Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964)

Looking at The Fall of the Roman Empire again recently, and it really grates on me how blatantly Ridley Scott's Gladiator rips this film off--from to the menacing feel of the Northern forests (the trees look like hostile giants ready to fall upon the Roman army) in the film's first hour, to the suggestion of incestuous feelings between Commodus and his sister (a lingering caress of the face), to the one-on-one showdown between Commodus and his former general Livius.

What rankles even more is that Ridley Scott doesn't improve on what he stole; Gladiator is essentially a dumb-down, druggy, digitally dolled-up remake. Joaquin Phoenix is not Christopher Plummer (who would be hideously miscast a year after as Captain Von Trapp in the (as Plummer himself put it) boxoffice smash The Sound of Mucus); Russell Crowe is not Stephen Boyd (who replaced Charlten Heston (Fall was to be Chuck and Mann's follow-up epic after the successful El Cid) but who, judging from their work together in Ben Hur, was a finer, slyer actor than Clueless Chuck could ever be); and in no way can I imagine Connie Nielsen as being anywhere near as desirable as Sophia Loren (who in this picture shows everything she owed to pasta, thank you very much).

And Ridley Scott is no Anthony Mann. Livius and Commodus are complex, driven men who grapple not just with each other but with various principles of politics and economics. Mann shows the realpolitik struggles that go on in these circles, and it's as taxing as any physical battle.

The battles themselves are spectacular--a million digital puppets simply can't compare to a few thousand extras running around in full Roman armor, a largely virtual coliseum isn't half as impressive as a full-scale fully constructed Roman forum (said to be the largest outdoor set ever built).

Well,maybe it's not all that simple--as
Kristin Thompson's excellent review of Shilo T. McClean's book suggests, the fault may not be in digital effects, per se, but in the director's (Scott's) inability to serve up a story compelling enough to take our eye off the effects (hence our need to nitpick 'em to death). Not just script and acting, but a film style able to subordinate the effects to the storytelling, not allow them to call attention to themselves as mere objects of spectacle.

Commodus' showdown with Livius is excitingly staged and coherently shot and edited--no shaky camera shit or chop-suey editing for Mann, thank you (that he does it in aforementioned huge outdoor set--which would pose serious competition for the audience's attention--makes the accomplishment all the more impressive), plus I can't help but think Zhang Yimou borrowed the 'wall of shields' in this duel for his
Curse of the Golden Flower. And this Commodus doesn't cheat (as in stabbing his rival before the contest); he waits until he's been fatally wounded by Livius, and then gives out treacherous orders. That's villainy with a dash of honor (not much, just enough to make the mixture intriguing) for you.

And to think Gladiator won the Oscar horse race for best picture. What bullshit.

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