Boy, back in the '60s, they sure loved to make epics about the Roman Empire, and really long ones at that, so you better believe that they were going to make the big, highly anticipated epic about the final downfall of the Roman Empire no less than three hours. Seriously, what is this, the fall of the Roman Empire in real time? Needless to say, this film takes a while to dramatise what it pretty much summed up pretty tightly in the title, or rather, tightle. Eh, whatever, it's still a good film (Certainly better than the epic Anthony Mann did right before this one), as well it should be, considering that it has a cast of such people as Sophia Loren, as well as such talents (Notice that I made sure that Sophia Loren wasn't mentioned among the talents) as Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Mel Ferrer and Omar Sharif, all of whom were actually there during the downfall of the Roman Empire, so this film better be good and accurate. Shoot, I can see Dimitri Tiomkin being the biggest person saying that this film better be good, because his score on this puppy is actually only about thirty minutes shorter than the whole final cut of the film, and this film is, like, four days long, so you know that Tiomkin worked his orchestra to death. No wonder Tiomkin died three years after Peter Frampton came out with "Do You Feel Like We Do", or rather, halfway through the solo of Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do", as he couldn't take the shock of being topped at really long musical solos... let alone the shock of the rock. Man, that song is awesome, even if its album version does make "Stairway to Heaven" look about as long as a Creedence Clearwater Revival song (The album version of "Susie Q" quite obviously notwithstanding), though Tiomkin's score for this film isn't too shabby either, nor is the film itself, yet make no mistake, Tiomkin's booming score can't fully drown out some of the undeniably boastful faults made by this film.
I joke about this pretty much being the definitive Roman epic film, but really, it kind of is, in that it falls into most every trope established by many of the Roman epics that preceded. Now, the film has its then-unique touches, and is certainly more intelligent than a few other Roman epics of its type and era, yet this is still Anthony Mann, the director of "El Cid", we're talking about, so of course the film still collapses into the conventions of its genre, which I don't mind too much, even a few collapses into conventions are rather glaring ones, because that's pretty much what you did with Roman epics at the time and, shoot, still kind of do with any sword-and-sandle epic of a similar type now, but the problem is that quite a few of the conventions collapsed into have always been rather problematic ones. The Roman epic genre has been tainted with more melodrama that you'd think, and this film is, again, directed by the guy who did "El Cid" for goodness' sakes, so sure enough, while this film isn't quite as cornball as Anthony Mann's preceding epic, it still collapses into melodrama all too often. Still, the story's cheesier spots don't quite end with corny romances and melodramatic drama, for although the film isn't really corny, it does have quite a few rather sensationalized and somewhat cheesy moments that aren't especially glaring, but are still decidedly quite unsubtle and dilute the story's effectiveness, partially because these collapses into cheesiness are often all too recognizable. Outside of that, another major and sometimes problematic convention that this film succumbs to is, of course, just being so blasted long, and not always fittingly so, finding itself, not padded nearly as much as I had feared, but still being padded quite considerably in some spots, at which point, the film quickly loses steam that it subsequently recovers just as quickly, yet these overdrawn spots remains present throughout the film, meaning that the film still loses quite a bit of steam quite often. The film is a massive pieces of spectacle indeed, though perhaps too massive, being sometimes gratuitously sprawling, with the intrigue that should back it up being diluted by the film's being so conventional and occasionally dramatically faulty. However, this film does not fall under the immense pressure of its faults, for although the film is indeed faulty, and somewhat all too familiar as a sword-and-sandal epic, like other sword-and-sandal epics of its type, it rewards fairly deeply by the end, while keeping consistently rewarding, if nothing else, stylistically.
Among the handful of things that I could give "El Cid" credit for was handsome cinematography, and with this film, Robert Krasker steps things up, drenching the film in a kind of dated grit, yet grit that still stands the test of time well enough to catch your eye and breathe life into this world, perhaps just as much as the sweeping shots Krasker sets up. Something along those lines can be said about the production values, as they have dated, and most all of them are all too similar to the production values of other Roman epics (Once again, "El Cid" did the same thing), yet regardless, the production designs remain detailed enough to sell you on this world, as well as grand enough to sell you on the vastness of this world. Next to all that and some actually pretty cool action sequences, another big reminder that this very much is an epic is, of course, Dimitri Tiomkin's sprawling score, which, like most everything else in this film, is a bit too similar to that of other sword-and-sandal Roman epics of this type, yet it remains remarkable, bursting with grandness and livliness that may not have been especially inventive at the time, but still sparks a lot of texture in this film and keeps it consistently, if nothing else, entertaining. Still, the film owes a lot to Anthony Mann for being more than just entertaining, because what really turned me off to "El Cid" was its consistently feeling either uninspired or overambitious, or at least until the final act, when Mann really did get a grip on things, yet here, Mann is consistent in keeping a grip on things, certainly not to where the film isn't without its many problems, but still to where he creates a consistent aura of intrigue and, yes, even intelligence, broken up by unexpected occasions of perhaps too slow, but generally thoughtful and effective meditative dramatic depth, which may often go tainted by melodrama and other types of cheesiness, but mostly hits pretty hard and gives this story weight, something that it really does need, considering that this story is, of course, a strong one. Next to Mann, the thing that springs this story to life is, of course, the massive cast of talents... and Sophia Loren. Actually, as much as I complain about Sophia Loren not being a terribly good actress, and as terrible as she was in "El Cid", she holds its together better than I expected in this film, even if she is pretty much playing a better-acted version of who she played in "El Cid", which isn't to say that she's especially good, especially in comparison with the other skilled members of this cast of film legends, from a show-stealingly layered and soulful Christopher Plummer as the overambitious and corrupt Commodus (First Plummer, and later Joaquin Phoenix; I suppose Commodus is one of those show-stealer roles), to Alec Guinness as a charmingly noble yet firm Marcus Aurelius, or rather, a preview of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Some performances are better than others, and all performances are held back to one extent or another, but when it's all said and done with, there is enough skill within the cast, as well as within Anthony Mann's direction, to bring this story to life, and with fine style and production value complimenting both style and this substance, what we're ultimately left with is an epic that stands not only certainly much better than "El Cid", but among the other good Roman epics from which it quite often takes as a generally rewarding piece of entertainment with fair amount of intrigue and substance.
When the curtains fall (I don't know what curtains have to do with anything, I was just trying crowbar in the key title word, fall), the film, much like Anthony Mann's preceding "El Cid" and, by extension, many other sword-and-sandal epics of this time and type, is extremely cliched, collapsing into one trop after another, many of which are problematic to begin with, whether it be some cheesiness - found mostly in the form of immense melodrama - or excessive padding that leaves the film to lose quite a bit of steam quite often, thus leaving the film itself to run the risk of falling under the weight of its own faults, yet it ultimately emerges leaps and bounds ahead of something like the mess that was "El Cid", as well as rewarding by its own right, boasting dated but fine cinematography and production designs that present an epic sweep that goes complimented by Dimitri Tiomkin's grand score, and goes, in and of itself, complimentary to the strong story, brought to life by generally inspired and intriguing direction by Anthony Mann, as well as by a colorful cast of talents who hold their own and help in making "The Fall of the Roman Empire" an epic that rises past its missteps to ultimately stand as consistently entertaining, sometimes gripping and altogether rewarding.
3/5 - Good