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The film's plot is a winding one, but here's a brief summation: Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) has gathered dignitaries from all corners of the Roman Empire to a snowy fortress situated on the line bordering the lands of one of their last enemies, the Barbarians. Caesar's daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren), a pawn in his power plays, must marry the king of Armenia, Sohamus (Omar Sharif), although she is in love with Livius (Stephen Boyd). Caesar has chosen Livius as his successor over his own son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), who he feels is not up to the task of controlling Rome's vast empire. Unfortunately, Caesar is murdered without making his wishes clear, and things get progressively more tangled from there.
The enormous set pieces, vast backgrounds, exotic locations, thousands of extras, and intimate dramatic moments all make this lengthy film a masterpiece of its time. Weaned on special effects blockbusters, today's audiences may find the pace slow at times, but the The Fall of the Roman Empire's lack of hyperactive editing really serves to enhance the material. Of course, there are several amazing action pieces to shake things up, such as the initial battle between Roman gladiators and Barbarians in the woods surrounding the fortress, and a furious engagement on chariot between Commodus and Livius. Guinness, in particular, is spectacular as Aurelius, playing the role with gusto and an appropriately regal air. His death scene is a somber, dramatic piece of work. I must say that - and this is probably something bordering heresy - for all of Sophia Loren's beauty, her performance is wooden and uninteresting. The acting delivered by her co-stars, in particular Plummer and Sharif, is far more engaging. Then again, much of Loren's role is relegated to the stoic acceptance of her forced engagement, which can easily be played with one note.
As was the case with the recent Miriam Collection release of El Cid on DVD, The Fall of the Roman Empire is beautifully packaged as a multi-disc set and filled with numerous bonus features. These include a commentary with Bill Bronston (son of producer Samuel Bronston), several informative featurettes, and trailers. The digital picture transfer is colorful and beautiful in widescreen, and the audio is crisp and clear. Fall of the Roman Empire is a glorious, monumental film of its time, and this new three-disc deluxe edition serves its memory well.
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
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