Yesterday I had to babysit for the grandchildren. They are good kids, by which I mean as long as they can play AngryBirds they leave me alone. I was going to work on some articles but saw that the Samuel Bronstein sword and sandal epic Fall of the Roman Empire was on the television. The critics usually disparage this genre for wooden acting, their length and perceived silliness, but not me. They have a grandeur with their huge casts, battle scenes and sheer scale in the making.
This example, directed by Antony Mann who made El Cid, was no exception. There was some fine acting by Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, and James Mason. Stephen Boyd who is a kind of Charlton Heston-lite, being wooden but worthy, and Sophia Loren, the heroine of many an epic were in the cast too, plus a bevy of competent British actors like Eric Porter. I also noted one of my favourite actors Douglas Wilmer, who played the Emir of Zaragossa in El Cid, Inspector Nayland Young in the Fu Manch Hu films and the televised sixties Sherlock Holmes. Over 90, he now lives in Woodbridge Suffolk and mainly paints. I have done some interviews with him on the making of the epic in which he starred and he had some fascinating stories to tell.
Whilst you could not categorise the film as a documentary, I was impressed by its historical detail and relevance today. There was a constant discussion as whether it is weak or strong to absorb the barbarians into the Roman Empire by granting them citizenship. Then and now, ethnic and national forces were active in bringing about the destruction of an unwieldy empire. Added to this, the internecine family divisions and another theme – that empires destroy themselves – comes to the fore.
Another feature I picked up which is not so subliminal is the homoeroticism. In Spartacus there was Lawrence Olivier as Crassus in the bath with his body servant and a very oiled up Kirk Douglas as the gladiator Spartacus; here Christopher Plummer camped it up as Commodus and more than hinted at fancying his step brother Livius.
There were times when I felt the film’s length, and duly attended to my grandparental responsibilities, but generally three hours were agreeably spent until I had to make them their lunch. The film was neither a critical nor financial success. It cost $18.4m and bankrupted Samuel Bronstein. By the end of the sixties Hollywood was making The Graduate with a different style of actor like Dustin Hoffman.