After 1961's "El Cid," noted crank Charlton Heston wanted nothing more to do with Sophia Loren. So when producer Samuel Bronston came calling again for "The Fall of the Roman Empire," the actor rejected him, despite the box office riches that flowed from "El Cid."
For "The Fall of the Roman Empire," Bronston and Co. turned to Irish actor Stephen Boyd, who'd supported Heston in "Ben-Hur," earning an Oscar nomination. Boyd had just missed out playing Marc Antony in 1963's "Cleopatra." "He'll look great on a horse," they figured.
But Boyd was no Heston, unfortunately, and "The Fall of the Roman Empire" proved to be no "El Cid."
"Roman Empire" bombed, despite its wondrous re-creation of ancient Rome. The three-hour flop with the biggest budget in film history brought an end to Bronston's moviemaking adventures in Spain.
The Weinstein Company, which did a fine job with the "El Cid" DVD set earlier this year, returns with another outstanding Bronston video using basically the same format. While "The Fall of the Roman Empire" disappoints on many levels, this DVD presentation does not. Fans of the "El Cid" set will want this one as well.
"The Fall of the Roman Empire" movie has its moments, no doubt, starting with the magnificent scenes shot in its to-scale version of the Forum, built on the plains outside Madrid.
Stars Boyd and Loren suffer from zero chemistry, but the second tier of international film stars come through. Bronston thought big in casting, too: Many of the supporting actors could have opened a movie in those days. Stealing the show were old pro Alec Guinness and newcomer Christopher Plummer.
Guinness played the ruler Marcus Aurelius, a visionary emperor dedicated to furthering Pax Romana (Roman peace). It's a goody-goody role that Guinness complained about, but he sells it like free togas and carries the talky first act.
Plummer, then a TV actor, played the emperor's nasty but charming son Commodus, who ascends to the throne upon the old man's murder. Plummer plays the youthful despot like a cross between the seductive snake in "The Jungle Book" and Mr. Rogers. Eerie and entertaining every second Plummer's on stage.
Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were real Romans, of course, as was Aurelius' daughter, played by Loren. Our hero Livius (Boyd) was a creation of the script. The true and bogus are all sorted out for us in the extras, by the same gang of biographers, witnesses and historians who worked the "El Cid" DVD extras.
The historians have two extra features in which to point out the film's inaccuracies and fabrications, taking the attitude that, hey, it's a movie not a classroom lesson. Those lessons can be found on disc 3, which features educational shorts made on the "Roman Empire" sets by the Encyclopedia Britanica company.
Bronston and the reference giant saw it as win-win -- instant academic credibility for the epic in exchange for the opportunity to make educational films in the Roman Forum replica. These awkward but pleasing shorts will bring back some memories for kids of the era. (This being the '60s, it appeared that everyone in Rome was kind of chubby, even the poor.)
The "Roman Empire" making-of feature benefits from crisp color footage of the production. The docu centers on the re-creation of the Forum, stressing the film's incredible attention to detail in costuming and production design. Buildings were finished inside and out, front and back, even if they weren't utilized. Some of this over-the-top dedication came from shady execs making busy work in order to fuel the production's gravy train.
"In this era of computer-generated images ... I think it is impossible to fully appreciate the colossal, almost unfathomable size of ambition of 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' set," one Bronston biographer says.
The docu continues into the fall of the Bronston empire, recycling footage from the "El Cid" extras.
"Roman Empire's" 2.35:1 widescreen images look good overall, but there are problems with contrasts going both ways. In some scenes, facial detail looks wiped out by the hard contrast, with the actors' eyes and teeth creepy chalk white. In other scenes, the backgrounds appear soft and mushy.
The 5.1 audio mix sounds superior, with aggressive front-centered separation that sometimes recalls the ping-pong days of 1960s stereo experimentation.
The bracing horn-heavy score comes from Dimitri Tiomkin, who merits a DVD docu similar to the for Miklos Rozsa on "El Cid." People who know their film music consider this one of Tiomkin's best works, but I found it repetitive and occasionally headache-inducing.
The DVD commentary comes from Bronston's son, Bill, a friend of this DVD blog, and the Samuel Bronston biographer Mel Martin. Bronston explains that the missing footage found a few months back came too late for this edition. (DVD Spin Doctor broke that story, BTW.)
The "Limited Collector's Edition" includes a reproduction of the booklet sold to theatrical audiences as well as some postcards. The educational shorts are exclusive to this edition, on a third disc. The standard edition of "Fall of the Roman Empire" has the two discs that matter and saves you $10.
Still to come from the Weinsteins' Bronston series: "55 Days at Peking" and "Circus World."