The Fall of the Bronston Empire, Part 1

Roman boom-de-boom!There’s a moment when you’re listening to the commentary track for Samuel Bronston’s three-hour Fall of the Roman Empire and realize the two commentators, son Bill, and Bronston biographer/author Mel Martin, are losing a bit of their objectivity, and what began as a discussion of this one-of-a-kind monster has morphed into a historical revision of sorts, with the son and author warming up to the film’s pros – extraordinary set and costume design – and ignoring its cons – namely a derivative script with screeching melodrama, and some serious narrative jump cuts due to Paramount’s alleged snipping to make the film less political, less dry, and keep the focus on romance, action, and stars looking gorgeous.

Roman Empire is not a masterpiece nor maligned classic nor a gem waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a monster that ran out of control due to various internal issues between the producer, money men, creative financing, writers with unique personalities, and the inherent flaws of the historical epic genre, which in this case mandated spectacle; in the dying days of the historical epic, that meant replicating the grandeur of Rome by building the Roman Forum to scale.

Was it folly?

From a production value angle, hell no, and it’s to the credit of director Anthony Mann that he made the physical aspects balance with the actors; the sets don’t overwhelm performances, and one can argue the nervousness or intimidation the actors felt when doing scenes smack in the middle of such an immense set improved their performances.

When Lucilla (Sophia Loren) pushes her way through bloodthirsty crowds to reach lover Livius (Stephen Boyd), the sequence works, and when Emperor Commodus (Christopher Plummer) stands with glee at the peak of a jammed Forum, you know the actor really feels like a god surveying all the little people he controls with his mighty thumb.

Is it classic tragedy?

Sort of, and also on a modern level, if one regards the melodrama that surges in the film’s second half as a tragic, missed opportunity to transcend hot peaks of screeching bathos.

Is it the sixties equivalent of Heaven’s Gate?

Nope, because the four-hour film that killed United Artists stemmed from studio execs ooing and aahing pretty footage by an egomaniacal director (Michael Cimino), forgetting their responsabilities to the company and its shareholders, and repeatedly issuing further monies to fund an irresponsible production whose budget multiplied fivefold.

Fall didn’t singularly kill the Bronston empire, but it helped. It was a perfect storm of personnel and events and greed that doomed the studio, but there’s a handful of reasons why the film didn’t do grand box office business: as the commentators observe, after President Kennedy was shot, no one wanted to see a doom and gloom epic; and with Cleopatra making headlines, who wanted to see another bloated, antiquated monster that mandated sitting still for three hours?

The human popo can only remain parked for so long.

There’s something to be said about savvy Italian, French, and German producers whose co-productions of Hercules and those C-level knockoffs earned profits because the films were kept simple; it was a genre over-imitated and beaten to death, and the stories were by-the numbers, but they didn’t doom a studio or threaten its foundations in the way Roman Empire or Cleopatra did.

And yet you’ll never see anything like Roman Empire again, because every horse, costumed extra, wave of cavalry, city forum, and roofed set is real. And the producers and director smartly kept the film’s pacing even-handed, so audiences could Ooo and Aah again and again and again.

Roman Empire has actually been available on DVD in Asia and Europe for a few years (making the sleeve sticker “First Time On DVD” a bold-faced lie), but it never looked this good, nor came with any meaningful extras.

Fans of composer Dimitri Tiomkin will be equally pleased with this release, available as a 2-disc and 3-disc boxed set, because there’s a nice 20+ mins. featurette on the composer and his score, and the 5.1 really, really sounds good.

As you’ll read in our long and windy review of the film and every featurette (including details on the rare Encyclopedia Britannica shorts filmed in the Forum set before it was struck), this is the release to buy if you’re a fan of pre-CGI epics; it’s the benchmark in production design, and inspired Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) in more ways than you may have realized.

While the Canadian release distributed by Alliance-Atlantis is again slated to appear about a month after its U.S. counterpart (like El Cid, it’s probably to get the packaging and dual language art done), the Genius Products release is now out, and contains the same extras that’ll be present on the Canadian release.

The demand and anticipation for Roman Empire doesn’t seem to be as massive as for El Cid, but this is still an important film (whoops – I think I’m revisioning, too), and should ease worries that the rest of the Bronston catalogue might get held up for some evil reason.

55 Days at Peking is apparently next, and hopefully Circus World will close out 2008, but one hopes the producers at Genius Products (aka The Weinstein Company) will put more into the commentary tracks and learn a bit from Criterion in making the most of every available resource (read: go interview surviving cast members) while it’s still possible.

I’ve already said too much, so read the review which, like El Cid, contains smooshed colour header breakers to make it easier to separate each reviewed component.

Coming next: The Booze Cruise (aka Cheers and Tears) trilogy.

And imminent: Jazz DVDs, Jazz soundtracks, AND an interview with Lalo Schifrin!


Visit’s Main Page HERE!
Technorati Tags: DVD Reviews


Copyright © mondomark