Fall of the Roman Empire, The (1964)

Fall of the Roman Empire, The (1964)

“The fall of Rome — like her rise — had not one cause, but many.”

Near the end of his life, ailing Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) shares his wish that General Livius (Stephen Boyd) should become the new leader of a more egalitarian Rome rather than his son Commodus (Christopher Plummer), and asks his daughter (Sophia Loren) — who is in love with Livius — to marry an Armenian leader (Omar Sharif) to build alliances with the East.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Anthony Quayle Films
  • Christopher Plummer Films
  • Historical Drama
  • James Mason Films
  • John Ireland Films
  • Mel Ferrer Films
  • Omar Sharif Films
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Sophia Loren Films
  • Stephen Boyd Films

Following the success of El Cid (1961), Anthony Mann helmed and Samuel Bronston once again produced this similarly big-budgeted historical epic inspired by English historian Edward Gibbons’ six-volume series The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with a prologue written by Will Durant. It focuses on a specific moment during the Roman Empire — 106 AD — when imperial succession from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus led to the start of more overt corruption and decadence. Much like Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) in Ben-Hur (1959), Plummer and Boyd play lifelong friends-turned-rivals:

… who even engage in a chariot race at one point (the parallels between the two films are stark). In addition to featuring Sophia Loren as gorgeous Lucilla:

… there are plenty of big-name actors in the cast, beginning with Alec Guinness during the first hour:

… and including other, somewhat poorly defined characters, such as Mel Ferrer’s blind seer Cleander:

… James Mason’s virtuous Greek Timonides:

… John Ireland as Northern tribal leader Ballomar:

… and Omar Sharif (showing up just a few brief times) as Loren’s Armenian spouse Sohamus. Plummer’s role as Commodus is by far the juiciest, and he’s compelling throughout, playing a man convinced that he truly is beloved by the gods.

Plummer’s performance — as well as the gorgeous cinematography and sets — make this worth a one-time look, though it’s not must-see viewing.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Christopher Plummer as Commodus
  • Fine cinematography and sets
  • Dimitry Tiomkin’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look for its historical relevance and Plummer’s performance.


2 thoughts on “Fall of the Roman Empire, The (1964)

  1. Rewatch. In general agreement with the assessment; not must-see – though it’s likely to be of interest to fans of epics. No doubt it was intended as such, in cookie-cutter fashion, but it does fairly plod along in ‘general historical’ form.

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