The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) – Anthony Mann

An incredible cast fills out this recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book for my screening of Spartacus. Alec Guinness is Marcus Aurelius, whose death begins the downfall of the great empire, as his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer) assumes leadership, and is unwilling to let anything stand in his way.

They are joined by Sophia Loren as Aurelius’ daughter, Lucilla, James Mason as adviser, Timonides and Omar Sharif as Sohamus.

Grand in size, and epic in nature this three hour tale seems to spare no expense in its exploration of the causes of the final collapse of this once, powerful empire. With gorgeous location work, massive crowds, and the threats of lust, greed, and politics all set the stage for this ambitious film.

Aurelius doesn’t want Commodus to succeed him, as he prepares for events after his death, he wants Lucilla to succeed him, with his loyal soldier, and would be Lucilla’s love, Livius (Stephen Boyd) at her side.

This, of course, causes problems between the two friends, Commodus and Livius, and their lives and the empire begins to spin out of control, even when soldier Livius makes his choice.

There are battles, gladiators, chariot races (a brilliant sequence through that sees them racing along a wooded road), ploys and feints, as power is chased at the expense of all.


I love the look of the film, it has a brazen boldness in its storytelling and its set pieces. And watching Guinness as Aurelius is fascinating, especially having him surrounded by other first rate performers.

This one ends up being a beautiful film, and the location work is gorgeous and adds a depth of reality to the story, and while some of the sets are obviously that, it’s still a towering story. Epic moments and backdrops play out with smaller human beats of family squabbling between Commodus and Lucilla.

The Fall of the Roman Empire was a film that, once again, I had never heard of, but was rather pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the actors involved, and the scope of the story, and watching Plummer as Commodus is pretty damned entertaining. There are equal measures of charm and menace there.

Commodus, so power hungry, is blind to all the work his father has done for the Empire, and sees everything as his own, that it will always be, and couldn’t possibly fall apart.

A gorgeously shot film, with a stirring score by Dimitri Tiomkin, filled with Hollywood legends, all bringing to life a long lost era, but one that seems increasingly reflective of today’s western society with questions of citizenship, the failing of democracy for the pursuit of power, slavery, and war.

Who knew, right?



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