Martin M. Winkler (ed.), The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History. Malden, MA/Oxford/Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xvii, 334; 24 p. of plates. ISBN 9781405182232. $119.95.
Reviewed by Hunter H. Gardner, University of South Carolina
I requested this book for review under the impression that it offered various perspectives on how Roman decline was represented in a range of so-called "toga films," and was somewhat surprised to find that the entire volume is dedicated to exploring the historicity and artistic value of Anthony Mann's 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire (hereafter FOTRE). I had omitted the film from my "Classics in the Cinema" (Spring 2010) syllabus, including only an excerpt of it for students to watch in conjunction with the film's more popular successor, Gladiator . Not to be discouraged, I decided to approach the volume, a companion piece to similar collections on Spartacus(2007) and Gladiator (2004), not only as an exploration of this particular film, but also as an overview of the questions and methods that scholars are using to address depictions of the ancient world in cinema. On both counts, the volume is largely successful. In what follows I outline the arguments offered by each contributor, saving for my concluding remarks a few issues that I (as a neophyte teacher of an undergraduate course on classics in the cinema) thought could use further consideration.
The critical appreciation (chapter one) offered by Martin Winkler demonstrates the scholar's genuine admiration for Mann's film and polemically builds a case for the virtues of FOTRE based on its relationship to Ridley Scott's Gladiator, a loose remake of the 1964 film in so far as both treat the matter of Commodus' accession after the death of Marcus Aurelius. As an ardent admirer of Scott's film, I am unconvinced by many of Winkler's criticisms (e.g., "Gladiator deals with Roman history mainly as blood sport,"); yet a defensive posture may be unavoidable when evaluating FOTRE, often considered the box office failure that sounded the death knell for the genre. Winkler's appreciation proceeds on firmer footing when he discusses FOTRE's strengths on their own terms, especially the film's sensitive treatment of Marcus Aurelius. Winkler rightly emphasizes how the ending of the film diverges from most formulaic narratives of imperial Rome that end in the overthrow of a tyrant: FOTRE's conclusion implies that tyranny and corruption are not inherent in individuals alone, but can be attributed to society as a whole. By concluding with a meditation on the film's role in an ongoing dialogue about the lessons to be learned from ancient Rome and applied to America as an "unparalleled superpower," Winkler introduces questions about the equation between Rome and America in FOTRE that will be further developed by other contributors.
Allen Ward (chapter two) makes a strong case for the film's serious interest in Roman history, and demonstrates how Mann (under the guidance of historian/consultant Will Durant, and ultimately Edward Gibbon) visually demonstrates the extent and diversity, as well as the failures, of the Roman empire. The chapter provides a thoughtful analysis of how the film's screenwriters adapted ancient sources. While noting a few significant inaccuracies (Ward is most critical of the film's virtual silence about Christianity), the author explains the majority of FOTRE's deviations from the historical record as a desire to address contemporary issues and create fictions that allow more significant truths about Roman decline to be conveyed in a film of viewable length.
Diskin Clay's contribution (chapter three) examines Marcus Aurelius' philosophical interests and how those interests were perceived by others according to a range of ancient sources. Clay also cites frequently from the Meditations, especially those passages that reflect on Marcus Aurelius' notion of his role as princeps. Clay avoids direct discussion of the film, aside from the occasional comment on the difficultly of dramatizing on screen Marcus Aurelius' philosophical reflections. Consequently, the chapter does not directly enhance our appreciation of the film, though it does provide useful comparanda for those interested in Marcus Aurelius' representation as a quasi- "philosopher-king" in the western tradition.
In a similar manner, Eleonora Cavallini (chapter four) is not primarily concerned with addressing the cinematic achievement of FOTRE, other than to use the film as a starting point for discussion about misrepresentations of Commodus. While conceding that the Commodus of Mann's film is faithful to the Commodus of historical tradition, she exposes the literary stereotypes that may have shaped such a tradition. As her discussion turns from the scathing portrait drawn in the Scriptores Historiae Augustae to more ambivalent or even positive evaluations of Commodus, we are attuned to the possibility of a ruler whose governance (especially his conservative border policy1) reflected a keen interest in preserving the empire. While scholars and moviegoers alike may find it hard to shake Commodus' scintillating perversity, as well as its implications for the master narrative that has shaped our ideas about the fall of Rome, Cavallini makes readers more sensitive to the fictions created by Hollywood and antiquity alike. Jan Willem Drijvers (chapter five) focuses on the antithesis between West and East as one of many opposites that structure the toga film. Drijvers identifies a "simplistic celluloid mythology" that "emphasizes the dichotomy between East and West and the good Westerner's superiority over the bad Easterner." While Drijvers largely confines his discussion to FOTRE, and especially the portrait of the Armenian prince Sohamus (=Sohaemus of historical tradition), he usefully acknowledges other films in which this dichotomy operates (The Robe, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, 300). Constructions of the East reveal more about the culture that generates them than about the orient itself, and the author concludes with an intriguing, if not fully explored, demonstration of the extent to which Commodus and Rome are orientalized at the end of the film.
Chapters six and seven include documentation of the early 1960s ideologies that went into production of the film, a brief essay written by Anthony Mann (first published in 1964), followed by excerpts from the original American souvenir program. Mann defines the intent of the film as an effort to relate the Roman story rather than the Christian story more common to Hollywood toga films. The essay also reveals something of Mann's attitude towards the "spectacle film" and its relationship to historical accuracy: details can be tampered with, but "you cannot change the actual event." The souvenir program excerpts (chapter seven) include a prologue by Durant and a lively excursus on the development and history of the Roman forum, as well as a detailed account of how Veniero Colasanti and John Moore created a life-sized replica of the forum outside the Bronston studios in Madrid.
Winkler's second contribution to the collection (chapter eight) explores the influential role played by Gibbon's history in marking Commodus' reign as the beginning of Roman decline, an influence evident in various narratives of Roman history, but especially in FOTRE. To demonstrate the impact of Gibbon's work on the film, Winkler cites comments from Mann's essay, as well as segments of various speeches in the film. Winkler argues that Gibbon and Mann share a fundamentally similar approach to the past: like Gibbon, Mann wanted his audience to see things from a Roman perspective, and like Gibbon, Mann stressed the relevance of the Roman empire to today's empires. The affinity between the film and Gibbon's history is due in part to the overtly literary qualities of The History of the Decline and Fall, and in particular, Gibbon's penchant for developing visual imagery, which Winkler describes as "innately cinematic".2
Winkler's focus on the literary qualities of Gibbon's work provides a background for the scholar's final contribution (chapter nine), on the complex relationship between history and historical fiction/cinema. Winkler, expanding the limits of what many consider historical fiction by including all historical narratives (from ancient epic to Shakespeare's Hamlet), offers a defense of the genre grounded within ancient debates about visual and verbal representations. The author defends the proposition that all texts (whether verbal or visual) relate to other texts, rather than to historical events. This line of thinking may appear obvious to readers accustomed to recognize an unbridgeable gap between discursive representations of an event and the event itself--yet the defense is warranted in light of the scorn often heaped on the historical novel or film. The second part of this chapter treats Mann's film as a demonstration of the "feeling of history," a phrase borrowed from the director and used by Winkler to convey the capacity of a creative artist to make an audience emotionally involved with historical processes. Among the intriguing correspondence between Mann and Durant included in the chapter, there is brief mention of the necessary "commercial viability" that impacts many cinematic projects, though the author does not probe how such necessity has the power to distort a "feeling of history." Still, this chapter was one of the most substantial in the volume, providing an apologia of the historical film as a viable approach to understanding the ancient world.
In chapter ten, Ward Briggs returns to the matter of the 1960s political climate addressed in the film, with particular focus on how different forms of government are reflected and refracted in FOTRE. Briggs includes an in-depth history of Mann's career, which departs from the trend of mid-century filmmakers who used Rome as an analogue for contemporary forms of totalitarianism. In outlining the more positive evaluation of Rome evident from the first part of the film, Briggs cites thematic overlap between John Kennedy's acceptance speech and that of Marcus Aurelius to the assembled representatives of the Roman provinces. Optimism about Roman potential is countered in the film's second half by a distinct pessimism, more characteristic of Mann's oeuvre, regarding the capacity of any hero to correct the processes of decline.
The volume's final chapter (eleven), contributed by Peter Rose, attempts to recapture the political consciousness (or "political unconscious") of American citizens in the period just prior to the film's production. Rose views the anxieties of empire as a primary inspiration for FOTRE, and (like Briggs, et al.) recognizes the film's unique treatment of Rome as representative of America, rather than of those totalitarian governments commonly depicted as expansive and threatening in the prevalent mythology of US anti-imperialism. To locate the sources of anxiety that inspired the politics of Mann's film, Rose offers a thorough portrait of US foreign relations of the late 50s and early 60s, especially US /Cuban relations.
Rose's contribution to some extent addresses two aspects of the film that are frequently overlooked in the volume. In speculating on the film's reception, Rose suggests that FOTRE's original audiences were offered a warning that they must believe in the American empire if it is to survive, but were simultaneously exhorted to change the character of their empire away from xenophobia toward a more peaceful, multicultural society. This message, perhaps overly conflicted or overly nuanced, may have had something to do with the film's failure. Amidst all its well-articulated admiration for FOTRE, the volume could do more to explain why the film has become emblematic of the fall of the toga film. In his conclusion, Rose also mentions the film's regressive sexual politics: this might have been further explored, particularly since there is generally so much interest in viewing FOTRE in the light of Gladiator. For all its indebtedness to Mann's film, Gladiator offers a portrait of Lucilla (Connie Nielson) that conspicuously challenges the portrait of Lucilla (Sophia Loren) as a "woman defined by her subservience to two males." Considering the volume's larger achievement of providing a comprehensive treatment of an underappreciated film from a variety of critical perspectives, such omissions are not so much failings as starting points for further research.
The collection concludes with excerpts from Gibbon on the period covered by the film, along with relevant selections from Dio Cassius, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, and Herodian.
1. On this aspect of Commodus' reign, see Arthur M. Eckstein, "Commodus and the Limits of the Roman Empire," in Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Gladiator: Film and History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 53-72.
2. In this characterization of Gibbon's work, Winkler follows W.B. Carnochan, Gibbon's Solitude: The Inward World of the Historian (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 59, 62.