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Fall of the Roman Empire, The (DVD Review)

27 Apr, 2008 By: John Latchem

Street 4/29/08
$24.95 two-DVD set, $39.92 three-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, Omar Sharif, James Mason, Mel Ferrer.

“How does an empire die? Does it collapse in one terrible moment? No. But there comes a time when its people no longer believe in it. Then does an empire begin to die.”

Samuel Bronston’s epic 1964 production of The Fall of the Roman Empire, like the nation it depicts, seemed to collapse under its own weight. Bronston and director Anthony Mann had scored a huge success with El Cid in 1961 and hoped to continue their momentum with Roman Empire. It turned out to be one of the most expensive films ever produced and was a box office flop.

Bronston biographer Mel Martin attributes this rejection to unfortunate timing. The film debuted not long after the John F. Kennedy assassination, and its political themes did not mesh with a nation trying to recover. Many critics turned against the film’s downer ending, and audiences preferred lighter fare such as Mary Poppins.

The timing on this DVD, on the other hand, is much more fortuitous. The film’s depiction of an empire at a crossroads is much more compatible with the current political climate.

The plot covers much of the same ground as Gladiator, released in 2000, but is somehow a bit grander in scope. Both films trace the rise of the power-mad emperor Commodus following the death of the wise Marcus Aurelius. Where Gladiator delved into a revenge tale of a man scorned by the new emperor, Bronston’s film seizes upon this moment of transition as a focal point for the eventual collapse of Rome. It begins with the optimism of a world united in peace under the prosperity of the Roman flag, and ends with a government irreversibly plunged into the chaos of corruption.

Roman Empire has never been widely distributed on home video, last released on laserdisc in 1997. As the second release in Weinstein Co.’s premium Miriam Collection, the DVD presentation is exquisite. The film was beautifully shot and its remastered cinematography looks great.

The story of the production itself, as detailed in several featurettes, is almost more interesting than the film. The film’s scope became a convenient way for some associated with the movie to commission unnecessary projects as a means of pocketing huge portions of the film’s budget for themselves.

The filmmakers ended up building a faithful reproduction of parts of Rome in fields outside Madrid, some of the largest sets ever created. These sets later were put to good use in a series of educational films by Encyclopedia Britannica, which are included on a third disc in the deluxe boxed set. Also included is a featurette about the historical accuracy of the film.

The DVD’s only downside is the extent of the deleted footage, mentioned on the DVD but not included. About 40 minutes were cut to bring the running time to about three hours, and the film suffers from some occasional choppy editing as a result, a fact lamented by a number of the commentators.

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