Bright Lights Film Journal

Auteurs in the Arena: Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire

It’s thumb’s up and thumb’s down for Mann’s sprawling, fascinating, multi-auteur epic that inspired “bone-headed” imitations from Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and Mel Gibson (Braveheart)

It’s difficult to think of an unpopular film by a major Hollywood auteur more ambitious or awe-inspiring than Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. Certainly it was one of the most ambitious films of any kind in terms of production: not only was it one of the most expensive ever made, with the largest set ever built, but it was made entirely outside the studio system. It was the penultimate achievement of Samuel Bronston’s independent production company, and, today, it is more well known for bankrupting Bronston than it is for any artistic achievement. Its massive financial failure was probably inevitable, considering how difficult it would be to turn a profit on such an over-budgeted colossus under even ideal circumstances, but, after a lukewarm reception at Cannes and a handful of snarky reviews from the likes of Bosley Crowther, the film was saddled with a long-lasting reputation for being a giant turkey. It has slowly earned some status as a lost classic, but audiences and critics alike overwhelmingly prefer El Cid, the previous collaboration between Mann and Bronston. El Cid may have reached a greater apotheosis of Mann’s style, but for its auteurist pleasures and smart entertainment, The Fall of the Roman Empire is an unpolished 30-carat gem.

The grandiose title bites off a fair bit more than it can chew — promising nothing less than a narrative about the downfall of an entire civilization — but Mann consistently grounds the film with his usual termite art preoccupations. The plot is expansive and has quite a few vestigial subplots, but Mann localizes the drama around the shifting psychologies of a small group of flawed people in or close to the royal family. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) decides he will pass on the crown to his beloved general Livius (Stephen Boyd) rather than his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), whom he loves but considers unfit for government. Livius and Commodus have been lifelong friends, and Livius is romantically involved with Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), though there seems to be an unspoken consensus that things will never work out between them. Aurelius dies before he can finalize Livius’ succession, and the plot bursts like a can of spring snakes when Livius hands the throne over to Commodus anyway, the characters scattering to the winds as they work their private political machinations until the final act brings them all crashing back together in a prolonged bloodbath. The opening and closing monologues by an unidentified narrator weakly frame the film as a pivotal series of events in the course of Western civilization, but Mann treats it like an isolated and incestuous Greek tragedy. During the climactic gladiator fight between Commodus and Livius in the middle of the Roman forum, soldiers form a square around them and box them in by forming a wall with their interlocking shields. The fate of the empire is on the line, but the dramatic weight of the scene is limited to this microcosm where the main thing at stake is how much pain these two friends are willing to inflict on one another. The surrounding mobs, raised up on temple stairs, clearly suggest an amphitheatre.

Mann’s obsession with classical tragedy was most obvious in his fixation on King Lear as an unending source of dramatic material, and Mann used The Fall of the Roman Empire as his final experiment in formula tinkering, rearranging the iconography of Lear to see how they manifest in different environments. Even more than The Furies and Man of the West, two Mann westerns that involve aging patriarchs trying to choose their heirs, The Fall of the Roman Empire borrows and alters most of the key components of the Lear story to satisfy its own dramatic needs. The Fool, for instance, is transfigured into a Stoic philosopher named Timonides (James Mason), and Lear’s descent into madness is transferred onto his son. Mann also continues his interpretation of Cordelia-like figures as avatars of Electra. The incestuous subtext between Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston in The Furies is more frenzied and, consequently, more interesting, but there’s an air of romantic (if not outright erotic) tension between Aurelius and Lucilla that fuses Shakespearean poetic loftiness with Euripidean psychological darkness. The ending is one of Mann’s most pessimistic, closer to the total tragic implosion at the end of Lear than any of his other endings: the hero lives, but he existentially disappears by abandoning the world to its own self-destructive drives. I suspect that Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from Mann when shooting his own Lear adaptation, the masterful and equally pessimistic Ran, which visually resembles the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire in how it treats isolated fortresses in barbarian-infested wildernesses as spatial reflections of Lear himself (this is especially true regarding Mann’s use of natural height variation and horizontal spaces, which seems closer to Japanese ‘Scope films of the time than typical Hollywood epics).

While the level-headedness and integrity of Marcus Aurelius is almost a perfect inversion of Lee J. Cobb’s apocalyptic bluster in Man of the West, Livius is cut from the same cloth as Gary Cooper’s Link in the same film: a thoughtful, compassionate, and quiet man with a violent streak and dark secrets whose principal story arc involves his private struggle between personal grudges and social obligations. In other words, a typical Mann hero, a character type with no analogue in Lear that Mann frequently used to make his sources texts his own. The final confrontation between Livius and Commodus is essentially a restaging of similar showdowns between Mann’s heroes and villains, wherein the hero is forced to commit an act of vengeance, which is always portrayed as ugly, infantile, and pathetic. Mann’s refusal to glorify revenge as either a character motive or a plot device criticizes the popularity of revenge tragedies in classical theatre, which he seems to consider barbaric and crude compared to psychologically insightful works like King Lear. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, this specifically manifests as a partial fusion of Lear with Shakespeare’s gruesome and much maligned Titus Andronicus, which Mann tries to both elevate and critique by reinterpreting some of its plot elements in terms outside the context of revenge tragedy. Livius, like Andronicus, is set to become the new emperor after fighting the Goths for a decade when the dead emperor’s impetuous son claims the throne, but, unlike Andronicus, he retains enough humanity by the end both to survive his world’s deterioration into violence and to be utterly repulsed by it. The mass execution of rebels in the film’s final moments might technically be as bloody as the end of Titus Andronicus, but its gravity and tone completely deny the farcical nature of the play’s climactic cannibal feast.

Ironically, Titus Andronicus was dismissed for centuries as an embarrassment that wasn’t really written by Shakespeare in the first place, and confusing issues of authorship might be part of the reason for the uneasy place The Fall of the Roman Empire holds in the Anthony Mann canon. Mann’s directorial trademarks are unmistakable, but the overall vision is equally Bronston’s. Churning out a steady stream of big-budget and high-quality period epics at the peak of his career, Bronston was something of a renegade DeMille, though he was more interested in being a consistent and socially conscious storyteller than a boisterous showman. For pure spectacle, nothing in any of Bronston’s productions can hold a candle to the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments or the destruction of the temple in Samson and Delilah, and, since Bronston never appeared in or directed his films himself, he never loomed over them like a puppetmaster the way DeMille did with his narrations and on-screen introductions. Instead, Bronston trusted a relatively small group of talented collaborators to bring his films to life, giving them tremendous freedom to work within his generic preferences. With the exception of Henry Hathaway’s Circus World (Bronston’s response to DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth), all of the films Bronston produced between 1959 and 1964 are built around issues of anti-imperialist rebellion, national disunity, and multiculturalism. The revolt against Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire is largely a reiteration of the American Revolution in John Paul Jones, the Boxer Rebellion in 55 Days in Peking, the interfaith conquest of Valencia in El Cid, and even the trial of Jesus in King of Kings.

It’s also due to Bronston’s skill as a wrangler of immense talents that the film has such an impressive pedigree with the rest of its crew, but it’s not clear to what extent they qualify as co-auteurs. Two of the three writers, Ben Barzman and Philip Yordan, were transgressive Hollywood liberals who worked on most of Bronston’s other films, and the script thematically coheres only roughly with their other work. Barzman was the blacklisted author of several smart Joseph Losey thrillers and a few religiously themed political dramas, while Yordan, like Mann, worked mainly in film noir and westerns prior to attaching himself to Bronston, including Mann’s The Man from Laramie. However, Yordan so frequently served as a front for blacklisted writers that his own voice is muddled at best, and, because Nicholas Ray (another transgressive) directed not only Yordan’s scripts for King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking but also his anti-McCarthy masterpiece Johnny Guitar, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Likewise, director of photography Robert Krasker was one of the most important and stylistically recognizable cinematographers of the ’40s and ’50s, but his influence on the film seems minimal. Mann’s aesthetics gestated in the same kind of shadowy potboilers that Krasker helped define with The Third Man and Brief Encounter, so Krasker’s emphasis on diagonal lines and other expressionist tendencies blend seamlessly with Mann’s typical style. On the other hand, the contribution of the most in-demand talent on the production, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, often seems at odds with the rest of the film. His bombastic score is considered by some music buffs to be the highlight of the film, but, compared to the inventive and vibrant mise en scène, it strikes me as hopelessly square.

After Mann and Bronston, the film’s most important auteurs may be the unsung John Moore and Veniero Colasanti, who designed the magnificent sets and costumes together. Their life-size replica of the ancient Roman forum is nothing short of breathtaking, but their attention to minor details is what gives the film much of its visual depth. They harmonized all design elements so that hues, patterns, and textures matched whether they were on the clothing or the sets. A solid white marble wall is subtly layered with minor patches of color variation to break up the monotony and imply wear, and the protagonist’s helmet is painted with slight gradients of brown to mimic the imperfect color of actual leather. Their costumes are almost unique for the time in looking just as good up close as far away; Technicolor had a tendency to make clothing dyes look washed-out and cheap, nearly ruining the credibility of a lot of period pieces (like Olivier’s Henry V), but Moore and Colasanti make their reds and purples deep and regal, their yellows saffron instead of bright canary, their whites naturally off-white instead of bleached out. Mann was such a master at shooting natural exteriors that his scenes shot on sound stages usually looked awful by comparison, but Moore and Colasanti’s interiors can actually stand up to the splendor of the Spanish forests and plains. One of the film’s most memorable scenes features representatives of all the Roman provinces congregating in Germania for a speech by Marcus Aurelius, and while the script seems mainly concerned with some mildly amusing but unimportant banter between Aurelius and his advisor, the scene mostly serves as a fashion show for the multiethnic lords and governors and their rainbow of exotic garb. This way in which the actors often seem to be little more than models for the art design occasionally causes the film to fall apart as a drama, but it also makes it one of Mann’s most visually pleasurable works.

One of Mann’s more teasing habits was the way he played actors of radically different styles against one another, and The Fall of the Roman Empire has an eclectic cast of British stage veterans, movie stars, and Hollywood character actors. Unfortunately, their performances are wildly uneven. Stephen Boyd, a matinee idol who consistently gave entertaining and varied performances when given the chance (as in Ben-Hur), gives one of his most boring performances. Part of it is due to a near total lack of chemistry between him and Loren, and part to the dialogue having been written for the much hammier Charlton Heston, who turned down the part (though I’m personally glad Heston didn’t take the opportunity to crash another Mann film). Boyd only shines in his scenes with Plummer, which play to Boyd’s strong suit of reacting to more exuberant actors. Plummer himself is unforgettable as Commodus, using a schoolboy giggle like a musical instrument to hint at rolling oceans of tears underneath, but Loren only breaks away from her standard coy vixen type when she shows flashes of bloodthirst, a character trait largely cut from the film to make her more likeable (most of Loren’s directors at the time would have simply cut the necklines of her nun-like outfits for the same purpose). Alec Guinness supposedly wasn’t too impressed with his dialogue, and it shows: his dry line readings are professional but robotic, the character memorable mainly because of the impressively shot scenes he’s given center stage in. Other wasted talents include Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif, Mel Ferrer, and Finlay Currie, who get about one good scene each and just stand around the rest of the time, and John Ireland seems as out of place playing the Gothic king as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. This flabby and inconsistent ensemble is in stark contrast to the tight minimalism of The Naked Spur, Mann’s most dramatically cohesive film, which features only five speaking roles, all of them played to perfection.

The only truly brilliant performance in The Fall of the Roman Empire belongs to James Mason. He plays Timonides like a blob of timid jelly that just barely holds a human shape through sheer force of will, and what seems at first to be the wincing and moaning of a pretentious coward is gradually revealed as the sincere humility of a man who doesn’t recognize his own profound inner strength. Mason doesn’t come close to being a co-auteur of the film the way James Stewart was in his collaborations with Mann — his role is too small and too often bogged down by less subtle scene partners — but he dominates nearly all the best scenes that actually involve dialogue. A scene where Timonides gives a speech before the Senate on behalf of Livius shows what a master Mason was at switching seamlessly between monologue and dialogue through the course of a scene, and it’s one of the most vulnerable moments in his screen acting career.

The same scene also exhibits some of the ways in which the film’s many cooks came close to spoiling the broth. A senator’s fascist outburst that only “Greeks and Jews” use the word “freedom” is clearly a jab by Barzman or Yordan at the xenophobia and anti-Semitism underlying American anti-intellectualism, and the overall atmosphere of a kangaroo court in a hall of legislature is a clear allusion to the McCarthy hearings, one stemming not just from Barzman’s blacklisting but Bronston’s own ambivalent relationship with the United States (Bronston was a nephew of Leon Trotsky, born in what was then part of the Russian Empire). However, even if it’s impossible for modern Americans to not interpret an English-language film about Rome as an allegory for America, Mann resists such easy identifications. Even in his westerns, he avoided the genre’s impulse to generate stories “about America.” Mann shoots the Senate like yet another amphitheatre, an indoor precursor to the one that concludes the film, matching it in color and texture. Aside from a few politically transgressive lines and Mason’s performance, the main appeal of the scene is how Mann shoots Livius from different heights and angles, using him as a sweaty splash of red and brown against the austere and sterile white of the Senate hall. Indeed, this kind of thing holds true in basically all of the other powerful and memorable scenes; Aurelius’ funeral, for example, is the plot’s major turning point, but it stands out mainly because of Mann’s careful attention to how falling snow and torch fire look at twilight.

Bronston biographer Mel Martin claims that part of the reason The Fall of the Roman Empire did so poorly was that the downbeat ending tugged at American anxieties following the Kennedy assassination, with Livius leaving his country in the hands of corrupt warmongers and sycophants (Boyd even looks a bit like a Kennedy). If so, ignoring the fact that this doesn’t take non-American audiences into account, it’s no less plausible that the success of Ridley Scott’s boneheaded remake, Gladiator, was due to the Republican fervor riding high during the 2000 election. The failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire essentially killed the epic in Hollywood for thirty years, aside from silly B-movies like Clash of the Titans and Caligula, and, while Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic Braveheart was the first to revive the genre, Gladiator solidified its new popularity. Some of the characters’ names are changed and a slavery subplot is transplanted in from Spartacus (along with the Stalinist implications of its hero), but its basic story is nearly identical to that of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Considering that nothing of the sort ever actually happened or was depicted in any classical text, it’s rather dubious that David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson were nominated for Best Original Screenplay by the Academy. Worse yet, the film itself, little more than a standard action movie in Roman drag, was awarded Best Picture for its efforts in dumbing down Mann’s work into a macho conservative fable.

The glaring differences between how Mann and Scott each treat the same subject matter is a clear indicator of how many leagues ahead Mann is as an artist. Livius and Commodus, like many other pairs of heroes and villains in Mann’s films, function not as opposites but as flip sides of the same coin, Commodus serving as Livius’ shadow and Livius representing Commodus’ failed potential. When Livius kills Commodus, it is only after he has recognized how much of Commodus is in himself and vice versa, such that it pains him to kill Commodus in the same way it would to lop off his own arm. Mann even makes room in this dynamic for same-sex love, sexual or otherwise, drawing villain and hero closer rather than pushing them apart. Livius and Commodus even share the most homoerotic scene in any Mann film I can recall: after meeting up with each other for the first time in years, they cross arms, stare into each other’s eyes, and grin as they lustily guzzle wine from the phallic end of gourd-shaped canteens, collapsing onto each other a moment later in doggy style position on the edge of a table.

Gladiator puts on airs of being dark and gritty, but the only thing dark about its hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) is his indifference to decapitations and tiger blood. Scott’s notions of masculinity and morality are so reductive that Maximus might as well be wearing a white hat. Where Livius is a Stoic, Maximus is merely stoic, an innate badass who requires no discipline and displays no psychological change. He’s treated as a paragon of manhood — an impossibility in Mann’s cinema, where there are no paragons — one that has next to nothing to do with the ancient Roman concept of manly virtas and even less to do with Stoicism (it’s worth noting that Scott never thinks to mention Aurelius’ Mediations, an important prop in The Fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps assuming Gladiator‘s target audience had never heard of them). All he wants to do is serve his country and go home to his farm, but, alas, his wife is conveniently crucified, freeing him up for his destiny before he joins her in heaven. This is all in absolute contrast to Scott’s version of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who is less a human being than a cipher of any and all conceivable forms of queerness. He’s a mincing sadist, a fop, an androgynous hybrid of Michael Jackson and Cruella DeVille. He wants to impregnate his sister, never stops whining, and hints at closeted pedophilia. He even cheats in his gladiator fights, a slight against sportsmanship that’s treated like a mortal sin, even after Maximus bisects a slave woman with a chariot wheel spike. Most ludicrous of all is the fact that, because Marcus Aurelius gave Maximus the (historically laughable) charge of reverting the empire back into a republic, Commodus is nothing less than the enemy of democracy itself.

The message that folksy stick-to-it-iveness, faith in the afterlife, and raw machismo will always triumph over the perverts must have been one that a lot of Americans were eager to hear in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Ellen, but it’s The Fall of the Roman Empire that comes across as the most hip and relevant today. It’s not only that the film’s treatment of military corruption and hopeless populism has a lot to say about life in the post-Bush years, but also a simple matter of aesthetic luxury. The epic genre has taken off in the wake of Gladiator‘s success, but the results have been extraordinarily bland. Mel Gibson followed up Braveheart with The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, repulsive and pornographic films that only have the languages they were filmed in (Aramaic and Mayan) to recommend them, and Scott made two spiritual sequels to Gladiator: Kingdom of Heaven, a film predicated on the notion that the only Arabs worth a damn are the eloquent ones and that Westerners who bother with the Middle East are no better than they are; and the joyless and bloated Robin Hood, a third-rate Alexander Nevsky for the Tea Party crowd. None of them are a patch on The Fall of the Roman Empire, the shambling, beautiful beast that it is. Perhaps it’s an indication of just how much we’ve lost that one of the more inconsistent works by a long-gone genius like Mann still has more innovative visual pleasures to offer than any half-dozen so-called epics by “auteurs” like the Scotts and Gibsons of the world.