Weekend Film Recommendation: Fall of the Roman Empire

Although writing reviews of remakes throughout last month was a lot of fun, there was one original that came to mind that I really wanted to review. The new month brings the opportunity to switch over and recommend the movie that inspired Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It’s Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Many years campaigning and pacifying the frontiers of the Roman Empire have wearied Marcus Aurelius, played by Alec Guinness (who, thanks to make-up and costume is an absolute spitting image of a marble imperial bust). Although the emperor’s health is deteriorating rapidly his wits remain sharp: he knows that his son Commodus, played by a young and seriously dashing Christopher Plummer, is unfit to rule. Aurelius decides that the soldier Livius, played by Stephen Boyd, should succeed him. In anticipation of the tumult this will cause the empire, soldiers arrange to hasten the death of Aurelius to ensure Commodus’ unequivocal accession to the throne.

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But when the despotic Commodus becomes emperor, the chances of realizing the stable pax romanum Aurelius had hoped for disappear entirely. The empire falls into disrepair, and Livius is caught in a quandary: he owes Rome loyalty, but he also hopes to save her from the irretrievable depravity of her emperor. Livius’ love for Commodus’ sister Lucilla, played by Sophia Loren, helps Livius decide which path to take. But the ending is not altogether straightforward…

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Weekend Film Recommendation: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I haven’t done a family film in awhile, so let me return this week to the same well from which I drew my recommendation of Treasure Island last summer, namely Disney’s live-action post-war film canon. Kids and adults can both enjoy the dramatic, well-mounted adaptation of Jules Verne’s steampunk classic: 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The story opens with sailing vessels being destroyed in the South Seas by a mysterious underwater creature. Is it a kraken, a dragon or something else? At the behest of the U.S. government, a Parisian professor (Paul Lukas), his faithful assistant (Peter Lorre) and a free-spirited sailor (Kirk Douglas) join a military expedition to either find the monster or prove it doesn’t exist. In a fatal confrontation, their ship encounters disaster, which brings them face to face with Captain Nemo (James Mason), his devoted crew, and his extraordinary “submarine boat”.

Mason, as the tortured, destructive yet also sympathetic Nemo is in top form, adding weight to proceedings that might otherwise have been comic bookish. Lukas, as the brilliant scientist who is both Nemo’s prisoner and his nagging conscience, is an effective foil for Mason. Lorre isn’t given a huge amount to do, but he makes the most of it by being more vulnerable and afraid that the other central players, thereby giving the audience someone with whom to identify.

The special effects were trend setting at the time and still hold up pretty well today, as does the knockout set design on the submarine. It’s particularly hard to forget Nemo playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ as the Nautilus glides through the ocean deep. Also adding to the striking look of the film is Peter Ellenshaw, who as in Treasure Island does magnificent matte work (the crowded shipyard at the beginning and the Island of Volcania at the end are flawless).

The film has two weaknesses. The first is Kirk Douglas’ endless mugging and preening. I don’t know if Director Richard Fleischer couldn’t control his star’s legendary desire for attention or gave him bad direction, but it gets old pretty quickly. The second is that like many films of the period (e.g., King Solomon’s Mines), this one includes “nature photography” moments that would have dazzled audiences at the time but are pretty slow stuff for a generation that has the web, television and a thousand episodes of Jacques Costeau at its fingertips.

But neither of those flaws stops this from being outstanding family entertainment with exciting action scenes, a strong story, eye-catching visuals and moments of real emotion. It’s great fun for you and the kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I close this recommendation with a must-view clips for film-buffs. The truly spectacular fight with the giant squid in the film version released to theaters was not the first one that was shot. Here is the inferior original, the “Sunset Squid Sequence”.