During the 2nd Century A.D. the Roman Empire began to wane, and though it took three hundred years for it to truly come undone, the seeds were being sown with the reign of Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) who was spending most of his time trying to bring peace to the Northern territories of the Empire. The Barbarians were threatening to take over there, and though he was keen to set up talks with their leader, all they wanted to do was fight. His right hand man here was Livius (Stephen Boyd), a loyal commander of the troops and his possible successor - but it was his son Commodus (Christopher Plummer) who he should have watched out for...
The Fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps fittingly, marked the fall of something else, and that was the end of the Hollywood epic. Obviously they did not die out altogether, and the blockbuster age found other ways of providing spectacle, but such was the huge amount of money and labour involved in this that when it flopped very few studios thought it was a terrific idea to splash the cash on a historical yarn taking in massive sets and countless extras, all in period costume. So with that in mind this Samuel Bronston production, pretty much the last of his mega-projects when they became too expensive to mount - the Rome set here remains the largest ever built - has attracted a certain amount of interest.
In the same way that people like to watch major disasters on the news, maybe, but for slightly different reasons: no loss of life here, other than the fictional variety. When Ridley Scott's Gladiator was released to enormous success in 2000, there were those who thought it seemed a little familiar, and that was due to it lifting the central premise of this 1964 movie and adapting it to their purposes, with more emphasis on the, well, gladiatorial arena as you might have guessed. It was true that Emperor Commodus liked to combat gladiators, always winning naturally, but he did not meet is demise in that way, so when the Scott movie took exactly the same ending for his film as happened in this one, there were those who saw a remake there.
Uncredited, that was, but still enough to revive the former flop and rescue it from its relegation to occasional showings on television and see it reassessed as more worthwhile. But that was lauding it too highly, as if you were honest you could well see why it was not simply a fatigue with a genre that had been packing the audiences in since the late forties in its most profligate form, for there was a distinct lack of charisma to the characters. Not the fault of the actors, they had all proved themselves elsewhere, often in this style of movie, but from a script so concerned with warning us of the downfall of civilisation that it forgot to illustrate why that was such a bad thing in this case.
Luckily James Mason was present as Timonides, the ex-slave turned advisor to Marcus and the man whose speeches delineate why the Romans should be pursuing peace rather than their tried and tested warlike nature when it came to ruling the lands in their Empire. He makes a good point, so is naturally first up against the wall come the arrival of unimpressed centurions, but before that Marcus's daughter Lucilla finds her similar pleas for calm and consideration fall on deaf ears. She was played by top-billed Sophia Loren in a thankless role which saw most of her emoting relying on the tears in her eyes, but as the sole significant female role to be seen she did stand out, after all how could she not?
Plummer camped it up something rotten as Commodus, all but twirling his moustache in his villainy and obviously harking back to Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis, but it wasn't quite enough to make the three hour running time feel any shorter. Throw in a beefy Anthony Quayle with a secret, Omar Sharif as an Armenian King with about three lines in total, a blind and scheming Mel Ferrer, and John Ireland as Hagar the Horrible, and you had a cast not lacking in names, but too often they fell back on the broadest form of performing to be heard over the grandeur around them. The earlier scenes in the North were the most visually striking, genuinely unlike the average epic with their snowy battle sequences (plus a Ben Hur-reminiscent chariot race), an inhospitable contrast to the more traditional Roman sets and their comfortable-so-far decadence. So there were points of interest, but most were the sheer, crazy ambition of this folly on the grandest cinematic scale. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.