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Released in 2000, Gladiator walks in the footsteps of an illustrious predecessor who has since fallen into oblivion:The fall of the Roman Empire, a film nevertheless served by an impressive cast and a very successful realization, reminding us of the good memories of a somewhat forgotten genre, when we think of its past glory. The peplum, which is almost as old as the cinema itself, has endured a long journey through the desert since the 1970s, when Ben hur (1959) was the film of all superlatives.
The fall of the Roman Empire?
The fall of the Roman Empire, catchy title if there is one, sums up the reality of the scenario rather badly, but clearly explains the general idea which is developed on the film. Indeed, we are far here from the last hours of Rome. The action takes place between the reign of Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus at the end of the 2nd century AD. According to a consecrated myth, the emperor wishes to bequeath the throne to his most faithful general, Livius, against a hereditary succession which would see Rome in the hands of an immature Commodus and above all imbued with an agonistic spirit, naturally bringing him to the world. arena. The film opens with the gigantic and magnificent landscape of Germania, where the Romans waged war against fierce barbarians. The question addressed here deals with a key moment in historiography; the end of the pax romana and the start of what has long been interpreted as a decline in Roman power.
The film hardly follows in a rigorous way the “real” history of the time. Thus, the famous Livius is a creation from scratch, as is his romance with the emperor's daughter. But the goal sought by Anthony Mann is not to pay into the historical reconstruction, but to retrace a idea and an atmosphere. It should be understood that the cinematographic film does not allow to follow faithfully all the developments of the intrigues and very complex events of this period. Indeed, usurpations and plots punctuate the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius and especially that of Commodus. But the story that is traced by this scenario is very interesting. First of all, because of its length (3:07), the film has a great density in the structure of its plot, which has time to fall into place and to occupy the viewer with numerous events and dialogues. We are thus brought to familiarize ourselves with many actors having an important role but who appear and only hold a fundamental place at certain moments of the work. The casting is also quite effective.
A leading distribution
Stephen Boyd, Livius, takes the lead seriously but with a certain coolness. He is not very expressive, nevertheless it sticks with his resolute, faithful, sober character (except when he finds his old friend Commodus ...). It is in a way an island of stability and temperance in this Rome dedicated to unworthy men.
Alec Guinness is a more than convincing Marcus Aurelius. He exudes a charisma and a truly imperial wisdom which is in line with the image we have of the emperor philosopher.
Christopher Plummer has a very delicate role; that of Dresser, the emperor readily described as mad by History of Augustus, a late and historically unreliable text, which is represented here in a slightly less dark way. In fact, truly immature, willingly expensive and authoritarian, the film's Commode remains a turbulent child, thrown into a load that exceeds him and yet fascinates him. He is not an absolute "bad guy", and is sort of a victim of events at times. The very beautiful Sophia Loren in the role of Lucilla, assumes a very sober representation of the Roman woman, devoted and yet romantic. There are many other famous actors who appear in this film, especially James Mason and Omar Sharif.
All these characters evolve in rather convincing decorations, like the Germanic forests or the city of Rome, passing through the Orient and its desert landscape. We can regret that the battle scenes in the woods were not shot in this same Nordic setting, but probably in milder latitudes, as evidenced by certain species absent from coniferous forests in Germany. Despite everything, we have the feeling that the sets are solid and credible; they do not hold cardboard stencils. The fort where the action begins seems ready to repel the attacks of the barbarians. The fights are hardly exhilarating and the extras are content to gently wave their weapons in often total disorder. Nevertheless, the costumes are correct and one can notice that the helmet of the legionaries is a copy of an archaeological excavation piece; the Niedermörmter model. In any case, the general appearance does not have much to envy the very recent series (very well made) Rome.
The empire: ethnic and cultural mosaic
As we indicated above, the goal of this film is confused with the central idea of the work which structures it. Here tolerance holds a fundamental place, referring to something very real in the Roman Empire. Rome subdued many peoples with arms, but she did not try to eradicate local customs and beliefs, quite the contrary. The peoples spontaneously adopted the roman culturee thanks to their local elites who saw an interest in participating in the smooth running of the Empire, which the Romans encouraged by a whole set of privileges. A publication available from the Presses Universitaires de France explains this aspect of Roman civilization wonderfully; Rome and the integration of the Empire, in two volumes (collective works).
In the film which occupies us here, part of the intrigue is woven around the question of the barbarians that Livius and his faithful Timonides wish to integrate, while part of the Senate wants to have them massacred. The film repeats a burning question in Rome at the time of the social war (90-88 BC) which sees the Italian allies of Rome revolt against it, because they wish to be able to participate in the political life of the city. , then in the process of becoming an Empire. The City, victorious, nonetheless grants political rights very broad to Italians, initiating a tendency towards integration with regard to its "subjects". It was at this time that the almost transcendent idea of Rome prevailed over the various “nationalities” that populated the Empire.
And this is perfectly shown in the film by Anthony Mann, when the various proconsuls and governors of the Roman Empire appear before Marcus Aurelius, in colorful clothes, symbolizing the ethnic mosaic what then represents Rome. A mosaic which nonetheless holds firmly, thanks to a strong sense of belonging, to a common whole. Only Rome allowed Gauls, Egyptians, Rèthes, Iberians, Bretons, Syrians ... to coexist in a single political whole. But the subject also deals with decadence, a term much less in vogue today in history because it is loaded with very negative connotations and directs our minds in a very inaccurate way. Thus, the fourth Roman century remains a period of wealth and stability, where recent work shows that the alarmist theses, prevailing until the years 1970-1980, on a decline of Rome, were unfounded.
But in The fall of the Roman Empire, we are in a film which must fit its intrigue into a whole, and which must bring its main idea to fruition. Livius and his seriousness, will they be strong enough to stop what the vices of men have started?
The Fall of the Roman Empire, film by Anthony Mann. With Alec Guiness, Christopher Plummer, Stephen Boyd and Sophia Loren.