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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

Fall of the Roman Empire

Remove the handful of action and battle scenes, andAnthony Mann’s epic-styled 1964 take on The Fall of the Roman Empire would seem to work perfectly well as a stageplay. There is an awful lot of talking in the movie, and its sluggish pace, combined with its relatively dark atmosphere, led not only to the film’s financial failure, but the precipitous fall of producerSamuel Bronston’s own filmmaking empire. Nevertheless, there is enough grandeur and history in the 185-minute feature to justify The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment Miriam Collection Two-Disc Deluxe Edition and to make the three-platterLimited Collector’s Edition well worth considering.

The first hour or so of the film can be exasperating, depicting endless processionals and arcane political discussions, but the film does improve as it goes along, and there are indications, even at first, when a surprising amount of the movie was somehow staged in a genuine snowstorm, that the film is to be reckoned with. It is perfectly understandable that general audiences stayed away in 1964, not because they wanted cheerier movies but because they wanted more energetic ones, but something curious does happen as the film advances and its central theme becomes more pronounced. It turns out to be relevant to times present. The topicality of its arguments-which are essentially about corrupted conservative values overriding idealized liberal values to bring on the beginning of the end (the film’s title is less facetious than it once seemed)-takes on a fresh fascination that heightens not only the impact of the film (which has more vitality in its second half, anyway), but satisfaction in how it plays out. Stephen Boyd stars as a levelheaded military commander and Sophia Loren is the emperor’s daughter who loves Boyd’s character but is married off to a foreigner (played in a blink-and-you-miss-him capacity by Omar Sharif). Alec Guinness is the meditative emperor, Christopher Plummer delivers the movie’s strongest performance as the emperor’s upstart heir (a playboy with no more than a simplistic grasp of foreign and domestic policy dynamics-sound familiar?), and James Mason, a counselor, is the film’s conscience. Bronston’s Rome set, which is unseen until near the end of the movie’s first half, is an amazing piece of industry. Constructed in Spain and close to a half-mile in length, it is a recreation of the actual plaza in front of the Roman senate that is as exact as possible in both size and detail. The movies had seen nothing like it since Intolerance and now, because of CGI, they never will again. Ultimately, there are not enough motion picture spectacles in the history of cinema-what happened to Bronston is one of the main reasons why-so that those which did manage to make their way to the screen are loved unconditionally by many fans for the shear grandeur of their existence, and The Fall of the Roman Empireis not only a prime example of this romance, but a justification of it.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is spotless (the precision and crispness of the transfer does not help when it comes to Boyd’s hairpiece, however). The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a limited surround presence, but the front separations and directional effects are marvelous. The film comes with an Overture, Intermission and Exit Music, and is presented on two platters with the break at the Intermission point (the Entr’acte closes out the first platter). There are optional English and Spanish subtitles.

The first platter is accompanied by a fine 22-minute promotional documentary from 1964 that contains a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage and includes an impressive dissolve from the real ruins of Ancient Rome, to an artist’s rendering of how those ruins once looked as standing buildings, to the film’s constructed sets, with nary a variance in scale or position from the first to the last. There is also a trailer, filmographies of the cast & crew, and a passable collection of uncaptioned still photos.

The second platter has a fine 29-minute retrospective documentary, a good 11-minute piece about how the Roman Empire actually collapsed, another good 10-minute piece about the film’s historical accuracies and inaccuracies, and an aggressively comprehensive 20-minute piece about Dimitri Tiomkin’s overblown and dirgey musical score.

There is also a running commentary during the film by Bronston’s son, Bill Bronston, and film historian Mel Martin. While they are a bit too forgiving of the film’s flaws (they give Boyd’s performance, and his hair, a free pass), they still supply an excellent talk about Bronston, Mann, the other members of the cast and crew, the production (Bill Bronston visited the set during the shoot), the far-reaching ways in which the film’s production changed Spain’s economy, and the film’s historical context. They do also try to reconcile the film’s boxoffice failure. “I don’t think that people got that this was really an absolute x-ray of what it is that undoes the integrity of society. It came late in people being overrun by spectacles, by too much, too big. Maybe one of the actual contradictions here was that the bigness of this movie, ironically, played against its intense historical message. I don’t know what you could have done about it, and the only thing that’s really exciting is that the re-release of the movie now gives a different generation, with a different experience, an opportunity to really look, big screen, at today, because this movie is about today. Make no mistake.”

Along with miniaturized re-creations of lobby cards and the film’s souvenir program, Collector’s Edition comes with a third platter that features a terrific collection of three color Encyclopedia Britannica educational films, running 57 minutes including the introduction by creator Bill Deneen, which were shot on the film’s sets and incorporate footage from the film. The first,Life in Ancient Rome, presents a portrait of Rome pretty much at the time Empire is set, about 140 AD. The second, Julius Caesar: The Rise of the Roman Empire, cheats a little bit with anachronisms to go back two centuries earlier and tell the story of Caesar. The final film, Claudius: Boy of Ancient Rome, is the most impressive of all, showing what a child’s life was like in Ancient Rome and depicting two European boys-one the son of a landowner and the other, his best friend, a slave on the estate-and the conflict that arises when the one boy tries to treat the other as property.

May 8, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at www.DVDLaser.com

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