Saturday, February 28, 2015

THE YELLOW ROLLS-ROYCE (MGM 1965) Warner Home Video

Still counting the considerable profits from Anthony Asquith’s The V.I.P.’s (1963), MGM reunited its director with screenwriter, Terrance Rattigan for The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965); a tedious, if mind-bogglingly all-star drama, intent on following at least part of the life cycle of its famed luxury automobile as it changes hands between various owners en route to the inevitable scrapyard. Mercifully, we are spared the indignation of watching all that polished chrome and leather turned into a crumbled cube inside a compactor; the movie incongruously ending in mid-tale with the titular town car disembarking a European steamer, presumably bound for even more whacky misadventures on the open roads in the United States. One can only imagine what chichi Beverly Hills or Bel Aire excursions could befall it.  Without a doubt, there remains enough tempered sex and intrigue, even a war in the Balkans, to threaten the Rolls and its occupants. Producer, Anatole de Grunwald has assembled a glittery roster of established stars to add majesty to this mishmash and some superb travelogue cinematography via the inimitable visual stylist, Jack Hildyard . In short, The Yellow Rolls-Royce had everything one could wish for in a movie except plot; Rattigan’s vignettes disastrously episodic and thoroughly dull in spots. 
Asquith and Rattigan were old chums, each deriving a certain perfunctory contempt for the British aristocracy. Indeed, Asquith’s father had been Britain’s Prime Minister during the early part of the 20th century, while Rattigan came to the art of poking holes in its stiff upper crust by way of being the son of a high-ranking U.K. diplomat. Kindred spirits, Asquith and Rattigan had shown great promise, gaining success and momentum as a team. Hence, The Yellow Rolls-Royce ought to have worked. It doesn’t. At times, it has the look of an epic. But it submarines our expectations for a light and frothy comedic gem or even a winsome travelogue, afflicted with Tourette fits buffered by a staggering amount of overly-dramatic melancholy, almost always leading into a somber denouement. All too quickly, The Yellow Rolls-Royce starts to feel like an anthology piece, with disparate acting styles and plots barely sustainable at just over two hours. Because of Asquith and Rattigan’s background, the film’s first act has an air of stodgy authenticity, nee intimacy, wholly absent from the rest of the picture.  Yet, despite its travelogue format, The Yellow Rolls-Royce doesn’t cover much ground, its journey from glamorous showpiece to all but forgotten clunker, resurrected to its former glory, hits multiple potholes and encounters far too many detours along the way; the road trip periodically interrupted by some heavy-handed melodrama – or is it the other way around?  If only the narrative could have lived up to Jack Hildyard’s breathtaking cinematography, or the caliber of this internationally acclaimed all-star cast.
Since the early 1930s, MGM had been one of a few studios to successfully carry off the ensemble motion picture; the jam-packing of A-list talent into ‘B’, ‘C’ or even ‘D’ grade filler becoming more standardized, conventional and heavily recycled after the ‘30’s big scale wonderments; Grand Hotel (1931) and Dinner At Eight (1934) set the tone. What helped to propel these earlier offerings to popularity and acclaim (and snag the former a Best Picture Oscar besides) was the tenuous balance between carefully crafted melodrama and the spectacle of seeing so many big names casually pass before the camera, briefly sharing the same claustrophobic space and occasionally mingling in one another’s stratosphere. By the end of the 1940’s, this sort of ‘look who’s here’ had run its course to become passé, the audience more blasé then bemused. Even so, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’, could not resist the formula for very long. So, in the mid-forties they remade Grand Hotel as Weekend At The Waldorf (1945); a watered down chestnut that, oddly enough, rang cash registers all over the country and turned a handsome profit besides. In the mid-1950’s, independent showman, Michael Todd tried his hand at the superstar gristmill, transforming Jules Verne’s cavalcade of short stories, collectively lumped together as Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) into yet another Oscar-winning Best Picture.
Indeed, there was still box office gold to be mined by the mid-sixties; producer/director, Stanley Kramer taking it to the absurd extreme in 1963 with It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In hindsight, Kramer’s flick seemed to suggest both how far the star-studded cavalcade picture had come, and yet, emphasize it had nowhere left to go – except down. It would take another decade and the likes of visionary disaster/master, Irwin Allen to re-envision the ensemble picture yet again, this time adding peril to pageantry with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). The Yellow Rolls-Royce cribs from a template much closer to home. The V.I.P.’s had been a curious moneymaker for MGM at a time when one had been desperately needed. A contrite tale of a bored sophisticate, played with lugubrious charm by Elizabeth Taylor and her slightly possessive husband (real life married, Richard Burton) and the former’s infidelity with an oily intercontinental suitor (Louis Jourdan) had been puffed out in all the right places by a few well-placed star turns from Orson Welles, Maggie Smith and Rod Taylor; all of them destined to never get off the ground during a dense fog bank, their various peccadilloes played out mostly inside the V.I.P room at London’s Heathrow airport. 
In hindsight, The Yellow Rolls-Royce lacks the continuity of these aforementioned movies on several levels, chiefly because it chooses to chart the course of an inanimate object. The people who invariably come to possess it for a limited amount of time are simply necessary to keep the tank full of gas. But they never meet as the car exchanges hands, their stories incidental to what eventually happens to the automobile.  Unlike MGM’s earlier efforts, The Yellow Rolls-Royce lacks the benefit of solidarity among its stock company. In the good ole days, Metro would have assembled a roster from homegrown talent under ironclad contracts. The homogenized look would also have extended to a uniform acting style. Watch an MGM picture from the 1930s or 40s and it becomes apparent there’s well-oiled machinery – all pistons firing in unison.
Without a star system in place, MGM did what was necessary; hire from without, picking up brand names the way one might gather paperclips – by the handful. Alas, decisions in casting were largely predicated on the hot star du jour; Rex Harrison (everyone’s favorite Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady) assuming the fatally dull part of a boring aristocrat, Lord Charles Frinton; more invested in his box at the races than his crumbling marriage to Lady Eloise (a very wooden, Jeanne Moreau).  From France too, came Alain Delon, herein, a thoroughly wasted stud-farm Lothario, lurking in the peripheries of a disastrous affair between Mafioso, Paolo Maltese (George C. Scott) and cheap trick on a string, Mae Jenkins (Shirley MacLaine).  Sweden’s contribution to this international jet set is Ingrid Bergman, playing a heavily mascaraed haughty socialite, brought down a peg or two by the outbreak of a Balkan uprising; her valiant Partisan hero played with lethal turgidity by Omar Sharif.
The Yellow Rolls-Royce begins with Lord Charles Frinton, who spies the shiny automobile in a high-end luxury car shop in London. A Marquess, handling London’s foreign affair office with a certain noblesse oblige, and well aware he’s late in acknowledging a more meaningful date, Frinton buys the canary yellow car as a 10th wedding anniversary present for his wife, Lady Eloise (Jeanne Moreau). It should please her immensely, as presumably everything about their marriage has been copacetic thus far; except the lady of this sprawling country estate is having a torrid affair with Charles’ aid, Fane (Edmund Purdon). Purdon’s career is one of those utterly wasted opportunities in Hollywood: a pretty face who proved he could mime through The Student Prince (vocals supplied by Mario Lanza) and beefcake his way in a sword and sandal quickie, The Egyptian (both made in 1954); who faked acting enough to get by on his good looks and worked steadily, but never managed to rise above a largely forgettable tenure in films and on TV.
On the eve Fane is being sent off to the Far East to oversee affairs of state, a position presumably orchestrated to take both he and Eloise far away from Charles for a very long while, Charles unveils the luxury sedan for his wife’s benefit at a lavish house party. It’s too much, and it makes Eloise momentarily resist all the plans she and Fane have previously concocted. Good to see the gal has some scruples left in her brain, even if her heart is fickle.  Eloise and Fane plot a lover’s rendezvous, unintentionally thwarted by Charles when Eloise announces she has a headache and the ever-dutiful Charles follows her to bed. The next day, Charles, still oblivious to what’s going on, plans to watch his prize racehorse ride to victory in the Gold Cup. The qualifying race goes off without a hitch. But then Charles is given an earful as to his wife’s whereabouts from the deliciously wicked, Hortense Astor (Joyce Grenfell). Disbelieving her innuendo, though nevertheless with curiosity peaked, Charles leaves his private box moments before his horse is set to run. He discovers Eloise in Fane’s arms inside the backseat of yellow Rolls-Royce. The horse wins the race, but Charles has been cut to the quick. He begrudgingly accepts the Gold Cup; a very bittersweet victory – returning home with Eloise and instructing his chauffeur to return the car to the showroom at once because it ‘displeases’ him.
From here, the story jumps ahead to Naples, Italy where Paolo Maltese (George C. Scott), the right arm of Al Capone, is entertaining his fiancée, Mae Jenkins (Shirley MacLaine) with hired gun, Joey Friedlander (Art Carney) in tow. To say Mae’s a diamond in the rough is being kind. Actually, she’s uncouth, though bumped out in all the right places; enough to mildly amuse Paolo, even as her periodic ennui leaves him fuming. Mae takes an immediate liking to the yellow Rolls-Royce currently parked inside an Italian showroom. Paolo strong arms the salesman into selling him the car – then learns of a gangland coup back in America that demands his immediate attention. In the meantime, Mae takes up with a gigolo, Stefano (Alain Delon) whom this motley trio first befriended while taking tourist photos at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Stefano seduces Mae, offering her a legitimate romance, alas with a pauper, to her pampered life of crime with Paolo. Their chance for happiness ends when Paolo’s returns. Pushed to consider her choices, Mae resolves to wed Paolo in America at the earliest possible convenience, leaving Stefano heart sore and betrayed.
This middle act is probably the weakest in the film; a loose regurgitation of the first ill-fated love story, ever so slightly redressed with an even more bittersweet and hard-candied center. As with the first segment, the cast – although accomplished in their own right – struggles to find a tangible chemistry to make their dumb show click. Arguably, it never does. George C. Scott is a flamboyant Mafioso; Art Carney, his empathetic stooge. These are two old hams in their prime.  But both are working from caricatures to fashion a performance. There’s a lot of needless bumbling around, obviously meant to show off the resplendent and sundrenched Italian locations. It all looks as it should. Tragically, as with the first sequence, these locations are piecemealed with some woefully transparent sets constructed at Pinewood Studios. To some degree, the sets are less obvious during the first segment, already taking place in Britain, although no one could confuse Rex Harrison’s box at Ascot for the real thing. The soundstage recreations through this movie are brutally artificial.   
As Mae and Paolo drive away to an uncertain future, our narrative jumps ahead again, to Trieste, circa 1941 on the eve Hitler is planning a military push into the Balkans. The Rolls-Royce is seen stripped of its tires, slightly beat up and resting on blocks inside a Yugoslav garage. Once again, the car catches the eye – this time of a wealthy American, Gerda Millett (Ingrid Bergman); a frivolous creature carting around her nattering Pekinese. Bribed by Yugoslav patriot, Zoran Davich (Omar Shariff) to smuggle him back into the country, Gerda first resists; then reluctantly acquiesces, only to find herself embroiled in the machinations of an organized freedom fighter.  An unlikely romance blossoms between Zoran and Gerda as they rescue beleaguered townsfolk from Hitler’s bombs, survive a hotel bombing raid themselves, then band together with a troop of Partisans standing guard at a mountain retreat, and preparing to confront the advancing German army. The romance ends prematurely when Zoran informs his lover the best way she can help him is to return to America and persuade President F.D.R., presumably, a personal friend, to enter the fight against Fascism of Europe’s behalf. Gerda agrees and is smuggled safely beyond the border. The final shot in the movie shows a somewhat battered, but still intact, yellow Rolls-Royce being hoisted out of a European steamer’s cargo hold in America; its future uncertain, though likely ongoing.
The Yellow Rolls-Royce would be marginally satisfying as a screwball comedy if it weren’t such a crazy quilt of uninspired melodramatic remnants seemingly stitched together from castoffs of other movies. Composer, Riz Ortolani has given us an infectious main title, also serving as the Rolls-Royce’s theme throughout the picture; bright and bouncy and immediately hummable. Ortolani, with lyrics by Norman Newell, also gives us a sultry ballad, ‘Let’s Forget About Domani’, sung with a smoldering sensuality by Katina Ranieri. The song did well on the hit parade, particularly Sinatra’s re-orchestration. But otherwise, The Yellow Rolls-Royce is something of a grand disappointment.  It isn’t simply that the events depicted herein lack continuity from one to the next. Rather, Terrance Rattigan’s integration of character, plot and dialogue is so remedial as to suggest a complete lack of investment in the project. 
If anything, The Yellow Rolls-Royce illustrates the obviousness in the exercise; its attempt to recall all those star-studded spectacles from Metro’s heyday falling flat – and worse, completely resting on the laurels of its star power. Without a solid script to take us beyond the hook and worm stage of its pedestrian plot, the film becomes a series of badly timed, woefully mislaid skits, its cacophony of drama, occasionally agitated, though never to a point where we care about any of these characters. Traditional soap operas have more cohesion than this movie; a genuine shame too, because the cast is outstanding. None are pressed to the limit of their abilities, but each is a fondly recalled face and an asset to the picture. It’s frustrating, however, to think of their cumulative mega-wattage expended on so unworthy a subject.
Interestingly, The Yellow Rolls-Royce did respectable business in the U.S., grossing $5.4 million.  A more curious oddity: the critics rallied to treat it with kid gloves. The Sunday Telegraph was particularly genial, saying, “anyone willing to be taken for a smooth ride could hardly find a more sumptuous vehicle, star-studded, gold-plated, shock-proof and probably critic-proof, too”.  Time Magazine raved, “It’s an elegant, old-fashioned movie about roadside sex” that looks “appropriately over-privileged in high-powered personalities and spectacular sets.” Even The New York Times could not help but fall under its sway, although with a slightly more critical eye, commenting, “It’s a pretty slick vehicle…pleasing to the eye…but it hardly worthy of all the effort and noted personalities involved.”
Warner Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen DVD is generally a delight. Despite several sequences suffering from slight color fading, image quality is most often sharp and pleasing; full of bright and saturated colors. Flesh tones tend to appear slightly pasty, but fine detail is nicely realized, as are contrast levels. The audio is mono and, at times, quite strident. (It would have been prudent of Warner to give us at least Riz Ortolani’s buoyant main title represented in stereo.) Apart from a well-worn theatrical trailer, there are NO extra features. Bottom line: conflicted, but leaning towards a recommendation – for the flawed fluff and fun of it all. While I cannot deny its star power, the story left me flat!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Thursday, February 26, 2015

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Samuel Bronston 1964) The Miriam Collection/Alliance Home Video

Produced by maverick film maker, Samuel Bronston at a jaw-dropping cost of $28 million, Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is by far the most ambitious cinematic trek into Roman antiquity ever undertaken. With its startlingly contemporary score by Dimitri Tiomkin and its impressive international roster of stars, from Alec Guinness to Sophia Loren, from James Mason to Christopher Plummer, and Stephen Boyd, John Ireland, Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, Findlay Currie (I’ll stop now, but you get my drift), in every way ‘Fall was meant to dwarf audiences’ expectations. Only a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants showman like Samuel Bronston could have pulled off such a feat; and only Bronston, it seems, would be made to pay the price for endeavoring to scale such heights so fast. It should be remembered that Samuel Bronston produced virtually one spectacle per annum for an uninterrupted run beginning in 1961 with El Cid and ending a scant three years later with Circus World. Regrettably, The Fall of the Roman Empire catches Bronston on his way down. The gargantuan Roman Forum set alone – designed by Veniero Moore and Peter Colasanti - covered a staggering third of a mile with 27 three dimensionally built structures – able to function as free-standing buildings rather than false fronts. These were augmented by 350 plaster cast statues, utilizing over 33,000 gallons of paint. That the real ‘fall’ on display became the astonishing implosion of Bronston’s independently managed studio in Madrid seems to prove an old axiom about never allowing a true creative his freedom, lest he run both it and himself into the ground.
But actually, the Bessarabian-born Broston, who died penniless in Sacramento, California in 1994, was unwittingly the victim of others’ greed. The jury is still out as to how many who came to Spain to work on these too few screen spectacles were only there to drink from the trough until the proverbial well had run dry. But there is enough evidence to suggest Bronston would have preferred to make money for every last one of his financial backers, most notably, the du Ponts with whom his ongoing and very public battle ultimately turned his good name into mud. To suggest Samuel Bronston was a visionary is perhaps a stretch. Although he believed in the proliferation of film as art, there was nothing particularly cutting edge about his approach to film-making. What set Bronston apart from virtually all his contemporaries was his inexhaustible optimism and showmanship, plus his insatiable ability to convince others of the feasibility in his schemes.
In hindsight, Bronston and his adopted country – Spain – were a perfect fit. Neither was particularly well received abroad. Both were in line for a major public image overhaul and each had their sights set on expanding new horizons. Under the totalitarian regime of General Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teodulo Franco y Bahamonde (Franco, for short), nationalist Spain had existed as its own enviable and insular thiefdom, perceived as a danger to the free democratic nations of the world. Indeed, Franco held to the same fascist principles as Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, with no international trade and an economically backward approach to foreign investment. Investors were free to put their money into his country. They just couldn’t take any of it out!  Even with this rigid structure in place, independent Hollywood film makers like Stanley Kramer and Robert Rossen had managed to shoot movies there. Ultimately, such investment could be summed up in one word – cheap.  Apart from the agreeably climate, Spain’s cost of labor was a mere tuppence, and this at a time when Hollywood’s production costs were skyrocketing wildly out of control.
Bronston had a different slant than most. If, as Rossen and Kramer had proven films could be made in Spain more grandly and cheaply, why leave the country after the shoot was over? Why not establish a permanent facility to take full advantage year round? Into this brainstorm, Bronston reformulated ties he had established in Washington with the Rockefellers and the Pierponts; two of the most influential and wealthy dynasties in the United States. Pierre du Pont III wielded considerable clout in the Du Pont Corporation. Moreover, he had more than a slight Cecil B. DeMille complex, unfulfilled at home, but destined for greatness via his considerable investment in Bronston’s Madrid-based operations…or so he naively believed. Du Pont ought to have read the fine print on their agreement. The onus for repayment on his loans was not based on Bronston’s box office success. Should Bronston fail to produce a hit film, the responsibility to pay back the creditors reverted back to du Pont.
For outside investments, Bronston employed a savvy ‘pre-sell’ marketing philosophy. While quite common today, this was virtually unheard of during his time. In essence, Bronston would shoot some of his biggest and most impressive set pieces first, despite the fact he had neither the time nor funds to complete. This footage would be processed at Technicolor and then go on a whirlwind tour with a sales pitch made to potential distributors/investors to cut a check for the necessary moneys required to finish his movie. Alas, the bait and switch could only succeed if the movie itself became a smash hit.  At the same time, a financial arrangement between Bronston and the Franco government, involving the oil industry, afforded Bronston a license to act as an intermediary in the purchase and import of oil on Spain’s behalf; Bronston purchasing raw crude at a fixed price on the open market, then turning around and selling it to Spanish refineries for a considerably higher price, skimming the differential off the top and funneling it back into his film productions.
For du Pont, the Bronston oil deal – if slightly crooked - was something of a failsafe. What it boils down to is ‘legal’ money laundering. Since no investment in the Spanish economy could be refurbished in anything other than Pesetas – the national currency – and du Pont would only accept remuneration in American dollars - du Pont’s sale of oil to Bronston was to be repaid by the international monies accrued from Bronston’s completed movies, based on the blind understanding each would obviously turn a profit. Meanwhile, the Franco government was repaid in the court of popular opinion; officially recognized as a tourist Mecca. Bronston kept up this illusion by inviting an endless stream of dignitaries and stars to his studio; the glitterati parading through the gates, rich foreigners with lots of money to spend.
As was usually the case with Bronston, he had more than one project on the go. Hence, even after construction on the sets for The Fall of the Roman Empire was already well underway, the producer came back to Charlton Heston – his good luck charm in El Cid (1961) – with another script for 55 Days at Peking (1963). Heston’s reticence to commit to ‘Fall’ may have had something to do with the fact he had already starred in The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959); two of the most successful sword and sandal spectacles of all time. More directly, his ultimate refusal was likely based on the thoroughly unpleasant working relationship Heston had on the set of El Cid with his co-star, Sophia Loren – already slated to co-star in The Fall of the Roman Empire. To keep Heston happy, Bronston tore down the outdoor sets already begun for ‘Fall’ to erect an exact replica of China’s Forbidden City for 55 Days at Peking (1963). Unhappy chance, the latter proved less of a dynamo at the box office than El Cid, putting a considerable strain on Bronston’s studio finances. With little to suggest he could recoup what had already been lost on his next venture, Bronston dove headstrong and feet first into The Fall of the Roman Empire, an exact replica of the Roman forum rising from the dusty Spanish landscape at a staggering cost.
To imply Bronston’s approach to budgeting was laissez faire is to understate the enormity of the blood-letting going on behind the scenes. Indeed, both the Forbidden City and Roman Forum sets, designed down to the last detail by production manager, C.O. ‘Doc’ Erikson, were not only built to scale, but also three dimensionally, affording their respective directors a multiplicity of camera angles. Ironically, cinematographer, Robert Krasker chose to utilize very little of the Roman forum in the finished film. Apart from a few startling long shots, Krasker’s work almost exclusively concentrates on the famous faces set before it. Even more of an oddity, his lack of artistic license did not particularly concern Bronston, who derived a certain amount of pleasure from entertaining visiting dignitaries, particularly historians of Roman antiquity who were utterly flabbergasted by its jaw-dropping scope, size and historical accuracy.  Good showmanship on Bronston’s part, although, in hindsight, very bad planning in terms of achieving profitability for the future.   
So long as Bronston could be assured a rollover of profits from one ‘super production’ into the next, this precarious cycle made his film-making empire completely renewable – especially, on paper. Unfortunately for Bronston, 55 Days at Peking did not perform as well as expected, and neither did The Fall of the Roman Empire.  When Erikson approached Bronston with a whopping $9,000,000.00 budget for ‘Fall – of which Bronston had only secured seven and a half – the producer fastidiously went to work procuring more outsider investment to make up the difference rather than trim his costs down to compensate for a revised bottom line. It appears as though Samuel Bronston’s motives for investing heavily in movies that, comparatively speaking, returned very little to his coffers, was more an artistic pursuit misguidedly eschewing the necessary crass commercialism to make it click. The flipside to Bronston’s penultimate demise after the release of ‘Fall’ was his inability to wriggle out from under this quagmire he had created; his entrusted colleagues suddenly vanishing into the woodwork with mismanaged funds spent elsewhere along the way, taking advantage of Bronston’s hospitality to the point of no return and bankrupting his Spanish adventure into an embarrassing debacle with social ramifications to follow.   
For Pierre du Pont, the fallout was immediate and decidedly humiliating. When several defaulted loans made to the Bronston organization found their way back to his desk, following the doomed release of The Fall of the Roman Empire, du Pont was forced to pay out in excess of several million dollars to gloss over and appease the creditors. His chagrin extended to his impeccable line of credit, enough to oust du Pont from the family business he had inherited; a very public humiliation du Pont never forgot, forgave or had any quam about entirely blaming Samuel Bronston. Thereafter, du Pont made it his life-long purpose to destroy Bronston’s reputation. The release of Circus World (1964) notwithstanding, Samuel Bronston’s next project; Paris 1900 never went beyond the planning stage, chiefly because Bronston was quickly to discover he could not gain enough trust or interest to produce it.
It is too easy to blame Samuel Bronston. Point taken: Bronston’s finesse in matters of business had always lacked refinement. Yet, despite a federal investigation into ‘secret’ bank accounts in Switzerland (that earned two indictments against him before being overturned in the Supreme Court), the unvarnished truth regarding Bronston’s personal finances was he made virtually little or nothing off his pictures that had not already been reinvested on another project; that he left Spain in disgrace and practically penniless, and, was forced to live on a meager social security check of $367.00 a month, his children supporting him for the rest of his years. In the last twelve, Bronston never stopped planning his big comeback, despite the onset of Alzheimer’s. But the illness did much to slow him down. He died of pneumonia on January 12, 1994 in Sacramento California. As per his request, he was buried in his beloved Madrid.  
All this is a most unhappy epilogue to The Fall of the Roman Empire, the final flourish and disintegration of Bronston’s movie-making empire in Spain. Initially, the project had been brought to Bronston’s attention by director, Anthony Mann after reading Edward Gibbons’ lengthy history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, Gibbons did not view the onset of Christianity as thematically responsible for Rome’s ultimate demise; a perspective carried over into the finished film and making it quite unique amongst the usual Roman screen spectacles. Mann, who had cut his teeth in Hollywood as a scout on Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) before directing a series of highly successful B-budget noir thrillers throughout the decade, and later, in the 1950s, A-list westerns tinged with noir undertones, came to The Fall of the Roman Empire well versed in the construction of the epic. He had, after all, directed second unit on the burning of Rome for MGM’s titanic production of Quo Vadis (1951); had shot a considerable portion of Spartacus (1960) before a rift with actor/producer, Kirk Douglas resulted in his removal from the picture, and, had shot El Cid (1961) for Bronston; by far, his biggest and brightest epic to date.  Bronston saw The Fall of the Roman Empire as a reunion picture for Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston. The two stars had yielded big box office in El Cid (1961). It is unclear exactly when Bronston realized this screen reteaming was not to be. But Heston evidently made it quite obvious he had no intention of reprising his co-starring status opposite Carlo Ponti’s Italian Cinderella; disheartening for Bronston, who enjoyed working with familiar faces  – particularly those responsible for making him a lot of money. Undaunted, Bronston cast Heston in 55 Days in Peking instead, handing over the plum part of Livius in ‘Fall’ to Chuck’s Ben-Hur costar, Stephen Boyd. The Irish born Boyd had carved a niche for himself in Hollywood and, by mid-decade, had proven his acting diversity.
Moreover, he was already a known quantity to audiences and could hold his own in the oft feminizing, and occasionally overpowering attire befitting a Roman General. For the rest of the cast, Bronston assembled a who’s who of the most celebrated actors of their generation, falling back on the time-honored principle of casting Brits as Romans. But his ‘look who’s here’ mentality, with its memorable parade of famous faces, at least in retrospect, tends to marginally take the audience out of the story, veering dangerously close to the travelogue tomes in Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). Even so, the picture is immeasurably blessed to have such a wellspring of talent on tap. Ultimately, The Fall of the Roman Empire became the victim of very bad timing. Released on the heels of President Kennedy’s assassination, and in a year of frothy and lighthearted entertainments capped off by Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), an anesthetizing elixir to buffer their thought-numbing national grief, ‘Fall’s’ dour perspective on this imploding superpower corrupted from within was a message that perhaps struck much too close to home for then, contemporary tastes.
It should be evident, though nevertheless prudent to illustrate the purpose of all historical epics is not primarily to provide a literal historical record in moving tableau. Like all filmed art, its primary object should be to entertain. Yet, even on this score, The Fall of the Roman Empire is somewhat misguided, uneven and flawed. Its historical accuracies get in the way of the drama…or is it the other way around? The whole movie has a very episodic quality, one that, in general, does not endear itself to our conventional appreciation for a rich and vibrant spectacle. What is most impressive about the movie is everything is achieved full scale and without the benefit (or illusion, for that matter) of optical effects and/or matte work. What you see is precise what was there; the titanic scale, awe-inspiring to say the least. Alas, when it debuted, ‘Fall’ received unanimously scathing reviews. Almost without fail, it was dismissed as an elephantine bore. Whether the epic’s waning popularity had anything really to do with its’ critical backlash is a moot point. The dark undercurrent of death and destruction, intricately woven into the narrative by screen scenarists, Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina and Philip Yorden, left the popcorn sect stultified. In some ways, the movie plays much better today, in an era where cynicism in the arts runs ramped.
The premise is set up beautifully with Dimitri Tiomkin’s main title; not pomp and circumstance, but a pipe organ dirge; the narration that immediately follows, suggesting two of the most mystifying and elusive historical facts about Rome relate to its meteoric rise and epic crumble; the Pax Romana so desperately desired by the benevolent and world-weary Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) hastened into an amoral decline under the autocratic rule of the murderous and mad, Commodus (Christopher Plummer).  As our narrator points out, the death of a civilization is never an event, but a process. We are brought into this sad-eyed spectacle of an emperor, whose thirst for conquest having long since cooled, is strained for purpose during his latest campaign against Germanic forces. Aurelius’s ever-loyal advisor, Timonides (James Mason) is empathetic and a closeted Christian. These early scenes were shot during the steely blue-gray of dawn with only a crack of golden sunlight fast fading in the distance. While virtually all of The Fall of The Roman Empire was shot in Spain, director Anthony Mann had a little help from Mother Nature during this opening sequence. The script called for snow, a commodity in short supply in Spain. Miraculously the weather obliged Mann, bringing down the biggest storm to hit Spain in fifty years and saving Bronston the added expense of having to fake a blizzard with pulverized gypsum and asbestos.
As a matter of record, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) bears a striking resemblance to ‘Fall, the revised historical record as embellished for the screen by Barzman, Franchina and Yordan the template employed for Scott’s loose remake. We meet our central love interests; the unerring and noble General Gaius Livius (Boyd) and Lucilla (Sophia Loren), the philosopher/daughter of the Emperor. Ironically, their love is complicated by a great chasm in their political views, also by the vengeful manipulations of Lucilla’s elder brother, Commodus (Christopher Plummer). We move from the starkness of dawn to the noonday resplendence of vast armies gathering at Aurelius’ request. These galloping brigades were on loan from Franco’s vast military stables; the pride of Spain on display in these valiant beasts and horsemanship in particular, creating an impressive assemblage of Rome’s neighboring nations, come to hear Aurelius’ plans for golden centuries of peace. Alas, this moment is fraught with a mortal tragedy; Aurelius’ unwillingness to bend to the unholy surprise; that life’s great moments are often doomed to break in the end, our blistering fire meant to burn out in a faded flicker.
In hindsight, ‘Fall’ is as much a tribute to Samuel Brontson’s profligacy as it remains a fashion parade of painstakingly recreated costuming by Veniero Colasanti and John Moore; each garment made of genuine leather, real metal breastplates and fur. For years afterward, Samuel Bronston would take great pride in this accomplishment, adding, “We rented nothing. We made everything.” After Bronston’s company imploded, virtually all these costumes and props vanished overnight from their warehouse storage facilities, presumably into the hands of private collectors throughout Spain, and eventually, the world. Will Durante, a famous historian of his time, was hired by Bronston as a consultant. Alas, Bronston and Durante parted on less than amicable terms; Durante upset that history had been altered for entertainment purposes. He might have better realized Hollywood is not in the business of making documentaries.
After Aurelius’ shining hour, he retreats in pain to his bedchamber, attended by his devoted daughter and Livius; the blind sage and soothsayer, Cleander (Mel Ferrer) already knowing his emperor is dying of cancer. Aurelius entrusts the future of Rome to Livius over his own son. Indeed, Commodus is spoilt and insincere; jealous and easily distracted. He would rule Rome as a penetrating autocracy.  Livius is humbled and startled by the appointment. He is, after all, an adopted son rather than the legitimate heir. And Aurelius’ decision is sure to infuriate Commodus while driving a wedge into the heart of their friendship. Nevertheless, their initial reunion is playful; Commodus overjoyed to see his best friend and father looking so well. He is less enchanted by Lucilla, whom he has dubbed the vestal virgin; Aurelius acknowledging the two have been quarrelsome and confrontational almost since birth. Aurelius has an even more unpleasant surprise in store for Lucilla; her betrothal to the Armenian king, Sohamus (Omar Sharif); a marriage of state meant to secure a peaceful alliance on Rome’s eastern borders.
The first order of business for Commodus is a competitive drinking game with Livius.  Commodus inquires, “Did you study logic? Do you know what a dilemma is?” to which an inebriated Livius replies, “When there are only two possibilities and both are impossible…that is a dilemma!” Alas, a scene that was to immediately have followed, differentiating clearly Livius’ politics from Commodus’, was excised by Paramount – the U.S. distributors of The Fall of the Roman Empire, before its theatrical debut. Instead, we jump ahead to a night of drunken debauchery, Commodus unable to force himself on a terrified prostitute, stumbling back to seek Livius’ acceptance. Livius, however, is a solemn drunk – or rather, still able to see clearly beyond the haze of his alcoholic stupor. In light of Aurelius’ decision to appoint him to the seat of power, has suddenly become quite aware the Emperor has made the only choice for the security and safety of the empire. Commodus would make a disastrous leader, his stifling egotism and lack of compassion destined to lead to ruin.
Livius and Lucilla renew their passion for one another. It is the last respite before all hell breaks loose; Aurelius ordering his sons into battle after learning of a Germanic plot afoot in the forests just beyond, but not before he has revealed to Commodus his grave decision to overlook him in the line of succession. It is a bitter pill to swallow and Commodus proves how fickle his love is by divesting himself of all emotional warmth towards either his father or best friend. Commodus is determined to prove his worth against these barbarians by taking a small army of his gladiatorial forces into the woods. They are ambushed and almost immediate overrun, forcing Livius to forge the vast Roman garrison on a rescue mission. Both Bronston and Mann agreed implicitly the focus of these battle sequences would be on the human drama instead of the morbidity to fashion a bloody spectacle from the obvious carnage. The results speak for themselves; a myriad of amazing stunt work, beautifully stitched together by editor, Robert Lawrence for maximum effect. We are treated to exhilarating action without the gore.
Afterward, Livius is required to set an example of his newfound authority by punishing the gladiatorial forces for defying his direct order. Commodus refuses to allow for this, sparking an impromptu chariot race through the dense forests. Staged by Yakima Canutt (responsible for the breathtaking chariot race in Ben-Hur), this confrontation created more fervor amongst the critics as a shameless rehash of the aforementioned sequence in the 1959 film. In fact, the race in Ben-Hur had been designed to accentuate the triumph of Christ’s influence over Rome’s seemingly unstoppable might. In ‘Fall; the race caps off an emphasis on the diverging political viewpoints of these two men; their friendship reduced to mortal enemies.   
Parted at the last possible moment and thus prevented from destroying one another, the wounds inflicted on Commodus’ ego continue to fester. Cleander sets a conspiratorial plot into motion; poisoning the Emperor’s fruit to hasten the ascendancy of a new Roman order. Either out of pity or magnanimity, neither reason good enough, Livius makes the wretched decision to betray his own heart and Aurelius’ final wishes by relinquishing the throne to Commodus. As Commodus prepares to light the pyre on which his late father’s remains are displayed he cannot contain the wicked thin grin of satisfaction permeating his lips. As consolation, Commodus appoints Livius his Captain of the Roman Guard and pro-counsel, second only in rank to himself.  We retreat from these relatively cold and inhospitable conditions to the sundrenched warmth of Rome in all her glory. Here, in this decadent metropolis, Commodus vacillates; the thronging masses crying out their adoration.
At this juncture is inserted an intermission; a chance for the audience to meditate on all that has gone on thus far. The tone afterward turns from elation to solemnity once more as Lucilla arrives at the great temple library, entrusting the entire written history of her late father to their care before departing the city with Sohamus. Commodus’ edicts are swift and terrifying. He vows to undo all that his father has done; to rule as nothing like Aurelius would have wished, merely to be different. Commodus further commands that his eastern provinces produce twice as much grain as before so all Rome’s inhabitants may be fed; furthermore, their taxes are to be doubled immediately. When it is explained this simply cannot be done, since there is extreme poverty and a drought plaguing the eastern region, Commodus instructs his representatives to anticipate rebellion and to meet it by mercilessly crushing all those who oppose his will as Caesar. Livius finds himself embroiled in an unjust war against the barbarians, led by Ballomar (John Ireland). Far from a massacre, however, Livius places his captors in chains, sending Timonides to make the peace. Timonides’ Christian faith is put to the test when Ballomar repeatedly burns his hand with a torch. If his God is so powerful he will give Timonides the strength to free himself. Timonides proves unable to do just that. However, he does not cry out from the extreme pain being inflicted upon him as this would signal the Roman legions to put the barbarians to death. Ballomar is most impressed by Timonides, particularly as he redoubles his efforts to forge an alliance with them on Rome’s behalf, despite their cruelty shown him.
A short while later, Lucilla returns to Rome, finding Commodus at play in his gladiator’s training school with Verulus (Anthony Quayle); his beloved teacher. Although neither Commodus nor the audience knows it yet, Verulus is really Commodus’ father. Lucilla’s return to Rome is met with skepticism by Commodus. Livius’ return home is preceded by rumors he is plotting against Commodus; to remake the sort of Pax Romana Aurelius had so desperately desired but had failed to create in his own lifetime. Commodus tempts Livius, moreover promising him Lucilla in exchange for a sacrifice of his principles. Instead, Livius appeals to the Roman senate to consider what it would mean to make peace with the barbarians, employing Timonides’ persuasive logic to help sway them to reconsider a Rome without bloodshed; where Roman law may still appeal to the vanquished without any bitterness or resentment – because ultimate freedom is attained through kindness shown its conquered in place of the sword. Timonides reasons that free men produce more than slaves ever could because they are invested in the outcome of a free market enterprise. “Let us then do what is profitable,” Timonides concludes, “- and right!”   
A note of dissention is offered by Julianus (Eric Porter), who believes Rome will be viewed as weak by others if it allows these barbarians to live and work as free men under the safety umbrella of its own citizenship. But the sage (Findlay Currie) intervenes, proposing – then answering – the question of ‘when does an empire begin to die’: when the people no longer believe in it. Alongside its resplendent scenery, The Fall of the Roman Empire reveals the grave human complexities in such philosophical debates. The barbarian nation is given its independence and begins to prosper. His edicts defeated in the senate by Timonides’ persuasive arguments, Commodus exiles Livius to a remote frontier post under the guise it is for the good of the empire. Not long thereafter, Lucilla returns to Rome to find Commodus even more self-obsessed in his plot to squeeze the eastern nations of their resources.  She retreats to Armenia to support her husband in a campaign to rid the east of Commodus’ oppressive rule.  Begrudgingly, Commodus is compelled to recall Livius to put down this rebellion. However, when he arrives on the eastern plateau, Livius is horrified to discover Lucilla has pledged her support against Rome. Livius is understandably torn in his loyalties. He is a true Roman soldier, recalling with faint sadness the glorious reign of Aurelius, and determined to work within the framework of its less than benevolent present regime to bring about a lasting peace.
Lucilla tries to persuade Livius to join their splintered state. But Livius remains loyal to Rome. Sohamus ambushes Livius and his men with the Persian forces in an epic confrontation, rumored to have employed more than 20,000 extras on horseback. In this hellish exchange of clashed swords, Sohamus informs Livius if he is struck down he has already given the word for Lucilla to be killed. Indeed, moments later Sohamus is defeated, though not by Livius’ hand, and the order given for Lucilla’s murder to take place. Livius charges through the raging armies, narrowly arriving in time to prevent her death.  Distraught and now a widow, Lucilla agrees to return to Rome with Livius. On route they pass through the once thriving barbarian community, now reduced to a bloody and still smoldering cinder; Commodus’ rage against Livius exacted in a brutal revenge against these defenseless believers. Livius discovers Timonides body amongst the slaughtered and mourns his loss. Returning to Rome with Lucilla, Livius quickly discovers the city’s decadence has unraveled its citizenry into a pagan spectacle. He leaves the army and Lucilla at the gates, instructing her if he does not return by sunset to give the order to storm the city.
Livius confronts Commodus in the great temple; Commodus revealing he is quite mad – his cynical cackle echoing throughout the chambers. Livius appeals to the senate to have Commodus deposed. Too late, he discovers Commodus’ decadence has corrupted even those who were once loyal to Aurelius. In fact, the senate has made Caesar a god. Now, they condemn Livius as a traitor to be burned alive in the public forum, along with hostages from the barbarian village, including Ballomar, also, the few Roman senators who oppose Commodus.  As Livius has not returned by sunset, Lucilla sneaks into the palace in search of him. She finds what appears to be Commodus, alone in his private chamber, his back to her as he meditates. Seizing a concealed knife to put to death her own brother, Lucilla is instead subdued by this shadowy figure. It is not Commodus, but Verulus. She begs him to put Commodus to death. But Verulus reveals himself to be Commodus’ father from a clandestine affair with the late empress, Faustina Minor, Lucilla’s mother. Unable to bear the notion he is not of divine lineage, Commodus appears from the shadows and murders Verulus with his sword. Lucilla races into the crowds beyond the palace, desperate to warn Livius’ armies and give the signal to invade. But Commodus has anticipated this; bribing the army, including General Victorinus (George Murcell) with freshly minted gold ducats made from the precious metal previously stripped off Rome’s statuary.
Chaining Lucilla to the same pillar as Livius in the public square, Commodus now prepares a garish pageantry for the masses. His mind further unhinged by the discovery of his great shame, he makes the bizarre decision to challenge Livius to a duel to the death for the imperial crown. Commodus makes Livius a promise; that his victory will save Lucilla and the rest from their death sentences.  In a brutal display of javelins, the thoroughly insane Commodus momentarily gains the upper hand before being run through by Livius. Alas, Commodus had no intension of letting Lucilla live, his dying cry - ‘burn them!’ – met with torches lit under the condemned. Livius bursts through the crowd and manages to free Lucilla in the nick of time. But Ballomar and the others are burnt alive in a hellish fireball. The fickle Julianus, who only moments earlier is seen bartering with Victorinus to appoint him Imperial Caesar, whatever the outcome of Commodus’ showdown, now declares Livius the new and undisputed Caesar of Rome. Seething with disgust for these contemptible men who have rotted the dignity of their offices and corrupted Roman law merely to maintain their own levels of wealth and importance within the government, Livius replies with gritted teeth, “I’m afraid you would find me unsuitable…because my first act would be to have you all crucified!” Departing the forum with Lucilla at his side, Livius observes as the bartering for a new head of state begins; the divine nature of its former office thus reduced to an even more unstable oligarchy of absolute power available to the highest bidder. As dense, acrid clouds of smoke fill the air, obliterating much of the spectacular detail in Colasanti and Moore’s Roman forum set our omnipotent narrator summarizes the government’s eventually collapse, brought on by this self-afflicting malaise of political infighting.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is a supreme spectacle. For those merely interested in such star-studded and mind-boggling elephantiasis, the picture holds up remarkably well. Yet, in hindsight, its ominous political intrigues, then practically ignored by the critics and virtually shunned by audiences of their day, presumably in search of more lighthearted programming, appear even more foreboding and clairvoyant with the passage of time; the present decline in America’s own economic might; its’ perplexedly inexcusable distraction from more prescient matters, its population drunk on decadent and diverting entertainments that fail to enrich its collective understanding of humanity or even life itself, and, finally, its intolerably stymied machinery of a fractured government, chronically bent to the will of a Presidential veto, thereby warped beyond recognition of its democratic due process: these not so distant echoes of another empire in the throes of a crisis it has yet to acknowledge, seem too eerily to be mirrored in history itself and revealed with startling second-sight in Bronston’s monumental epic.  
At the time of its release, The Fall of the Roman Empire was heavily criticized on several levels; the critics all too quick to suggest Stephen Boyd a weak and ineffectual ‘hero’, his performance all but eclipsed by Christopher Plummer’s. Plummer, to be sure, has the better half of the story and makes the absolute most of these opportunities. Again, ‘Fall’ is rather unique in this; its focus somewhat more staunchly and uncharacteristically situated on the villain of the piece. Commodus we love to hate; or perhaps, in our present topsy-turvy world of amoral muddles, has been translated into the tragically ‘misunderstood’ misanthrope to whom our mediocre loyalties are more easily aligned. The best performance in the picture arguably belongs to Alec Guinness; the empathetic liege, torn by familial loyalties and those he must nevertheless afford the state, to preserve it for future generations. It goes without saying, that in Guinness we have the consummate actor’s actor; his lyrically wrought delivery of every last line of dialogue impacting our appreciation for Aurelius’ sad state of affairs – both public and private. At precisely the moment when Aurelius’ dreams for a pax Romana are poised to revolutionize these warring factions of humanity into a divinely inspired harmony of nations, he is cut down by the inescapable reality of death. The disturbing parallels between Aurelius’ fate and that of the assassinated J.F.K. may have also submarined ‘Fall’s’ critical success. Without question, the parallels are there for anyone willing to look beyond the togas and breastplates.
Whatever the reason, The Fall of the Roman Empire has long been overdue for reassessment as a bona fide masterpiece. The sheer size of Bronston’s epic, the vast undertaking in research, construction and execution are awe-inspiring. For decades, Bronston’s independently made spectacles have remained absent from public view while various distribution apparatuses via for control over who ultimately holds the rights. This shocking oversight ought to have been rectified in early 2002 when Alliance Home Video made a valiant stab to establish the now defunct ‘Miriam Collection’; marking its debut with the long overdue releases of El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire in elegantly appointed DVD box sets. While the European market has been blessed to have releases in hi-def of virtually all the Bronston epics, only 55 Days at Peking and Circus World have benefited from the upgrade to 1080p transfers (and only ‘Peking’ is region free and thus available for consideration around the world. As for El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, both appear to have fallen between the cracks for restoration and preservation, leaving collectors to seek these titles at a considerable cost and in a quality belying the fact each was photographed in the superior Ultra-Panavision format and Technicolor. In ye olden days of LaserDisc, Criterion released The Fall of the Roman Empire with a competently rendered image harvest. But for several painfully long decades thereafter, the only way to appreciate this movie was via a bootlegged DVD from Japanese distributor, Tohokushinsha; marred by some disastrous color implosion and an unhealthy green tint.
Then came the aforementioned Miriam Collector’s Edition DVD on which this review is based. It isn’t terrible, but it is still a far cry from Robert Krasker’s sumptuous cinematography.  What we have here is a flawed master, exhibiting color fading and sporadic built-in flicker. Flesh tones are hideously pink during almost the entire first half of the movie. Sophia Loren looks as though she were hosed down in Pepto Bismol. Curiously, color balance and density marginally improve over the course of this presentation; particularly after we leave the woods and enter the gargantuan Colosanti and Moore Roman Forum sets. Color fading and color timing remain a prescient concern. Blacks tend to register a deep navy blue. There is no sparkle to this transfer. These sets were designed with real gold leaf and mosaic marble tiles; Bronston and director Anthony Mann conspiring to show them off from every conceivable angle. Alas, the gold lacks glitter and the marble is deprived of its elusive colorful veins. Worse, there’s a residual softness creeping into these images. None are as razor-sharp or refined in their detail as any image lensed on 70mm film stock ought to be. Close-ups are the most impressive, but even they do not celebrate the great pains Bronston and Mann took to achieve something visually resplendent on celluloid.
On the whole, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is more richly satisfying than the image. Even though DVD is a compromise, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score sounds spectacular; the dialogue and effects integrated with precision; the sound field giving bass speakers a real workout. Extras are plentiful and include a fairly comprehensive ‘making of’ featurette created exclusively for the Miriam Collection release.  Dr. Bill Brontson, the producer’s son, weighs in with biographer, Mel Martin on a fantastic audio commentary as well. As The Fall of the Roman Empire is divided, at its intermission, across two discs, these also house the aforementioned featurette, plus a vintage promotional junkets, trailers, filmographies, and two more short subjects made to complement the Miriam release; the first, a reel to real comparison of ancient history, the other a glowing tribute to composer, Dmitri Tiomkin.  We also get a third disc, advertised on the back package as ‘…and more!’ The ‘more’ are a series of short subjects produced by Bill Deneen for the Encyclopedia Britannica to document Roman antiquity. As the Bronston sets were so accurate in every last detail they became a hub for historians to attend and marvel over. Alas, these sets were torn down and bulldozed shortly after production wrapped; an epic loss to movie-land’s cultural heritage. Mercifully, these shorts and the feature film endure as a testament to their greatness.  
I have broken a precedent with this review; made on a product most collectors will not be able to get their hands on without paying big bucks to third party sellers via Amazon or Ebay. I have done so because the time has come to demand a renewed interest, not just in The Fall of the Roman Empire, but all the Samuel Bronston epics made in Spain. While Bronston’s reputation has greatly suffered since his own time, still regarded unjustly as something of a nimble-minded shyster and con, there is nothing to deny Bronston his place amongst the movie Gods who dared bring such resplendent antiquity to the big screen, unencumbered by a big studio executive brain trust chronically looking over his shoulder. For a brief wrinkle in time, Samuel Bronston was his own man. He made movie art, unapologetically and mostly with a disinterest in the cost that would ultimately destroy him. For this, he ought to have long since taken his rightful place alongside such showman as Michael Todd, Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick. Regrettably, today his is either more pitied or reviled. And yet, I cannot hesitate to think of Bronston simply as the last of this vanishing breed; the master for whom class, culture and entertainment value took a decided backseat to crass commercialism. If you are fortunate enough to snag this DVD – or are in a position to purchase the ‘region B’ blocked European Blu-rays, equally as flawed, then you will be exposing yourself to some of the finest and most opulent entertainments money can buy. As Commodus might very well have proclaimed, “Permit us to worship!”  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

QUO VADIS: Blu-ray (MGM 1951) Warner Home Video

In Hollywood the motto has always been ‘go big or go home’. From its earliest years, the film-making capital of the world was of the opinion mind-boggling spectacle could be generally substituted for good taste or even solid acting. This balance of power quickly shifted during WWII, with rationing and scaled down budgets forcing the dream factories to scrimp and save by reusing, and re-reusing their costumes and sets accrued during the halcyon era of the late 1920s and early thirties. At the end of the war, a newfound desire for spectacle emerged; perhaps, because like a starving bear awakening from hibernation, the lean years had made studio chief’s hungry for the good ole days before the war when profits soared and television had yet to make inroads to steal away their audiences. Reflecting on all that had gone before, and with remarkable clairvoyance for the deluge about to come, old-time mogul and independent, Samuel Goldwyn led the self-reflecting charge when he insisted in an interview to The Times, “Even the most backward-looking of topmost tycoons in our industry cannot now help seeing, just around the corner, a titanic struggle to retain audiences. The competition we feared in the past…will fade into insignificance by comparison with the fight we are going to have to keep people patronizing our theaters in preference to sitting home and watching a program of entertainment. It is a certainty people will be unwilling to pay to see poor pictures when they can stay home and see something which is, at least, no worse!”
Point to Mr. Goldwyn, who knew a little something of ‘struggle for survival’ too well; having been ousted from power at precisely the moment his modest company was being absorbed into the leviathan officially known as ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’ back in 1924. At a time when Hollywood could scarcely afford to go back to its’ spend-spend hedonism, responsible for the whimsical fidelity behind such spectacles as Intolerance (1916) and Noah’s Ark (1928), the studio heads put their backs into a renewed spirit of even more gaudy and glamorous antiquities in the 1950s. These promised audiences something they decidedly could not experience at home. But they also threatened to either make or break a studio. In some ways, the industry was going through the first phase of a very messy/very public nervous breakdown; its creative personnel scrutinized by HUAC, its chiefdoms brought to heel at the behest of the federal government and forced into unhealthy divestures of their theater chains and top-heavy star systems. At the same instance, Hollywood was faced with staggering inflation and an assault from TV. This technology had debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, but its official launch was delayed with the outbreak of WWII.
At the end of the war, America emerged as the ultimate superpower amongst recovering nations. And although hard pressed to find any American then willing to swear to the opinion of America as an empire, there is little to doubt its obvious parallels to ancient Rome; its supremacy on the world stage and an economic boom at home; the dissemination of America’s cultural artifacts in everything from automobiles, Hershey bars and Coca-Cola, to movies, movie stars and pop culture en masse, creating a touchstone and iconography all its own, casting a giant shadow over virtually every corner of the globe. In retrospect, it seems fitting that at the end of the war, MGM’s raja, Louis B. Mayer would endeavor to revive a project on the company’s slate of ‘things to do’ since 1938. Mayer was never a forward thinking individual in this regard. At least in Mayer’s eyes, there was no good reason to believe the end of war meant anything except a return to those heady days of super-colossal productions made before it.
Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis had been a sprawling novel about those sensualist final years of Roman dominion under the reign of a demigod, the ‘divine’ Emperor Nero. Unlike other novelists, most notably, Gen. Lew Wallace (the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ), who had largely imagined and fashioned a literary impression of Rome via his own artistic license with only a remedial understanding of its history, Sienkiewicz – a historian by trade – had actually walked the concourses and byways where Nero may very well have bought a piece of fruit or given the order to set the city ablaze. Moreover, Sienkiewicz had immersed himself in a fact-finding mission to unearth the real Rome, his discoveries yielding a rich and varied tapestry of decadence, sin and corruption that had made Quo Vadis a real page turner in its time. In 1913, a Roman production company transformed Quo Vadis into a mesmerizing silent screen epic; intoxicatingly extravagant and immensely detailed. The picture ran for nearly a year and was a huge money maker besides, prompting an early American version in 1917, not nearly as unrestrained or as popular with audiences.  But then, the book and the idea of making yet another Quo Vadis with the advent of the talkies quietly fell out of fashion – arguably, for good reason. Because of its subject matter, and in light of the Roman spectacle, nothing modest would do. Even studios accustomed to spending profligately on single pictures were apt to pause and reconsider what it would mean to resurrect the novel yet again for the big screen. Undaunted, MGM evidently pursued and acquired the rights to do just that.
However, Mayer had some fairly unhappy recollections regarding the studio’s first attempt to achieve similar results on Ben-Hur in 1925. Shot primarily on location in Rome, the movie had been inherited by Mayer after the amalgamation of Metro Pictures into the fledgling company MGM; the footage scrapped, the star recast and elephantine sets rebuilt on the backlot at Culver City to satisfy Mayer’s need for absolute control. Ben-Hur was a hit. But Mayer differed in his creative philosophy with his then VP in charge of production, Irving Thalberg. Thalberg desired to make fewer pictures per annum, showering each with an embarrassment of riches. Mayer thought the studio’s profit margin could best be maximized by a greater assortment of more modestly budgeted and streamlined projects.  After the youthful wunderkind died of an untimely heart attack in 1936, Mayer ultimately had his way throughout most of the 1940s. But at war’s end, even he could see something more was required to maintain the studio’s Teflon-coated reputation amongst audiences and critics for all-star quality, par excellence in the industry.
Alas, Mayer would not be around to see Quo Vadis take shape. In 1950, after several years of increasingly focusing his attentions on a new love interest, Lorena Danker, and his favorite pastime, horse-racing, arguably, at the expense of overseeing daily operations at the studio, Mayer was ordered by his New York boss, Nicholas Schenk, to appoint a new VP to manage the output of films. Dore Schary’s arrival sealed Mayer’s fate; the two clashing almost daily over the way things should be done. Schary saw Quo Vadis as a political piece to mirror more contemporary times. Mayer simply regarded it as big-time/old-time splashy entertainment. Mayer would eventually get his way, though not before picking up the telephone to propose an ultimatum to Schenk. “It’s either me or Schary!” Schenk, who had never preferred Mayer, even when the studio was at its zenith in terms of both creative output and profitability, now seized the opportunity to rid himself of a very uncomfortable stone in his shoe. Mayer was out and Schary in, set to preside over one of MGM’s costliest costume epics in at least a decade. Quo Vadis is decidedly not Dore Schary’s type of movie. A writer by trade, who had come from modest beginnings at RKO Studios, he much preferred modestly budgeted B-movie noir thrillers and edgy dramas almost entirely void of glamour – or even star-power for that matter, making him the perfect VP for a miserly boss like Nicholas Schenk and the absolute worst one imaginable for a studio like MGM – the home of glamorous superstars.
Viewing Quo Vadis today, it remains a breathtaking spectacle unscathed by Schary’s interventions; sumptuously sheathed in all the accoutrements Sienkiewicz has written about, many of them hand-crafted from scratch by Metro’s army of craftsman.  With a cast of thousands and a mind-numbing budget of $7,623,000, Quo Vadis was gearing up to be one of the undisputed cinematic pageantries of all time. The remake had been the brainchild of producer/director, Mervyn LeRoy, who would eventually helm the project with an uncredited assist from Anthony Mann. No expense was spared as cast and crew assembled on gargantuan sets built at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ was the way Time Magazine dubbed this influx of American talent descending upon the studio built by Benito Mussolini, earmarking the 1950s as a golden era for American runaway film production in Italy. When first proposed back in 1940, resident studio heartthrob, Robert Taylor had been the odds on favorite to play Roman military commander, Marcus Vinicius. Indeed, Taylor possessed the matinee idol good looks to carry it off then. Taylor eventually landed the part in 1951, after the studio briefly considered a loan out of Gregory Peck from 2oth Century-Fox. But by then, Taylor seemed just a tad long in the tooth to convincingly play this arrogant and studly beast who finds Christianity in the arms of Lygia (originally slated for Elizabeth Taylor but eventually given to Deborah Kerr); a slave girl liberated by her adopted father and retired general, Plautius (Felix Aylmer). In retrospect, the one unforgivable sin in Quo Vadis is its lack of on-screen chemistry between these two stars. Taylor is appropriately vain and Kerr, immensely attractive. Yet, her patrician beauty and his pawing attempts at lustful stoicism somehow translate into uninspired stiffness, thus completely rendering the emotional center of the piece a moot point. This stiltedness hinders not only the romance, but also the believability of the religious conversion Vinicius eventually experiences.
Far more engaging on every level is Peter Ustinov’s mesmerizing performance as the mad Emperor Nero; leering, plotting and luridly evolving in all his infantile demagoguery and insanity, so utterly disturbing, one can actually believe he could burn an entire city for the muse’s inspiration to compose yet another insipid melody on his lyre. When asked for guidance on how to approach his character, Peter Ustiov was reportedly told by Mervyn LeRoy he had envisioned Nero as a man who ‘plays with himself at night’. Years later, Ustinov would concur that this was the single best piece of acting advice he received. Quo Vadis has far greater success with its supporting roles; Findlay Currie as the benevolent prophet, Peter; Rosalie Crutchley as Nero’s unfulfilled love interest, Acte, who eventually helps him commit suicide; Patricia Laffan, a deliciously sinful Poppaea, cautiously goading her lord and master to his demise while scheming to romantically conquer Marcus; Marina Berti as the ever-devoted, Eunice, and, as Nero’s forthright arbitrator of good taste, Petronius, the superb Leo Genn. The ill-fated love story between Eunice and Petronius is perhaps the singularly most compelling in John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien’s screenplay; tenderly fleshed out and brought to its satisfactory – if bittersweet – and wholly tragic conclusion.
At 171 minutes, Quo Vadis has the luxury of time to unfold these narrative threads into an engrossing tapestry with oodles of spectacle to boot. To date, Quo Vadis holds the record for most costumes stitched by hand for a single movie: 32,000! Produced by Sam Zimbalist, Quo Vadis also benefits from a thunderous score by Miklós Rózsa, teeming with trumpet chords and solemn drum and fife beats marked by a miraculous underlay of disconcerting emotional power.  The shared cinematographic challenges conquered of William V. Skall and Robert Surtees, lensing the resplendence in Edward C. Carfagno, Cedric Gibbons and William A. Horning’s immense production design, creates an earthy, vibrant and gaudy impression of this ancient world. To add yet another layer to its luxuriousness, Peter Ellenshaw’s visual matte effects extended the boundaries of Metro’s impressive sets with vast horizons of Rome, the palace enclosures glistening like white capped jewels against the sunset. If some of these names behind the scenes seem very familiar, it’s likely because most would return to MGM in 1959 to adorn the remake of Ben-Hur with their complimentary talents.
Quo Vadis opens with Rózsa’s monumental, if ominously reverent main title, gold embossed letters chiseled into a marble backdrop. This gives way to Rome’s valiant armies returning after an impressive victory over the Gauls, led by warrior supreme, Marcus Vinicius who also happens to be the legate of the XIV Gemina. Nearly three years abroad, Marcus and his second in command, Flavius (Roberto Ottaviano) race their chariots to the top of a hill where they can catch their first glimpse of the glories of Rome, shimmering like a mirage in the distance. However, the pair is ordered by Tigellinus (Ralph Truman), along with their armies, to stand down; the delay proving an insult to Marcus’ vanity. Meanwhile, in the court of Nero, the divine one is entertaining a small gathering of his most trusted advisors, including his arbitrator of good taste, Petronius. Marcus bursts into the chamber to make his inquiries as to why his men cannot return to their families immediately. Nero explains how ‘more and more the people require their diversions’. As such, he has planned a triumphant entrance for his armies the following afternoon to welcome Marcus and his forces back to Rome.
For the evening, Marcus and Flavius are invited to dine with the retired General Aulus Plautius, his wife, Miriam (Elspeth March) and their adopted daughter, Lygia. Marcus is at first unaware Lygia is not the General’s daughter by birth, the path to her bedchamber guarded by the giant, Ursus (Buddy Baer). Marcus is most impressed with Ursus’ size, offering him a choice opportunity to leave the general’s employ as a servant and enter the arena as a gladiator. Instead, Ursus points out “it is a sin to kill” – a comment causing Marcus to become mildly amused and suggest a colossal body is not necessarily accompanied by a very large brain. A short while later, Marcus and Flavius are introduced to Paul (Abraham Sofaer) who has just returned from Tarsis with news of the prophet, Simon – known to all as Peter. The family is overjoyed to hear of his news. But Marcus is repulsed by their bewitchment. The Messiah is dead, after all, and the only true god – at least for Marcus – is the Emperor. Rome is his heaven.
After dinner, Marcus attempts to seduce Lygia. She is proud and virtuous, however, resisting his charms and protected by Ursus. The next day, Marcus takes part in the processional through Rome, its thronging masses cheering loudly and tossing laurels at his feet. Amidst the spectacle, Lygia shrouds herself, lest Marcus realize she has come to watch his triumphant entrance into the city and thus give away her own lustful desires to belong to him. These deep emotions she repeatedly denies herself, recognizing Marcus’ heart is tainted by his false love for Nero. He is a conqueror, while she remains one of the vanquished. If not for the General’s love and compassion during his bloody campaign she might have died with the rest of her people many years before. Technically a hostage of Rome, Lygia’s life is disrupted when Marcus secures an order from Nero to have her forcibly brought to his palace as a concubine. Without ever meeting the girl, Nero makes a present of her to his returning war hero, though he momentarily contemplates seducing Lygia for himself; his lascivious attractions quelled by Petronius who suggests the girl is much too narrow in the hips to satisfy the divine one.
Nero trusts Petronius implicitly. But Lygia is appalled by the means with which she has been taken from the only parents she has ever known. She admonishes Marcus for his brutish and callous intensions to woo her without any understanding of love itself. Behind the scenes, Acte befriends Lygia, making the sign of the fish in a purposefully spilled heap of talc to suggest she too is following the word of God. Meanwhile, spurned and frustrated, Marcus returns to Petronius’ home to sulk. Petronius offers him sex with the slave girl, Eunice. But she resists. It doesn’t really matter, because Marcus has no interest in her either. Petronius is compassionate. Moreover, he suddenly comes to realize Eunice has not defied him out of spite, but rather because she is desperately in love with him instead. This revelation is humbling to Petronius who, in short order, will make Eunice his wife. Lygia escapes the confines of the palace with Ursus’ help. The two attend a midnight gathering near the aqueducts where Simon preaches the word of God to loyal Christians. Alas, Marcus has tailed Lygia and Ursus, and after the gathering has disbanded, he attempts to reclaim Lygia for his own. He is thwarted in his attempts by Ursus, who knocks him unconscious. The next morning, a more reserved Marcus, recovering from the bump on his head, attempts a more sincere proposal of love. But this too is rejected by Lygia, not – as she explains – because she does not love Marcus, but rather because he must first come to understand the strength of real love; love of one’s self and given in faith to the divine Jesus Christ. This, Marcus absolutely refuses to do, leaving a tearful Lygia to her lamentations with a sympathetic Paul.
In the meantime, Nero has composed yet another painful ode on his lyre, caterwauling about a ‘lambert flame’. When Petronius suggests the song is unworthy of his art, having not yet suffered the greatness to extol by virtue of his song, Nero latches on to a disastrous notion; to set afire Rome, burning everything except the palace enclosure to the ground to build a gleaming white metropolis, cleansed of all poverty and undesirables who dwell from within. The idea has merit, at least on the surface, though not even Petronius can believe Nero will follow through with such a hellish plan merely to satisfy his own severely flawed artistic vanity. Nero’s Empress, Poppaea is a devious viper. Since Marcus’ return to Rome she has been quietly pursuing him. So far, he has resisted her advances. But after his last bittersweet parting from Lygia, Marcus decides to momentarily throw caution to the wind. Nero has invited a select group to the summer palace beyond the city’s enclosure. There, he reveals his heinous plot to set Rome ablaze; showing off an intricate and gleaming white model of the ‘new’ Rome. (This was actually a model constructed at Benito Mussolini's behest for the 1937 exhibition of Roman architecture. In retrospect, it’s frightening to consider its ramifications if Mussolini’s Italy had won the war.)
Tigellinus returns with boastful news: Nero’s incendiary plans have been carried out by his Praetorian Guard. Remembering Lygia is living within the city walls, Marcus rushes to save her, inciting Poppaea’s jealous wrath. He finds the city ablaze and in chaos, its panicked inhabitants cluttering the narrow streets with impassible human traffic; most destined to perish in the flames. Marcus finds Lygia and Ursus amidst the rabble and manages to open a manhole cover, thus hurrying them to safety in the sewers beneath the city. In the smoldering rubble the next day, a boy, Nazarius (Peter Miles) discovers the remains of his mother. He is taken under Peter’s wing, the pair departing the city to preach the gospel elsewhere. However, once on the open road, Peter receives a sign from God instructing him to return to Rome at once. Upon their arrival, Peter is taken hostage by the Roman guard and imprisoned in the citadel. Poppaea has Marcus jailed under the guise he is a traitor to the state. Beneath the coliseum, Marcus is reunited with General Plautius, Miriam, Ursus and Lygia. It seems Nero has concocted a devilish plan to rid himself of the pall of these Christians and their God by putting virtually all of them to death.
As the pyres, crosses and lions are prepared for the mass slaughter to be staged inside the coliseum as entertainment for the citizens of Rome, Nero spreads the rumor it was the Christians who burned their beloved city to the ground. That evening, Petronius gives a grand party at his home, declaring for all to hear that he wishes Eunice to inherit his estate. He also instructs his most loyal friend, Seneca (Nicholas Hannen) to deliver a handwritten scroll to Nero upon his death. Without further delay, Petronius slashes his wrists in the forecourt of his dining hall, the shocked loyalists barely able to bear the thought of a Rome without him. Eunice refuses to comply with Petronius’ final request by slashing her own wrists also, that she may join him in heaven as husband and wife. The stunned congregation observes as the pair expire almost in unison. Seneca awakens Nero in the dead of night to inform him of the suicides. He gives Nero the scroll on which Petronius’ final words have been inscribed. However, far from a fond farewell, it is Petronius’ cruel – if truer – sentiments writ with sincere objectivity. He chastises Nero for his insufferable lack of good taste and his utter inability to grasp any genuine concept of art or music that would do anything but painfully strain the eardrum as it has thoroughly bastardized the arts.
Nero is incensed, redoubling his efforts to annihilate the Christians and ordering his guard to tear down Petronius’ home, slaughter his cattle and defile his women. The next afternoon, the commencement of Nero’s dastardly plan begins. The Christians are set afire and fed to the hungry lions. Gen. Plautius observes as his beloved Miriam being devoured by these wild cats. He is then led onto a pyre to be burned alive. However, before the torch is lit, Plautius publically declares it was Nero who set fire to Rome for a song. He is the incendiary – not the Christians. Having recaptured Peter, the Praetorian Guard crucifies him on an upside down cross; his body left on display as an ominous precursor of things to come. The next afternoon, Marcus is led to Nero’s throne area, chained to a pillar at Poppaea’s request and forced to observe as Lygia is bound to a post in the center of the coliseum, to be gored to death by a wild bull. As an added attraction, Ursus will be the first to die while attempting to protect his mistress from harm. Nero is overjoyed, as is the audience. However, no one anticipates Ursus’ strength. In this bloody life-or-death conflict, the giant manages to break the bull’s neck, thus saving Lygia’s life. Marcus frees himself from the chains and jumps into the coliseum to stand alongside Lygia and Ursus. He reinforces Plautius’ claim: Nero is the defiler of Rome’s greatness, exacting his revenge on the innocent Christians to mask the enormity of his sins. Nero murdering his own mother and first wife before our story even began are heinous acts well known to the populace.
The truth exposed, the coliseum erupts in conflict; the Praetorian Guard defending Marcus, Lygia and Ursus. The army overpowers Nero’s guard of honor, the inhabitants invading the palace enclosure as Nero flees to hide within its secret walls. He is confronted by Acte, who reveals the depths of her own discarded love for him. Realizing there is nowhere left to hide Nero is nevertheless unable to commit suicide. Mercifully, Acte helps him in this endeavor. The next day, Marcus and Flavius prepare to welcome Gen. Galba (Pietro Tordito) into Rome. Galba’s forthright nature, his integrity and honor on the fields of battle promise to restore part of Rome’s former glory. Marcus, however, has retired his commission from the army, choosing instead to depart the city with Lygia, Ursus and Nazarius in tow; their lives uncertain as they drive their chariots past the spot where Simon first heard the word of God; Simon’s staff grown into a symbolic cross with densely covered vines.
Without Quo Vadis it remains debatable whether or not Fox’s The Robe (1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Paramount’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and MGM’s remake of Ben-Hur (1959) would have ever come into being. Certainly, Quo Vadis kicked off a renewed cycle in ‘sword and sandal’ spectacles that would continue and dominate the cinema landscape throughout the decade, capped off by the disastrous implosion of Fox’s remake of Cleopatra (1963). Director, Mervyn LeRoy and producer, Sam Zimbalist spent money like water in Rome, but still managed to keep the budget hovering within check, recouping more than three times as much at the box office; the picture grossing a colossal $25 million on its initial release. Viewed today, Quo Vadis remains impressive film-making; the unparalleled pictorial result achieved by all the studio’s formidable assets corralled together and let loose on a single production. Six thousand extras are rumored to have been hired for the crowd scenes; the outdoor sets taking up virtually every inch of Cinecittà’s expansive back lot.
In hindsight, the action in Quo Vadis plays more like grand soap opera than cinema drama; albeit with a religious slant. The screenplay by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien and John Lee Mahin occasionally suffers from mild turgidity; the characters more templates and/or archetypes than people. Ultimately, audiences did not flock to see this colossus for its acting but rather for its spectacle; and this Quo Vadis has in spades. There’s enough here for two movies at least, leaving the onus of this picture to enthrall with some of the most jaw-dropping visuals ever conceived for the media or the genre for that matter.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-Ray is the beneficiary of the studio’s patented ‘Ultra-Resolution’ restoration. Predictably, this has yielded stellar – though not altogether flawless - results. The DVD exhibited several glaring examples of misaligned Technicolor, during whole portions of the orgy scene at Nero’s palace. These oversights have been corrected for the Blu-ray. But age-related artifacts are still present. Nicks, chips and scratches all make their presence known from time to time. And although none are egregiously distracting, they are nevertheless obvious. Color and fine detail are supremely satisfying, as is contrast and a light smattering of film grain looking quite indigenous to its source materials. The DTS mono exhibits all of the shortcomings one might expect from a mono track. But otherwise, everything here has been remastered with the utmost care; the results pleasing to the ear with minor built-in distortions. The icing on the cake is the extras: a comprehensive documentary featuring film historian, Christopher Frayling that covers the history of Quo Vadis in its entirety. We also get a fairly comprehensive audio commentary and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)