Observed against the biggest of Hollywood spectacles produced throughout the mid-20th century, from Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis ('51) to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra ('63), Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire ('64) may be the most painterly and proficient of them all.
Coming at the end of the era of the epic and synchronously at the sudden moment of audience apathy, The Fall of the Roman Empire, like Cleopatra, was a major financial failure. Costing upwards of $18 million and hardly grossing a fourth of that amount domestically, it contributed largely to the bankruptcy of producer Samuel Bronston in 1965.
Featuring a stunning ensemble, massive sets and seas of extras, the film wastes no opportunity to flaunt its budget, yet there's a rare authenticity to the proceedings - no ugly process shots, no air punches, no blatant continuity errors - and the towering battle scenes (although a bit disorienting), which utilize over 8,000 extras including 1,200 horses, are unrivaled and a feat to behold.
The film's legitimacy can certainly be linked back to its director, Anthony Mann. A master of the western genre who, like so many others, turned to the epic in the latter part of his career with El Cid ('61), Mann was highly favorable towards filming on-location. (Mostly in Spain, in and around the capital Madrid.)
The first part of this 188-minute saga begins with the familiar story of the ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness) who, in the midst of battling with the Germanic tribes of the North, is secretly discussing his plains to eschew his only son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) in favor of the valiant Livius (Stephen Boyd) to be his successor.
For these scenes, Mann wisely chose to shoot in the voluptuous Sierra de Guadarrama (which threaten to overshadow even Sophia Loren herself), leading into a lovely funeral scene shot in a steady, heavy and completely real blanket of snow.
Although the second half threatens to drown in its histrionics at times and its Dimitri Tiomkin score becomes waywardly off-beat, The Fall of the Roman Empire is a film that didn't and doesn't deserve the fate it received. Although the titular fall from grace described in the title could apply to its own respective genre in retrospect, unlike Commodus, this a film with the best of intentions. [B]