The Fall of the Roman Empire appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the flick held up well after 44 years, it showed a few minor issues that took it down to “B” level.
Sharpness suffered from mild variations. In a reverse of the usual pattern, wide shots usually looked the best, as the film’s many broad images rarely displayed any softness. However, close-ups could be a little iffy at times, as some of those seemed a bit tentative. Overall, though, the flick demonstrated nice clarity and definition. I noticed no issues with moiré effects or shimmering, and edge enhancement was absent. Source flaws stayed modest as well. I witnessed a few small blotches and specks, but the vast majority of the film appeared clean.
Colors varied and could be a little disappointing. I thought the hues tended to appear a bit pale during some parts of the film. They displayed better vivacity when the flick got to Rome in the second half, and they never seemed weak, but I felt they could be a little more restrained than they should be. Blacks seemed deep and dense, while shadows were clear and smooth. All of this made for a good but not great transfer.
In addition, I thought the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Fall seemed quite good, especially for a 44-year-old movie. Granted, the soundfield stayed moderately restricted, but it opened up matters in a satisfying manner. In the front, the action spread well across the channels and meshed together smoothly. The various elements demonstrated accurate placement and fit together well. Music also boasted strong stereo imaging.
As for the surrounds, they played a small role in the proceedings. They usually bolstered some of the material in the front in a modest manner, though they occasionally showed decent liveliness. For example, a battle scene boasted the clanging of swords from the rear speakers, and thunder also roared in the rear at times. None of this meant a whole lot, but it added some scope to the package.
Given the age of the material, audio quality seemed positive. Speech was a little reedy at times, but the lines were always intelligible and usually appeared pretty natural. Music could’ve packed a little more punch, but the score showed acceptable range and clarity. Effects were clean and accurate enough to make them good representations of the information. This wasn’t a dazzling soundtrack, but it did well for itself, especially when I considered its vintage.
For this “Limited Collector’s Edition” of Fall, we get a bunch of extras. Across DVDs One and Two, we find an audio commentary with producer’s son Bill Bronston and historian/biographer Mel Martin. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific chat. They tell us about cut scenes, producer Samuel Bronston, shooting in Spain, story, interpretation and political context, set design and related production elements, cast and crew, stunts and fight scenes, and a few other issues.
If you listened to the commentary for El Cid, you’ll know what to expect here, especially from Bronston. He mostly focuses on the scope and realism of the project; he constantly tells us how everything was real and staged at a huge scale. He seems awfully promotional and he doesn’t add a lot to our knowledge of the flick.
At least Martin helps take up some of the slack. He also gets onto the “it’s really real!” bandwagon, but he makes sure we actually learn something about the production and its participants. At no point does this commentary become great, but Martin helps give us some good details about the movie.
Four other components show up on DVD One. A 1964 promotional film called Rome In Madrid lasts 22 minutes, 18 seconds. Narrated by James Mason, it follows various aspects of the production and features shots from various sets and locations along the way. We don’t learn a ton about Fall here, mostly because “Rome” exists as a fluffy promotional piece. Nonetheless, I really like all the glimpses of the production; we get to check out wardrobe tests and plenty of cool behind the scenes elements in this enjoyable program.
Inside the Trailer Gallery, we locate the theatrical promo for Fall as well as ads for Control, Cinema Paradiso and El Cid. Filmographies arrive for producer Samuel Bronston, director Anthony Mann, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, writers Ben Barzman and Basilio Franchina, and actors Stephen Boyd, Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Chrisopher Plummer, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer, and John Ireland.
DVD One finishes with some Still Galleries. This area breaks down into two subdomains: “Behind the Scenes” (50 shots) and “Promotional Materials” (25). Both offer good images, though the “Promotional Materials” are the more fascinating of the two.
Over on DVD Two, we discover four featurettes. The Rise and Fall of an Epic Production: The Making of the Film goes for 29 minutes, 13 seconds and involves Martin, Bill Bronston, Samuel Bronston biographer Paul G. Nagle, screenwriter’s wife Norma Barzman, historian/Bronston biographer Neal M. Rosendorf, director’s wife Anna Mann and daughter Nina Mann, and production manager CO “Doc” Erickson. We learn about the genesis of the flick, casting and performances, the flick’s scope and production values, sets, locations, problems during the shoot, story, script and research, financial issues, edits, music, and the film’s reception.
As with the commentary, parts of “Making” concentrate on the bigness of the production. Those remain tedious, but we get enough quality information to make up for those flaws. I especially like the discussion about the financial concerns and their impact. This becomes a somewhat dry but fairly informative piece.
For the 10-minute and 59-second The Rise and Fall of an Empire: An Historical Look at the Real Roman Empire, we get notes from King’s College London Professor of Medieval History Dr. Peter Heather and UCLA Professor of Roman History Dr. Ronald Mellor. They give us a quick take on some issues related to the Roman Empire and its collapse. Obviously a short program can’t do much to cover such a vast subject, but “Look” throws out a good recap of a few prominent topics.
Hollywood Vs. History: An Historical Analysis runs nine minutes, 48 seconds and features Rosendorf, Heather, Mellor, Barzman, and Martin. They look at the parts of Fall that accurately represent the reality of the situations and characters as well as which elements take liberties. We get a nice look at fact versus fiction in this short piece.
A look at the composer comes via Dimitri Tiomkin: Scoring the Roman Empire. This 20-minute and three-second piece offers remarks from Martin, film music historian Jon Burlingame, composer’s widow Olivia Tiomkin-Douglas, and conductor John Mauceri. They tell us about composer Tiomkin’s participation in Fall and specifics of his music for the film. The participants cover these subjects in a concise and informative manner that allows “Scoring” to succeed.
A brief text note comes under the banner of About This Film. The screen informs us that the DVD represents the original Roadshow cut of Fall and is the “longest version of the film for which the complete set of film elements exists.” It also relates that a scene cut from the Roadshow was found but not in time to make it onto this DVD; the producers may include it in a later "Miriam Collection” package.
With that we head to the extras on DVD Three. It features Encyclopedia Brittanica: Educational Shorts About the Roman Empire. We find five of these: “New Introduction” (3:30), “Original Introduction” (2:33), “Life In Ancient Rome” (13:00), “Julius Caesar: The Rise of the Roman Empire” (21:41) and “Claudius: Boy of Ancient Rome” (16:09). In the “New Introduction”, we hear from Encyclopedia Brittanica Films producer/director Bill Deneen as he gives us some background about the genesis of these reels.
From there we check out the original 1960s educational shorts created on the sets used for Fall. These offer rudimentary details about the various Rome-related subjects listed in their titles. Though they boast the use of those wonderful Fall sets, the shorts tend to be awkwardly acted and somewhat dry in nature. Nonetheless, they educate fairly well, and they’re fun to see for their archival value.
Some paper materials flesh out this deluxe set. A 32-page booklet reproduces the movie’s original program. It provides some notes about the flick, a plot synopsis, credits, and plenty of photos to become a nice memento. Finally, six production stills finish off the classy package.
The Fall of the Roman Empire offers a fitfully successful film. It boasts stellar production values, a few excellent performances, and some intriguing story threads, but the pacing lags at times, and a weak turn by its lead actor harms it in a substantial manner. The movie usually works, but it’s less consistent than I’d like. The DVD gives us pretty positive picture and audio as well as a nice roster of extras. Nothing here excels, but there’s enough quality on display to merit a guarded recommendation.
Note that two versions of The Fall of the Roman Empire appear on the market. Fans can pursue either this “Limited Collector’s Edition” or a two-DVD release. DVDs One and Two of this set are identical in both, but only the LCE includes DVD Three’s “Encyclopedia Brittanica” clips along with the program and the photo cards. For that, the LCE retails for $39.92, while the two-DVD set on its own goes for $24.95. I like this LCE, but the standard two-DVD version is the better bargain. Though I think the third disc and the other bits are nice, I don’t know if they’re worth so much more money.