DVD: Fall of the Roman Empire, The (1964)

December 6, 2012 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / F


Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Genius Products/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: April 29, 2008

Genre: Historical Epic / Roman History

Synopsis: The love life of a Roman general is repeatedly thwarted when kooky Emperor Commodus realigns Rome’s focus from an admistrative power to global conqueror once again, and eradicating Marcus Aurelius’ noble Pax Romana.

Special Features:

Disc 1: Audio commentary by Samuel Bronston’s son Bill Bronston and author/Bronston biographer Mel Martin / 1964 promo featurette: “ Rome in Madrid ” (22:18) / trailers for Fall of the Roman Empire , El Cid. Cinema Paradiso, and Control / Still Galleries: Behind the Scenes (50) + Promotional Materials (25)
Disc 2: Audio commentary by Samuel Bronston’s son Bill Bronston and author/Bronston biographer Mel Martin / 4 Featurettes: “The Rise and Fall of an Epic Production: The Making of the Film” (29:12) + “The Rise and Fall of an Empire: An Historical Look at the Real Roman Empire” (10:56) + “ Hollywood vs. History: An Historical Analysis” (9:45) + “Dimitri Tiomkin: Scoring the Roman Empire” (20:04) / About This Film text note
Disc 3 [3-Disc Limited Collector’s Edition Box ONLY]: Vintage Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Shorts About the Roman Empire (with optional English subtitles): New 2007 Intro by Director/Producer William Deneen (3:30) + Original 1964 Director/Producer Intro (2:33) + “Life in Ancient Rome” (13:00) + “Julius Caesar: The Rise of the Roman Empire” (21:42) + “Claudius: Boy of Ancient Rome” (16:10)




The success of El Cid (1961) was somewhat of a curse for producer Samuel Bronston, because the $24 million in theatrical profits convinced him that he could deliver a pair of spectacular epics – 55 Days at Peking (1963), and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) – that would further his efforts to make grand family entertainment outside of the Hollywood studio system.

Of course, film history is littered with short-lived indie companies and ambitious producers that went beyond their limits after achieving gr success, but Roman Empire is part of an elite group of sixties super-productions that either very nearly killed, or helped kill, a studio; El Cid gave Bronston (“The Brain of Spain”) the cash to set up his own studio in Spain, and like Fox’ Cleopatra (1963), Roman Empire bled money until Bronston was so massively over-extended that his chief financier, Pierre Dupont III, turned off the cash supply for good.

Bronston’s epic is physically superior in several areas in spite being made for less than half of Cleopatra‘s total costs: director Anthony Mann’s love of wide, sometimes rugged outdoor locations was a marked contrast to the mostly indoor, theatrical sets of Joseph Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra; the set designs in Roman Empire are intricate and more evocative of the era (the floors are mosaics, not the polished pastel vinyl that always made one aware that the interior sets of Cleopatra were erected on a big soundstage); the costumes are amazingly detailed; Sophia Loren’s hairstyles are less contemporary than Elizabeth Taylor’s, although Loren goes through a similarly absurd series of per-scene costume changes in the film’s first half; and the massive exterior sets built by a team of brilliant architects and artisans – particularly a complete Roman Forum built to scale – are heavily exploited in many wide and swooping Panavision shots by cinematographer Robert Krasker – a marked comparison to the mostly static shots preferred by Mankiewicz (Cleopatra’s grand procession into Rome, excepted).

Stripped of its decadent and delicious eye candy, Roman Empire is still stuck with a script that folds together several conventions from fairly recent epic films (which we’ll detail shortly).

The film’s screenwriters – Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, and Philip Yordan – did invest some nods to period politics as they pertained to the rot within Rome’s ruling hierarchy, but none of the three minds wrote dialogue that bristled with the wit, sophistication, and was less heavy-handed, particularly in orations that sometimes stop scenes cold.

The homo-erotic relationship between childhood friends Commodus (Christopher Plummer as the charismatic and sadistic emperor) and Livius (loyal soldier Stephen Boyd) is stolen straight from Ben-Hur (1959), which is ironic since Boyd played the evil Roman figure who tormented Ben-Hur, and somewhat facilitated a cruel chess game with the Ben-Hur’s love and family to ensure something always kept them apart.

The male bonding scene that precedes a political discourse and sets up the intertwined destinies of Ben-Hur and Messala involved throwing lances and exchanging wide grins and giant googly eyes; for their own riff, Yordan & Co. opted to write a bizarre, college-styled drinking binge duel that has Commodus and Livius locked arm-in-arm and squirt gushing streams of wine from pigskin coolers into their own mouths.

In Roman Empire, however, the seemingly jealous villain (Commodus) lives to the end, since he repeatedly uses loyalty tests to keep Livius under his thumb, sometimes tossing in hot sister Lucilla (Sophia Loren) as bait, since Livius has been in love with her for ages. (Commodus doesn’t die like Messala in a grand chariot race, but seeing the value of a race sequence, the screenwriters threw in a ridiculous chariot duel that has both carts almost being dragged off a ridge.)

Several epic-sized films employed intermissions (the more recent Lagaan, the classic mega-comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or even the far shorter WWI drama The Blue Max), but like Cleopatra , the first half of Roman Empire largely focuses on character intros and the emerging conflicts once elder Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) dies, while the second half ties together various strands so all three leading characters (Livius, Commodus, and Lucilla) are forced to slug it out in a series of to-the-death sequences in the finale.

To the credit of Yordan & Co., the film does depict some class issues – Greek ex-slave Timonides (James Mason) is always regarded as un-Romanly scum by Commodus and his senatorial acolytes – and the film has an atypical closing scene that signals the virtual moral bankruptcy of the Roman Senate and whatever leader that can be bought to govern the whole empire – a capper that may have contributed to the film’s poor performance when the major box office and Oscar winner of 1963 – the year Kennedy was shot – was a treacly Disney fantasy named Mary Poppins.

Timonides, however, is the most interesting supporting character because he’s basically a modern-day hippy trying to bridge gaps between warring peoples steeped in generational hatred. He’s also teacher and philosopher, and he later sets up a farm collective which becomes an idyllic model of two cultures (which he verbally describes as ‘black and white’) living in harmony with enough food for themselves and to feed greedy, war-mongering Rome.

On the plus side: unlike the proselytizing Biblical epics (which include Bronston’s kitschy King of Kings), religious faith isn’t at the center of the characters’ lives, and is barely noted in the film beyond portentous rituals and the Barbarians’ worship of Wotan; in its place is Timonides’ hippyspeak, stemming from Marcus Aurelius’ Pax Romana speech to troops and Roman proconsuls in the film’s first half

The other supporting roles are generally present for plot advancement, so while Omar Sharif (pre- Doctor Zhivago)plays the Armenian king, he’s restricted to maybe five short scenes. John Ireland is mostly buried under severe ‘barbarian’ facial hair, and Mel Ferrer plays a blind seer and advisor whose own reasons for being a slimeball are never examined.

Of all the pre-release edits made to the film, one senses Ferrer’s role was chopped to bare bones functionality. He drops out of sight after Guinness’ death, and reappears in one scene with Plummer accepting a major demand, leading one to suspect there may have been a subplot which had short scenes of Ferrer and his co-conspirators strategizing further efforts to control Commodus. (Had the DVD producers included a .PDF file of the original script, some of the film’s narrative holes could’ve been cleared up for viewers.)

Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia), however, has a meatier role, however, since his relationship with Commodus goes deeper than teacher and personal security advisor.

Livius’ love, Lucilla, gives Sophia Loren more wiggle room to act than the devoted wife of El Cid, but she’s again playing a woman always shoved to the sidelines while male characters do the heavy dramatic lifting – something the second half of Cleopatra made up for with Cleo being a crafty leader on the international scene. Loren’s acting chops get some meat in the final Roman Forum sequence, but it’s also the lone hunk of film that dribbles with melodrama pinched so high, one can and mostly will fall off the chair in giggle fits.

(This subjective reaction does assume one also finds The Ten Commandments to be the funniest comedy of the fifties. Should one believe the contrary, and regard Quo Vadis as a fine fellow super-production beholding regal dramatics, then Loren’s pleas, screams, arm gestures, and quivering is something to cheer.)

The film’s best performance comes from Christopher Plummer, who perhaps recognized his imperial role was a cliché, so he borrowed from Oscar-winner Peter Ustinov (who similarly stole audience’s attention in Quo Vadis) and created an effete sadist who talks to the gods and relishes the adulation from minions and acolytes.

Plummer is also quite clever with his physical performance, even on a minimal level: when still, an eye glance or frown conveys a brooding danger, or a mad emperor pondering all the wonderful ways he’s going to make Livius suffer before he gradually emasculates his power and influence.)

Cleopatra and Roman Empire both had long pre-, production, and post-production schedules, and they focused on very different time periods and leaders (with perhaps the Pax Romana being the only major philosophical and political link between the depicted empires). What’s intriguing is that there were similar scenes that were retained in one film, but hacked out of the other, mostly because the respective studios wanted their epic monsters shorter, faster, and less talky.

In separate scenes present in Roman Empire, Lucilla and Marcus Aurelius have private moments where they converse with the gods as heavy life decisions are driving them crazy: director Mann uses character voiceovers that have Loren muttering during the long Roman Forum finale, and Guinness pontificating in the company of statues representing personal and historical figures. In an old issue of Films in Review, an article chronicling some of the many scenes cut from Cleopatra during editing included Mark Antony (Richard Burton) seeking guidance from statures and idols, and hearing voices (some allegedly his own).

The second curious link involved exchanges of political views that were readily apparent (and recurrent) in Cleopatra, but were hacked out from Roman Empire. In the DVD commentary, Bronston’s son Bill recalls a scene present in a pre-studio edit that had Livius and Commodos talking political philosophy, which directly relates to Commodus’ ongoing comments about ‘the gods laughing.’ Without that exchange, Commodus’ statement seems like a weird verbal motif, and the loss of the scene also caused a nasty jump cut which has the two characters ascending a staircase, and suddenly flipping to Commodus pouring wine down a prostitute’s mouth.

Bill Brontson also cites additional deleted scenes, most of which he characterized as “adult,” which is perhaps his euphemism for intelligent character discourses deemed dull by distributor Paramount who stepped in with dough when the film was running into very bad cash flow problems. (There is a text menu on Disc 2 that acknowledges the recent discovery of a lost scene, which is planned to be included in a future Miriam Collection release.)

In the featurettes for this 2-disc set, Bill Bronston’s comments are clear, affectionate, and concise, but over the 3-hour DVD commentary track, he’s repetitive and begins to make the same blunder Steven Spielberg committed during the course of his own interview segments in Universal’s making-of 1941 documentary: the more Bronston talks about the film, the more it’s re-classified and is ultimately revised as a perfect film; like 1941, Roman Empire has many flaws, and perfect it surely ain’t.

Author/Samuel Bronston biographer Mel Martin also glides into the film’s sudden re-evaluation groove from flawed iconic epic to timeless masterpiece, and when he asks how audiences might react to the film if released today, Bill Bronston replies “People aren’t used to seeing that much reality,” a comment also meant to legitimize the screeching melodrama of Loren pushing her way through Roman citizens celebrating the imminent immolation of Livius and several non-compliant Senators and Barbarians.

The DVD’s producers blundered in believing two men – one personally attached to his father’s legacy, the other unable to deliver more sobering criticisms because he’s with the producer’s son – could deliver an engaging conversation over 3 hours. Most of what’s said is covered in the making-of featurette, with few unique memories, including some comparisons to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), wherein Scott and the film’s screenwriters (coincidentally, three) copied Roman Empire‘s structure, but changed Livius to Maximus, a married general downsized to gladiator, and tormented by emperor Commodus who’s diddling sister Lucilla.

It’s frankly baffling why no one else was interviewed for the release – like Plummer and Loren – unless their own memories were less flattering, and ran contrary to the revisionist views that cap the final moments of the commentary.

The reason Criterion’s commentary tracks for Spartacus and The Great Escape (laserdisc only) are entertaining, educational, and historically noteworthy is because they’ve been edited into narratives with historians like Bruce Eder filling in gaps with important bridge and background material. Roman Empire‘s track is dull and becomes increasingly monotonous, and although Bronston is perfectly valid in citing the film’s theme of imperial rot of ancient Rome with the current political mess in Washington and military quagmire in Iraq, it tends to dominate several chunks of the commentary’s final hour, and that’s not what anyone wants to hear ad nauseum.

With rare exceptions, there’s little reason to sit through the whole track, and if the special features producers at Genius Products want to live up to the company’s name, they’d better avoid making the same mistake for the next Miriam release, 55 Days at Peking, because that monster runs 154 mins., and among its production tales is its original director being fired; if that track ends up being more talk of how real all the props, costumes, sets, and décor are, it’ll be another epic bore.


The Main Extras

Like El Cid , Fall of the Roman Empire comes in a 2-disc edition, and in a fancy-schmancy boxed set, but unlike the former film, there’s a third bonus disc that’s exclusive to the Roman Empire box. The extra disc does offer a more convincing reason for fans to buy the box, but it’s one of those annoying quandaries consumers have to face: is the extra cash worth the souvenir booklet and lobby card reproductions, or am I being gouged?

Although this review formally refers to the standard 2-disc edition, we also reviewed the Bonus Disc 3 because it’s important to the collective extras for this film.



“ Rome in Madrid ” + Still Gallery

Aside form the commentary track (which continues over the film’s second half on Disc 2), Disc 1 also includes a short promo film made for Paramount ‘s publicity dvision, Rome in Madrid (1964), narrated by supporting star James Mason.

This is the goodie that featured some wonderful behind-the-scenes footage in the Bronston doc on the El Cid set, and is a savvy promo that certainly puts Bronston at the center of activity (often seen in amusingly staged ‘work mode’ shots at his desk, meeting and greeting important people, and conversing – whoops – advising stars), but with good mini-montages comparing the extant and newly built Roman Forum, and show footage of the many props, weapons, and horses used for the film.

Also staged for the promo is a chess game between Guinness and Plummer, and shots of fans swarming Loren at the airport, and the million dollar star later taken for her camera and costume tests; there’s also test footage of Guinness, Plummer, Boyd (pre-curly orange mop), Mason, and Sharif, with his blazing eyes. (No wonder David Lean exploited Sharif so well in Zhivago.)

The film clips lack samples of Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, and are scored with blah library music, but the source print is in surprisingly good shape, with stable colours and sharp detail – which are important because the short also contains footage of the battle scenes, and the Forum’s erection as it evolves into what was then the world’s largest film set (which we’ll further detail in our breakdown of Disc 3).

Other mini-montages show director Mann, editor Robert Lawrence, production designers Veniero Colasanti and John Moore at work, and composer Tiomkin trying to look intrigued while a blazing camera light is melting his reddening face.

Tiomkin is also very well represented among the Still Galleries, with many early snapshots (with hair!) of the composer at work and in publicity portraits. The 75 images cover a good chunk of the film’s production, and one easily sees the qualitative differences between the rather ugly lobby card designs, and the striking album cover art that plopped a row Romanesque headshots of the main cast, somewhat evoking the original Spartacus (1960) campaign.



“The Rise and Fall of an Epic Production: The Making of the Film”

Because Bronston’s career was so well chronicled in Samuel Bronston: The Epic Journey of a Dreamer, the hour-long doc in the El Cid set, the Roman Empire featurette is naturally more concise, with just a few interview segments repeated to sharply note how the film was part of the ill-fated super-production plan that ultimately overwhelmed the producer’s empire.

What’s surprising is how the film’s genesis began with a simple phone call by Anthony Mann to Bronston about crafting a script inspired by the events in Edward Gibbon’s landmark six-volume tome, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Mann had read a digest version, and both men, along with the screenwriters, felt the decline of a great civilization might make a timely statement when the Cold War was in full swing.

The historical scope fit with Bronston’s epic interest in grand entertainment, and it undoubtedly provided a venue to use a cast of international stars – a pioneering concept quite different from the standard studio approach of casting a singular hot foreign star in a generic genre vehicle.

There were odd little variations in Europe – Anthony Quinn in Notre Dame de Paris (1956), Debra Paget in Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959), and Jean Crain in Nefertiti, regina del Nilo (1961) – but the concept of using a broad international cast (excluding the usual larding of British actors in American productions) didn’t really come into vogue until the early sixties.

Bronston is credited as pioneering the trend, but it also evolved out of a practical need: because Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day had three directors shooting their respective British, American, and German language segments, it made sense to cast local stars, but the overall star cast was too massive to build a simple campaign, so the publicity focused on production coups – cost, scope, and authenticity, which Bronston himself beautifully exploited – recognizable English language stars, and the graphic icon of a dead soldier’s helmet on a sandy beach.

Bronston, in turn, opted to cast strong international actors in El Cid – Raf Vallone had great scenes with his fellow stars – but the main headliners were still recognizable faces who’d already done major English language films, like Sharif, who’d blazed to stardom in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.

In the featurette, each of the main actors is given some background info, though again it’s very odd that none of the surviving cast – namely Plummer and Loren – appear, leaving cast impressions mostly to Bill Bronston, and Anthony Mann’s wife and daughter.

Bronston’s publicity machine was obviously aimed at the major actors, but the interviews from surviving crew and historians also make note of the phenomenon Bronston nurtured whenever a film was beginning production: a whole string of local Spanish communities became involved in costume and prop making, tourists flocked to the main location to see the world’s biggest film set and become extras, and various government and corporate bigwigs dropped by to see the emerging spectacle.

Showmanship during filming worked on El Cid, and it certainly created a stir of attention…Which begs the inevitable question asked by the film’s ardent fans today: ‘Why was the Forum set torn down at the end of production?’

“Insurance,” the producer is said to have grimly uttered to his son, which is tragic, since so much of the giant set contained a multitude of fine materials. (Fans of the HBO mini-series Rome will find a bit of irony, since the cost of that show’s massive, costly Roman sets allegedly prompted the network to push on with a second season before pulling the plug after Year 2.)


“The Rise and Fall of an Empire: An Historical Look at the Real Roman Empire ”

A relatively recent trend in the Special Features department is getting some comments from actual historians, which is pretty helpful since Roman Empire was a script peppered with factual fiddling.

Comments from Dr. Peter Heather (Professor of Medieval History, King’s College, London ) and Dr. Ronald Mellor (Professor of Roman History, UCLA) address key aspects that shaped, changed, and ultimately contributed to the empire’s 300 year dissolution, and what remnants were adopted by subsequent cultures, and are still integral to contemporary law and governance.


“ Hollywood vs. History: An Historical Analysis”

The aforementioned historians, plus Bronston biographer/historian Neal M. Rosendorf, separate fact from fiction within the film, and even if one loathes Roman Empire, one has to admit the screenwriters did make efforts to go beyond the usual power and love triangle scenarios.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955) and The Egyptian (1954) are grand kitsch theatre, but Bronston’s film has nice moments of administrative mundanity: the Romans were practical yet extraordinary bureaucrats who were obsessed with writing down and codifying procedures, rules, duties, and order (plus manuals on farming, legal disputes, civic punishments, and graffiti).

Additionally, the script contributions of Will Durant, an author/historian best known for his multi-volume series on ancient history, are clarified by Barzman’s widow, and the featurette pretty much wraps up with a positive view of the film for the minutia it got relatively right.


“Dimitri Tiomkin: Scoring the Roman Empire ”

Lastly, there’s also a generous featurette on composer Tiomkin, who enjoyed a prolific career scoring all kinds of genres, but excelled in westerns and action films. His jaunty rhythms and knotted clusters of brass, percussion, and lush strings reached a creative peak in The Guns of Navarone (1961), but in Roman Empire, he wrote what some may regard as the strangest musical accompaniment for a historical epic.

In place of Alex North’s brooding modernism and searing use of dissonance to convey the tragic personal relationships in Cleopatra, Tiomkin’s score sometimes seems to miss a scene’s subtext; his shrieking brass and fetishistic use of flutter tones is intrusive, and chosen harmonies seems to paint the Romans as exciting, thrill-seeking legionnaires when the film’s theme is supposedly about the seething malaise that sprouts into action once the last great Roman visionary (Marcus Aurelius) dies without personally implementing his Pax Romana.

It’s as though doom-and-gloom were stricken from the music score, perhaps by Bronston. Tiomkin’s main theme is gorgeous (and isn’t given an insipid easy listening song interpretation after the End Credits, as done to Miklos Rozsa’s rhapsodic El Cid love theme), but while Tiomkinites will adore the sharp sonic qualities that emphasize the composer’s meaty writing style, others may periodically question the seemingly bizarre exuberance Tiomkin launches like mortar shells from his brass instruments into the audience.

The DVD’s 5.1 mix is very potent, and fans – particularly those who saw Roman Empire during its original theatrical engagement – will want to crank up the volume when separate banks of brass ping-pong across the room during the Overture.

(Tiomkin’s scoring style is sometimes spot on, or completely insane – just watch Land of the Pharaohs – but it’s never dull, and even detractors are wont to chuckle once in a while at his audacious sledgehammer statements, which he himself nicely branded in a Pharaohs P.R.. moment as ‘boom-de-boom.’)

Interviews with Mel Martin, John Mauceri, Tiomkin’s widow, and historian Jon Burlingame provide a good portrait of the score’s creation, themes, and Tiomkin’s unconventional application of emotional themes and chords in place of old-style leitmotifs.

s done in High Noon (1952) and Town Without Pity (1961), Tiomkin’s main theme – “The Fall of Love,” with lyrics by Ned Washington and string arrangements by Robert Hawkins – was released as a single, although it’s sadly not archived on the DVD, as is often the case with these forgotten vocal spin-offs.

There’s also some info on the unusual lyrics which are heard in Italian during the choral version (with harpsichord) that plays over the Intermission card; it’s a seductive corkscrew tune guaranteed to spin around the head for a few days.

Unlike Rozsa – a rabid musicologist whose passion for authenticity within a classical context is evident in his massive Biblical epics, plus El Cid) – Burlingame and Mauceri cite Tiomkin’s use of a church organ as a prime example of writing a more contemporary score that emphasizes the film’s classical story, thereby making it more obvious to audiences that the film is not supposed to be a document of the period, but classical-styled entertainment.

Most film composers are given pathetic mere mentions in deluxe sets, if not five minute featurettes, so the DVD’s producers deserve full kudos for editing an intelligent, informative, and worthy tribute to a composer usually marginalized under the shadows of Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, or Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to name a scant few peers and colleagues.



Vintage Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Shorts About the Roman Empire

As he explains in a new intro for the DVD, producer/director William Deneen was intrigued by the massive sets, so while in New York City , Deneen approached Paul Lazarus, Bronston’s representative, with a proposal to shoot a set of educational shorts on behalf of Encyclopedia Britannica, which would then be sent with the books as teaching tools.

Lazarus (and probably Bronston, too) saw another P.R. coup in having their sets vetted as authentic by a respected encyclopedia, so he was given very broad access to the sets, props, and costumes, and even if one regards the shorts as quaint artifacts of sixties educational ephemera, these films also offer more details of the Forum before its dismemberment.

Preceding the shorts is Deneen’s original 1964 intro, wherein he appears after a montage of still images and footage of the empty set (which he ironically characterizes as having “lasting importance.” Ha!).


“Life in Ancient Rome ”

The first short begins with the year 11 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Trajan, one of the last ‘philosopher’ rulers. The ongoing narrator basically covers the practical nature of Roman governance (using conquered armies to protect the empire’s new frontiers), delegating administrative responsibilities to senators and pencil pushers, the benefits of trade, and the advantages of the wealthy ruling class.

There’s also short montages of market shopping, hiring a scribe, tenement buildings for lower class, welfare and food for the poor, the various types of slaves, Roman citizenship rules, civic court procedures, public readings in the Forum for the illiterate, publishing houses, public baths, aqueducts, roads, and postal delivery.

Of the three shorts, this one makes the best use of the Forum set, particularly the angles and corners not seen in the finished film, like the tenement alley, market, and courtroom. Also of note are closer glimpses of statues, and the marble steps and columns that were photographed from farther away in the feature film.

The actors are uncredited, so one must presume the bulk are extras, since many were pre-fitted with excellent costumes. In the first two shorts, there’s virtually no onscreen dialogue (the few short words are post-dubbed), and the performances are edited to suit the narration, and are therefore minimally dramatic, with plenty of head-nodding.


“Julius Caesar: The Rise of the Roman Empire ”

The life of Julius Caesar is used to highlight the governmental changes when he formed the first triumvirate, and his specific decrees as emperor, which included codifying Roman law, taxation, and centralizing power around the emperor’s gilded throne.

Caesar’s assassination bookends the short, and the variety of scenes give further views of the interior corners of the immense set. The photography is fine outside, but all the interior shots are harsh, and bulb glare easily reveals the close proximity of the lights. Like the other shorts, there’s no snippets from Tiomkin’s score, but there’s music in each of the three, with the last two featuring music credited to Fred Jacobs.


“Claudius: Boy of Ancient Rome ”

The final short shows the organization director Deneen used to acquire a good variety of footage that could be spread out between three productions. There’s a few repeated shots, but most of the material in the last short is outdoors, and deals with the friendship between a slave boy and the son of his owner (Claudius). When the slave boy is injured, Claudius looks after his friend, and must confront feelings about the humanity of slaves, particularly after his father grants the slave family their freedom, and they pack up and leave for northern Gaul .

The gist is simple – ‘slaves are people too!’ – but the peripheral details are just as interesting: outdoor schooling in the Forum, family dinners, games, and friendship. Unlike the other shorts, there’s sync scripted dialogue between the boys, but the performances are minimally effective.

There’s a quaintness to each short, but they also function as accessible adjuncts to the historian interviews on Disc 2.



It’s a shame Fall of the Roman Empire was released in two- and three-disc editions, because the tradeoff is space used for the featurettes and still galleries; had all the extras been archived on a third dual layer disc, more room would’ve been left for the feature film, and perhaps an isolated music track with commentary between cues – something Fox has been actively doing with many scores never commercially released in their entirety, and some not at all.

The last CD release of Tiomkin’s score has been out of print for a while now, and an opportunity to experience the music with intelligent critical appraisal of specific cues would’ve furthered an understanding of the composer’s style, and sometimes oddball, bombastic approach.

An isolated music track may not have won over his harshest critics, but as Mauceri says of Tiomkin, his ‘primal’ Russian approach is unusual among colleagues who wrote in the more familiar Austro-Germanic style of the period; any attempt to examine and explain this witty, charismatic, gregarious composer would’ve been an important effort in upping his stature.

Since Tiomkin scored 55 Days in Peking [M] and Bronston’s last super-production, Circus World (1964), it would be a shame to miss another chance to experience the film scores beyond the original and very abridged soundtrack albums – something the eggheads at Genius Products ought to consider.



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumSoundtrack Review —  Composer Filmography


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