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

I got interested in The Fall of the Roman Empire because Scorsese included a great-looking clip in one of his documentaries, but even the fact that Anthony Mann directed it wasn’t enough to overcome my aversion to a three-hour sword-and-sandals epic until tonight. But, man, this thing’s a flat-out motherfucker. Scorsese describes it as having “the poignant beauty of a lost art,” and you see what he means before you’re five minutes into the movie. It’s just astonishingly beautiful–scene after scene after scene knocks your eyes out–with one of the most gorgeous palettes I’ve ever seen in a film. The massive sets were designed and lit not just to be big and bold like DeMille’s epics; they manage to perform subtle dramatic functions while remaining as visually stimulating as possible. In many places contrasting colors, or different shades of the same color, are splayed next to each other, as when orange torchlight consumes one side of a cobalt blue pillar, or the red in one part of Sophia Loren’s hair is highlighted while the rest of it is pitch-black. Even the titles–what to my eye looked like watercolors of martial scenes–had me hitting the rewind button.

God, it’s big. As in, big enough to swallow David Lean’s filmography without burping. It’s got more people than fucking Tokyo in it. It traces the same (fictionalized) ground that Gladiator covered: the dying Marcus Aurelius wants to leave the Empire to his humane general Livius (not “Maximus,” for God’s sake), but his shit-heel son Commodus grabs the throne for himself, then starts running Rome like a giant crackhouse. Christopher Plummer plays Commodus as if he’s George W. Bush–a guy who’d normally be talking about last night’s kegger grabs the brass ring to make up for a lifetime of inadequacy, and then (to continue the Bush metaphor) falls apart under the pressure. Plummer runs away with the movie’s acting honors, just as Joaquin Phoenix did in Gladiator (Commodus is a great role), but James Mason and Alec Guinness have their moments. Of course it’s Stephen “Minimus” Boyd and Loren who share the love scenes, so we’re talking major vacuum there, but at least those scenes are kept short–they seem to have been included just to satisfy expectations. (Oh, early on there’s a scene where Commodus and Livius link arms while chug-a-lugging goatskins of wine, then fall down on each other with gratified looks on their faces. I’m pretty sure that was a love scene, too.)

Just some incredible set-pieces. In the middle of one huge battle, which already seemed to involve every human being who’s ever lived, someone looks over a hill and yells, “Oh shit! Here come the Persians!”, and the camera cuts to an entire valley that’s covered by people. There’s also Marcus Aurelius’ funeral in the snow. Commodus literally dancing on a map of the Empire. An exciting and bizarre chariot chase that careens down a cliffside lane before plunging offroad and through a forest. James Mason taking up common cause with the Barbarians (led by John Ireland in heavy-metal makeup), whom he converts into a sitting Renaissance Faire until Commodus goes nuts from all the lute music and kills everybody. An argument in the Senate that could’ve been written yesterday: in 5-6 minutes they touch on illegal immigration, the wastefulness of war, the effectiveness of torture, and whether dissent is treasonous. I’m pretty sure a second stimulus package was next on the agenda. The finale is when things get really loco–it’s like the last 10 minutes of The Children of Paradise, El Topo and Invasion of the Body Snatchers rolled into one. I don’t want to describe it–it deserves to be seen cold.

I can’t believe I’m saying this but I can’t wait to see El Cid now.

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