The late '50s and early '60s produced their share of bloated, inert movies that confused extended running times and excessive art direction with top-flight, value-for-dollar entertainment. But the epic era also gave movie and history buffs unparalleled spectacles like David Lean's The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia, and—almost as good—Anthony Mann's The Fall Of The Roman Empire. In the '40s, Mann was known for earthy noirs, and in the '50s for darkly pragmatic westerns, but in his last decade as a director, Mann helmed grand historical stories that dwelled on the strengths and weaknesses of men struggling with how to reconcile their sense of honor with their lusty desires. Though Mann split The Fall Of The Roman Empire into a series of intimate scenes, he didn't skimp on the pomp. The sets are enormous, the battle scenes well-populated, and the exteriors stunningly photographed and matte-painting-free.
Alec Guinness plays a fair-minded Emperor who gets poisoned by some hawkish members of his staff and dies before he can officially name the like-minded Stephen Boyd as his successor. Instead, Guinness' aggressive son Christopher Plummer takes over, and embarks on a military campaign that leaves the empire over-taxed and its provinces in revolt. Though a little over-stuffed, The Fall Of The Roman Empire mostly balances explanatory dialogue with thrilling clashes in the wilderness, and it's aided immeasurably by Dimitri Tiomkin's majestic score, and the way Mann and cinematographer Robert Krasker keep the camera moving to reveal every inch of the temples and town squares that producer Samuel Bronston built on the Spanish plains. The story needs that sense of scope—the kind only conceivable in the movie-making world of 1964—in order to give impact to the chaos about to beset the Romans, and the long decline to come.
Key features: A detailed commentary track, a series of historical shorts, and a set of well-produced documentaries that contrast fiction and reality.