33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Superb film, less than ideal transfers
, 22 Mar. 2006
This review is from: The Fall Of The Roman Empire [DVD] (1964) (DVD)
The Fall of the Roman Empire is mainly remembered, if at all, for two things - being one of the biggest flops in history and for being the film that was shamelessly plagiarized by the much inferior Gladiator. Which is a great pity, because not only does the film have much to recommend it but also in many ways it's the summit of director Anthony Mann's filmmaking, putting everything he ever learned to perfect use to create a magnificently realised portrait of a very different screen Rome. Whereas mad emperors are the staple of the genre, he dispenses with the standard image of Rome as a force of evil to be resisted and replaces it with a Rome that is an idea and an ideal to be fought for: there is no triumph when this empire begins to destroy itself, only disgust at a missed opportunity for true greatness. In many ways, like El Cid, it's an extension of Mann's favorite Western theme of a corrupted man dragged to his own redemption against his wishes, kicking and screaming all the way - only this time, redemption is steadfastly resisted.
In many ways it reworks elements of El Cid - rival siblings bickering over the throne, the assassination of a ruler, even the final fight owes much to the duel for Calahorra. But unlike the Cid, Stephen Boyd's Livius is unable to truly inspire (his own army is bought off at the gates of Rome) and he leaves the Empire to its decline in chaos out of disgust: the complete antithesis of Mann's great description of the appeal of the enduring appeal of the Western - "a man says he's going to do something, and he does it." Here, the hero walks away and the audience stayed at home in droves.
It's not the only chance Mann takes - Alec Guinness' Marcus Aurelius tries to avert his impending death by bargaining with an invisible Ferryman, who speaks with his voice, while almost the entire first half of the film takes place on Rome's northern borders, bringing the empire to the emperor. His handling of the many setpieces is astonishing, from the funeral that Martin Scorsese rightly described as an epic eulogy for an entire style of epic filmmaking, to the astonishing coronation triumph where he gradually reveals the massive Forum Romanum set in a succession of increasingly impressive shots that show how much has been lost now that real sets and extras have been replaced by CGI. Equal kudos here to Colosanti and Moore's stunning design that creates a screen Rome unlike any before or since, not of whitewashed marble but of stone and wood and gold leaf and color, built for real in massive three-dimensional sets - the Forum was actually built full scale on the plains of Las Matas and filled with thousands of extras. But the spectacle isn't just gratuitous: you get a real sense of the sheer scale of the empire, and more importantly a sense of a world outside these characters that depends upon their actions. Throw in Dimitri Tiomkin's finest score, a world away from the standard Roman Empire 'sound,' and some impressive supporting performances (Guinness and James Mason's warm double-act a standout) that offset some of the weaker performances(step forward Sophia Loren in Yul Brynner-Westworld autopilot mode), and it adds up to a film well worth seeking out
Sadly, unlike the 2.35:1 German and French DVDs, Universal's R2 DVD is atrocious - a cropped 1.85:1 transfer from poor source material with faded colours and no extras save a trailer for Gladiator. Anchor Bay's UK DVD and Bluray are a marked improvement, boasting the plethora of extras from the US Weinstein/Miriam DVD (though the theatrical trailer has atrocious quality), but sadly the film is still missing the three-minute 'trilemma' scene cut after the premiere (it still exists, but the cash-strapped Weinsteins didn't think it worth the money to restore) and the picture has been mastered from 35mm elements to save money with the result that, while the best version available in the UK to date, it's still short of what a 70mm epic should look like. The establishing shots in the forest scene look washed out in places and there could definitely be more detail in places, while unforgivably the brief overture, entr'acte and play-out music have all been dropped. So, not the ideal presentation but for the foreseeable future probably the best we'll get.
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