This made-in-Spain production is a giant-size, three-hour, sweepingly pictorial entertainment. It probably tells all that most film fans will want to know about the glory, grandeur and greed of Rome.
The production reeks of expense – harness and hay for all those horses, arroz con pollo for all those Spanish extras, annuities for all those stars. Attention will focus upon the marblesque replica of downtown Rome in pagan days with temples, squares, forums, statuary, mosaic floors, columned chambers, luxury suites and a plunge for Caesar. If these sets cost a fortune they pay off in stunning camera angles.
The story gets under way speedily. Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) has been compaigning for years in the bleak northern frontiers of Rome. He is dying and knows it, intends to disinherit his undependable son and neglects to do so. Stephen Boyd, a true-blue Tribune, will not claim the succession but instead supports the son, his old wrestling club chum Commodus. The entire subsequent plot swings on the failure of intention of the noble and just emperor to assure the continued peace and prosperity of Rome. In all of which the daughter, played attractively by Sophia Loren, is a desperately unhappy witness and victim.
There is much dialog about the factors which favor, and which oppose, good relations among peoples. The arrogance and cynicism in the Senate is part and parcel of the decline, as much as the vain and cruel Commodus, a man quick with the torch to homes, merciless in the ordering of wholesale crucifixions.
This anti-intellectual sadist is played with smiling malice by Christopher Plummer. He, Guinness and James Mason as a cultivated and honorable Roman minister to Marcus Aurelius pretty much wrap up the acting honors.
1964: Nomination: Best Original Music Score