The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)




Critic Consensus: No consensus yet.

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Though Fall of the Roman Empire is now infamous as the epic which destroyed the cinematic "empire" of producer Samuel Bronston, the film is actually an above-average historical drama, attempting to make sense of the political intrigues which resulted in the dissolution of the Glory That Was Rome. The film begins with wise, diplomatic emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) calling together the various representatives of the many nations within the Empire as a means of securing peace and prosperity for all involved. When Marcus intimates that he intends to turn over his crown to adopted son Livius (Stephen Boyd) rather than the logical successor Commodus (Christopher Plummer), he is poisoned by one of Commodus' cronies. Marcus' daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) tries to get Livius to claim the throne, but he wants no part of it; thus, the fate of the empire is in the incompetent hands of the preening Commodus. Despite efforts by cooler heads to save Rome from ruin, Commodus vainly declares himself a god and kills anyone who poses a threat to him. When he learns that Lucilla actually has a stronger claim to the throne than he does, Commodus condemns her to be burned at the stake. Only then does Livius intervene, slaying Commodus and promising to try to pick up the pieces of the disintegrating empire. Attempting to find a common ground between history buffs and action fans, Fall of the Roman Empire has come to be regarded as a classic. Alas, audiences in 1964 had grown weary of epics (especially after the highly touted but disappointing Cleopatra), and failed to turn out in sufficient enough numbers to justify Fall's exorbitant cost. Virtually wiped out, Samuel Bronston would not be able to return to filmmaking until 1971, and then only on a much smaller and more pinchpenny scale.
Action & Adventure , Classics , Drama
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Sophia Loren
as Lucilla
Stephen Boyd
as Livius
Alec Guinness
as Marcus Aurelius
James Mason
as Timonides
Anthony Quayle
as Verulus
Omar Sharif
as Sohamus
John Ireland
as Ballomar
Andrew Keir
as Polybius
Rafael Calvo
as Lentulus
Peter Damon
as Claudius
George Murcell
as Victorinus
Mel Ferrer
as Cleander
Eric Porter
as Julianus
Finlay Currie
as Senator
Guy Rolfe
as Marius
Michael Gwynn
as Cornelius
Norman Wooland
as Virgilanus
Virgilio Texeira
as Marcellus
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Critic Reviews for The Fall of the Roman Empire

All Critics (11) | Top Critics (1)

Commodus, played here by the flamboyant Christopher Plummer, forsakes the Pax Romana and turns Rome into an empire of camp.

Full Review… | March 9, 2015
New Yorker
Top Critic

Spectacular crowd scenes, costumes and snow-filled landscapes mix with intelligent, powerful pro-peace and Civil Rights commentary.

Full Review… | August 5, 2013
Classic Film and Television

While The Fall of the Roman Empire is even more technically assured than El Cid, it's less interesting narrative-wise.

Full Review… | May 15, 2008
Combustible Celluloid

... surely the most magnificent period piece of its era.

Full Review… | May 14, 2008
Turner Classic Movies Online

Put bluntly, the difference between El Cid and Fall is the difference between faith in a concept of heroism that can transcend even death.

Full Review… | April 26, 2008
Slant Magazine

From back in the day when epic meant upwards of 10,000 extras, gargantuan sets, and 122-piece other words, CGI is for wimps.

April 25, 2008
Groucho Reviews

Audience Reviews for The Fall of the Roman Empire

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

Cameron Johnson
Cameron Johnson

Super Reviewer


Overlong, plodding spectacle. Good and great actors alike trapped in this ponderous bore.

jay nixon
jay nixon

Super Reviewer

[font=Century Gothic]Throughout history, there have been focal points where events easily could have gone different ways. One such is in 180 A.D., depicted in the lavish spectacle "The Fall of the Roman Empire" that starts with blind soothsayer Cleander(Mel Ferrer) not being able to find the heart of a chicken which is not a good sign. Dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius(Alec Guinness) is putting his affairs in order and wants peace after seventeen years of war and a talk with Ballomar(John Ireland), the enemy commander. He also names General Livius(Stephen Boyd) his heir over his own unstable son Commodus(Christopher Plummer).[/font] [font=Century Gothic]The other divergence I want to bring up is the different possible approaches to the same material. "The Fall of the Roman Empire" and "Gladiator" are both inspired by the same events but that is where the similarities end. Whereas "Gladiator" exploits violence and revenge for their own sake, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" is a literate tragedy about peace and what it takes to govern an empire. It is helped by giving the various characters time enough to articulate their own positions. And James Mason is espeiclally superb at this and Finlay Currie has a great speech of his own. But don't worry. There are some epic battle scenes and a thrilling chariot ride through the forest, all of which are better appreciated when there are less special effects used.[/font] [font=Century Gothic]In fact, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" marks the end of an era in a different way. This was one of the last grand epics of the Hollywood studio system.(Why so many of them had to feature Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif is beyond me.) After this, the movies would get smaller for a while. It was probably for the best.[/font] [font=Century Gothic]Note: Christopher Plummer, James Mason and Anthony Quayle were also in "Murder by Decree."[/font]

Walter M.
Walter M.

Super Reviewer

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