The Fall of the Roman Empire

Well, I’ve watched my first Netflix movie. It came in the mail and I tore the envelope in half to get it out. Oops.

I didn’t really feel the need for a Netflix account but I was given six-months worth as an xmas gift. It was fun to create a queue and add “Hell Ride” and “An American in Paris” and a bunch of other stuff to it. I was shocked at some of the movies NetFlix doesn’t have; I thought it had everything. Looked for Eric Rohmer movies. Thin pickins.

Anyway, how did 45 years go by with me totally ignorant of the existence of “The Fall of the Roman Empire”? Released in 1964, back in the days of Ben Hur, El Cid, and Spartacus. Produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Anthony Mann. Huge sets, cast of thousands, not much plot. Sort of like a Michael Bey movie, but back in the day. No CGI. Hundreds of bright yellow and red long-haired barbarian wigs.

I quit watching TV in college, except for The Man From UNCLE and Secret Agent. Did I quit going to the movies too? Hmm. I borrowed a car and took a date to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in Pasadena. The date was a bust but the movie was great. What else? I had seen some Bergman by then. Went with friends to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and The L-Shaped Room at an art house we knew – where we once saw the school’s famous philosophy professor with one of his female students. Scandal. He later committed suicide, but probably not because we saw him at the cinema. Probably just thought too damn much. I saw The Immoral Mr. Teas at a nudie house in Hollywood. A bunch of us eagerly awaited the next Bond and all went to see Goldfinger in Glendale when it came out. Saw Cleopatra in Salt Lake City. So I was still going to the movies. But TFOTRE, I don’t remember.

The Netflix disk of the movie began with an Overture by Dimitri Tiomkin. By the end of the movie, three hours later, during the “exit music” (no crawl back in the day), I had the main themes stuck in my head and I liked them. But that overbearing, old-fashioned, bash-you-over-the-head orchestration, not so good. Rome! Boom! Boom! Boom! Trumpets! Dah! Dah! Daaa Dah! After watching Ben-Hur in 1957, however, I remember that I did go right out and buy the Miklos Rozsa album.

From TFOTRE’s first scene, it was clearly a movie that could no longer be made, outside of China anyway. Too expensive. Too many extras. Too much everything. Since I didn’t know the movie at all, I assumed in advance that it was a B-list sword-and-sandals epic, or worse. But no. The first scene, at dawn, on the ramparts of a… a… a castle-like, fortress-like residence for Caesar on the German border, real dawn with a real sun, real weather, real top-of-the-line movie stars. Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Steven Boyd standing around in costume, pretending to run the Roman Empire, with Sophia Loren hovering in the background looking glamorous. I was in condescending mode, but a little uncertain when I saw those beautiful 70mm shadows and torch flames. Starting off at a high pitch with the thousand-year empire at its furthest stretch, but Guinness weak and Mason worried and barbarians at the gates, TFOTRE is the kind of movie that just invites critics to go off:

“A mammoth and murky accumulation of Holly-wooden heroics and history have been bulldozed into a movie by Samuel Bronston and his director, Anthony Mann, in “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” which opened last night at the DeMille. So massive and incoherent is it, so loaded with Technicolored spectacles, tableaus and military melees that have no real meaning or emotional pull, that you’re likely to have the feeling after sitting through its more than three hours (not counting time out for intermission), that the Roman Empire has fallen on you.” Bosley Crowther (dean of the NYT reviewers for almost 30 years).

Doesn’t “accumulation” take a singular verb? Otherwise, that’s the mode I was in, Crowther mode, watching, but no, holding back a little in honor of this being my first Netflix. Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius and Sophia Loren as his daughter. Says it all? Christopher Plummer as the wicked emperor Commodus one year before he transmogrified into Captain Von Trapp, behaving here, yes, like a commode. Nice to know he’s still working today. Steven Boyd, fresh from his chariot race with Charlton Heston, has another one here with Plummer. Meant to be hair-raising, the action sequence played out like a Keystone Cops scene and made me laugh a lot. Spoiler: this time, Boyd survives. (When I see chariots, I’m reminded that they were invented back when the newly domesticated horse wasn’t big enough and strong enough to carry a human. Once the horse could do the job, the chariot began to look a little silly.) [down below: star wars] James Mason is tortured by barbarians but does not scream; ten years removed from Captain Nemo and two years from Humbert Humbert, instead of screaming he acts, acts like a guy who would like to scream but senses that its more dramatic not to.

As the movie continued at its stately pace, I discovered that I was content to just settle back and enjoy this unexpected visit to a movie that might have popped out of a time capsule. As when Blues Brothers 2000 came out: my son hated it, but I was ready for more Blues Brothers, wanted more Blues Brothers, any Blues Brothers, and I watched BB2000 just grateful that someone had made it who seemed to care. Ditto for those BSG features that appear from time to time. Now I wanted old-fashioned epic and Anthony Mann and Bronston were giving it to me, Crowther be damned.

And there were moments in TFOTRE. A senate debate in the second half, culminating in a stirring James Mason oration. A battle in Armenia, in which thousands of extras and hundreds of horses ran this way and that. Russell Crowe’s Gladiator with Joaquin Phoenix replacing Plummer in the nutty Commodus role and Richard Harris taking the place of Guinness, was fine, but those CGI Coliseum crowds… not so much.

And TFOTRE, unlike, say, The Robe or Quo Vadis, possesses a dark spirit, a downer vibe almost noir, a pagan tenor, not some cheesy Christian eyes-toward-heaven mood, as befits its title. In fact, the producers later speculated that it bombed so badly at the box office because of the mood of the country when it opened. JFK had been assassinated and moviegoers wanted Mary Poppins, not a movie with a weird frantic ending that channeled Fellini’s Satyricon and caused me to wonder if, just possibly, the movie would not be fitted out with the standard happy ending required by Hollywood – Bronston worked outside the Hollywood system – and ended with a deep-voiced narrator intoning “And that was the beginning of the Fall of the Roman Empire,” raining on the parade even though Boyd dispatched the commode and plucked Sophia from her burning stake.

Speaking of which, if I understood the point of the movie correctly, Marcus Aurelius had a master plan by which he would ensure peace in the Empire by co-opting the barbarians along its borders, but Commodus reversed this and initiated the beginning of the fall by aggravating all the tribes. But in fact the Empire did spendĀ  a subsequent years following this very policy, which eventually transmogrified the Empire into the later collection of kingdoms that it became. “The light of the world has gone out,” someone says in the movie at the death of Aurilius in 180 A.D., but it was actually St. Jerome in 410 A.D., at the fall of Rome to Alaric, being quoted. So where did the culpability for the fall lie? Will Durant (is he still known, or has he become unknown?) was on the payroll and flipped out when Commodus was given a father other than Marcus Aurelius in the script – ironic since Commodus was in fact the first Roman emperor born under the purple. Bronston explained to Durant that movie plots and history are two different things.

Later, as I was listening to the commentary track and watching the “Making Of” short, I began feeling sorry for everyone involved in the project. So much money – $20 million spent in Spain back when that meant something, especially in a poorish country. Bronston, who had an arrangement with Franco, went out into the countryside and build the second-largest set ever (at the time, at least. I forget which was the largest – feel free to comment). No relying on matte and special effects. Seven months, 1,100 construction workers, 400 art students, 27 major structures. Later, they tore it all down again – insurance costs. All for a movie that the critics would make fun of. Just seems sad. 1,500 horses. Say what you will about CGI, a live horse is still a live horse.

Sophia Loren was paid a million dollars, the second woman to make that much, after Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Cleopatra finally made its money back, but not TFOTRE. Loren was glamorous and Loren in every shot, but as with the rest of the movie, snark bait. Omar Sherif – no mustache. He looked different.

Real landscapes, real buildings, real human beings. I have nothing against CGI, mind you. Just watched Mutant Chronicles (2009). At least 98.5% CGI. (How does John Malkovitch show up in a movie like this, if even for a single scene? Friend of the producer? Needed a little payday? Did he just want to say, when asked why he wasn’t leaving Earth to save himself, “The absence of gravity interferes with my digestion.”?

Come to think of it, most of the interest in Mutant Chronicles comes from the 1.5% non-CGI: Ron Perlman looks more normal when he’s Hellboy than when he’s wearing his own face. World War I and coal-burning vertical-flight aircraft and “1,000 gold talents!” in 2700 A.D.; some things just don’t change. “Every age builds on the bones of the age before.” Spoken as the stars are literally walking on the bones of the age before; guess it’s true. Devon Aoki looking like some little mutant Christina Ricci.

Some random quotes I jotted down as I watched. Thought maybe they just seemed great because I was high, but I dunno. I still like them the morning after.

“Here’s your Get Out of Hell Free card.”

“You didn’t receive the sacrament?” “I wasn’t hungry.”

“She’s a single mother with 61 kills.”

“When I told him that we wouldn’t be coming back, he just smiled.”

“You can f**k a lot of people. You can only die once.”

“What does it say?” “Abandon all hope, mother-f**ker.”

“What do you believe in?” “I don’t get paid to believe. I get paid to f**k s**t up.”

The perfect team to fight mutants: a Nazi, a monk, a mercenary, a ninja, a female master swordsperson, a beautiful woman also expert with a sword, who doesn’t speak for years until she shouts, “Watch out!” just in time, a black guy, and a Mexican with a very big gun.

But back to TFOTRE and reality. During filming, an unexpected snow storm swept in, biggest in 50 years. The crew kept shooting, making for several scenes of great, cold, dark beauty. The funeral of Marcus Aurelius in particular I could watch over and over. A strange, wailing soldiers’ chorus. No music, thank God, just the sound of the snow and the torches in the wind.

Almost forgot: After laughing at the chariot race, I went back and watched it again with the commentary turned on. Never mind its call-backs to Ben-Hur. The commentariasts said that the race, which took place in the woods, was the inspiration for the air-scooter (whatever those things were) race in the woods in Star Wars, so I had another laugh at that, though I also felt sorry for the commentariasts for saying it.

All for a turkey. You know that the 400 art students who worked on Rome and the Roman Senate brought their families to the show when it opened, pointing out their work as Plummer made his way up the incline in his chariot. All razed to the ground afterwards. This effort, this work, this experience, must be a metaphor for something or other – Life, or the struggle to create, or something that in the end, or so says the metaphor, rewards our plans and projects with… with… well, I hate to say it, but with snark. God snark, I guess.