Auteurs in the Arena: Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire
by Lee Weston Sabo
Bright Lights Film Journal
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.
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