladiator (2000), which was also set during this era and featured an original protagonist.

Chariot Scenes: 5

Women with speaking roles: 1

Yes, there are many SPOILERS in the following post…

Liberties taken:
Livius is a fictional/original character – which isn’t really a flaw or even a liberty in a historical film, but it’s interesting how often this happens. Is it too hard to believe the audience will sympathise with genuine historical characters, or just too hard to construct a narrative arc when reality gets in the way of a good story?

The film sticks remarkably closely to the essence of the historical records for this era. Though it has to be said that the “historical records” for this era are themselves rather dubious and trashy, sort of the equivalent of New Idea or Entertainment Weekly… Commodus being fathered by a gladiator, for instance, is a historically documented piece of invective written against him, though that doesn’t mean it was actually true…

Of course they film does make up a few battles and substitute legitimate historical races and characters for madey-uppy ones, but it still has quite the air of Roman authenticity. Alec Guinness even performs genuine excerpts from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as a voiceover in a very effective scene.

Lucilla’s historical role and her fate (in real life she married twice, was exiled, then executed for treason against and attempted murder of Commodus) is changed somewhat in the film, largely to factor in the fake romance with fake Livius. Also I suspect the real Lucilla was not as glamorously lit. Had Lucilla really outlived Commodus, anyone who had married her would have been able to present himself as a genuine claimant to the Empire.

Behind the Scenes:
The Fall of the Roman Empire was a commercial failure, at least partly because the lump of carved wood otherwise known as Stephen Boyd (Livius) was as boring to watch in the 1960’s as he is now. I could add that Sophia Loren, the actor whose name is used to sell the film, does little but speak slowly and look sad while standing in bright spotlights. Sometimes tears well in her eyes. Their love scenes are slow, agonising and involve lots of Loren staring into bright lights while Boyd points his dimpled chin at the camera.

Both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas turned the role of Livius down. Sigh. Either would have been so much better. Richard Harris (who later played Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator) was originally cast as Commodus, but replaced by Plummer.

The filming was mostly done in Spain. The big battle scene, aka “the Battle of the Four Armies” (cough, didn’t happen but looked cool) involved 8,000 soldiers including 1,200 cavalry and is a spectacular scene to watch, with so many extras squished into the camera frame. Though if you’re anything like me you may find it kind of confusing as whom is fighting whom… I lost track halfway through.

The Fall of the Roman Empire cost $18,436,625 US, as cited in the bankruptcy notice for the producer, Samuel Bronston. $1 million of that was Sophia Loren’s fee. Staring into bright lights is a specialised skill, you know.

The score to the film was nominated for an Oscar and won the Golden Globe.

During production, Alec Guinness danced “the Twist” for the first time in his life, with his screen daughter, Sophia Loren. Sadly they did not have YouTube in those days. I would pay to watch that now.

Best Bits:
Alec Guinness is genius casting as Marcus Aurelius, and his double act with James Mason as an uppity former slave (with that plummy accent, really?) has a lovely balance of gravitas and humour. Christopher Plummer’s Commodus, only his third appearance on film, is fiery and marvellous, and remarkably subtle considering that his role is basically ‘token imperial psychopath’.

The design is awesome, especially the use of classical art (wall paintings, busts, statues and architectural detail, colossus of Marcus Aurelius, giant gold hand for Commodus to step out of) to add style to the proceedings.

Women in “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Loren is given top billing in this epic spectacle, and was the highest paid cast member. While Lucilla is acknowledged in the film as an integral part of the Commodus story, there is little dynamism to her character. For the first half of the story she is basically a princess who takes turns being sad, being wistful, being wistfully sad, and occasionally being a bit cross, but doing little to affect her own fate and that of others.

Lucilla is portrayed as a devotee of Vesta, and it is implied that she spent some time closed away in the temple of Vesta. Her brother even refers to her as a “Vestal Virgin.” The Vestals were the most important Roman state cult involving women, and are one of the most commonly referred to religious aspects of women and Rome. Her association with Vesta, her actions in marrying the King of Armenia at her father’s wish and her modest apparel firmly places Lucilla in the ‘good Roman woman’ mould – chastity, piety, fidelity.

In the second half of the film, Lucilla wakes up somewhat, mostly in a couple of scenes with her brother. Loyalty to her father is her central personality detail, affecting all her other relationships – hatred of her dead mother (who was unfaithful), disgust at her brother’s behaviour, and even rejection of Livius when he does not immediately step up to take the throne as Marcus Aurelius intended. She exchanges a few kisses with Livius while a married woman but otherwise gets 3 out of 3 stolas for Good Behaviour.

While all this does effectively make Lucilla little more than an extension of the male characters in the film, it is actually a very close approximation of how women are portrayed in the historical records. Problematic, yes, but authentic within the point of view of the Roman culture. Lucilla is one of the few women of the Roman imperial family who is not specifically marked out historically as a ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ woman in the historical ‘sources’ – her association with Commodus damns her, and she is accused of adultery (as was her mother) and yet her attempts to bring her brother down politically do leave her a somewhat sympathetic figure. Except of course that any attempts to meddle in Men’s Business marks a Roman woman out as Officially Naughty.

The odd thing is that Lucilla could, based on the storyline of the film, been a much more active character. So many scenes, however, render her character passive and inscrutable for no apparent reason. Lucilla either joins or instigates an army of rebellion against Commodus (both interpretations are valid) and yet most of the scenes of her around the army show her reclining – once splayed out on cushions in her tent as Livius saves her life from a soldier and once where she is carried away from the field on a litter despite no evidence of an injury. Later she goads Lucius into finally breaking free of his loyalty to Commodus, mostly through lots of dramatic staring into bright lights while speaking very slowly. It’s hard to tell whether this is down to the director, the screenwriter or Loren’s own screen persona, but it seems that everyone in the production is more interested in how Lucilla looks than what she has to say.

In Lucilla’s most animated scene, she begs the gladiator Verus (fun fact, historically that’s the name of her first husband) to kill Commodus on her behalf, only for Verus to reveal that Commodus is his son. Commodus overhears and reacts badly. Lucilla is so distraught after witnessing Commodus kill his real father that she runs away, her head full of frantic voice over, to chain herself to Livius as he awaits the Emperor’s punishment. He seems as confused as the audience that she made this choice, when she wasn’t actually marked out for death. Actively passive? Hmm.

At the film’s close, Livius spurns any attempts of the rebels to make him Emperor, and walks off in high dudgeon with Lucilla (who would almost certainly be a vital pawn in the succession, left alive like this) clinging silently to his arm. She, who spent half the film vaguely haranguing him about the importance of taking up the position as Emperor, seems to now have nothing to say. Ah well. She didn’t get burned alive, so I suppose that’s a happy ending…

One reply

  1. Kaia says:

    Those crazy romans = good tag! Also, informative for those of us that know NOTHING about history…

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