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AFTER CID, CAESAR
El Cid, which cost just over $6 million to make, took in a heroic $26,620,000 at the box office, encouraging Madrid-based producer Samuel Bronston to bankroll more epics. Nicholas Ray directed King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking (about the Boxer Rebellion), and Mann signed on for The Fall of the Roman Empire, released in 1964. By then, costs were mounting, revenues plummeting. Heston's rejection of the lead male role deprived the movie of star quality, and the mass audience a topic with defeat etched in its title. Empire, with a $19 million budget, earned less than $5 million. The Roman Empire took some three centuries to fall; Bronston's crumbled in four years.
Empire is no El Cid. It relies on stentorian speeches more than the intimate, charged conversations that brought El Cid alive, and its actors often seem posed, like Coliseum statuary. Like Ben-Hur, it has a chariot race (staged, as the original was, by Yakima Canutt), which is thrilling, all right, but irrelevant to the story. Heston’s no-thanks was a big loss to the production; his replacement, Stephen Boyd (Heston’s antagonist in Ben-Hur), can't do a lot with the role of Livius, the warrior who should have been Emperor. But there's an unsolvable dilemma in an epic hero who is doomed to lose control of his dream, rather than being able to seize it. In that sense, he's one of Mann’s film-noir protagonists, only in battle garb.
Still, the movie, written by Yordan, Barzman and Basilio Franchina, is a magnificent ruin, and yet another investigation of that favorite Mann strategy: the debate between urgent humanism and mad militarism. In Men in War the two sides played to an exhausted truce. In El Cid might and right triumphed together. In Empire, the tempered voice belongs to the aging Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness). "Rome has existed for a thousand years," he tells an aide. "It is time we found peaceful ways to live with those you call barbarians." But Marcus Aurelius is succeeded by the daft, sadistic Commodus, who translates his brutal decadence into imperial policy. In doing so, he stokes more virulent rebellion in the provinces and ignites a Roman holocaust a flame that will hasten the Dark Ages.
Empire also pursues the Cid argument on the use of religion to advance military goals. Each side, again, thinks it has God (Wotan) or the gods on its side. Forcing Timonides to have fire pressed against his arm, a barbarian chief says, "If your gods are stronger than our gods, they will protect you." Commodus is even more inspired, more deranged: "The gods are with me. They will always be with me. Go to the East and crush this rebellion!" (In fact, the historical Commodus has a religiously liberal slant: he was the first Emperor to recognize the burgeoning Christian sect. But that doesn't fit the screenwriters’ thesis, so they ignore it.)
From these elevated, provocative sentiments and from the falling revenue of his last epic Mann retreated into more modest terrain. The Heroes of Telemark was a Kirk Douglas-starring, Norwegian-set war movie (on skis!), with little of the power or ambiguity of Men In War or the epic films. He followed this with the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic but never completed it. His last decade had included several aborted projects: he had walked off Cimarron, been fired (by Douglas) from Spartacus. The reason he didn't complete A Dandy in Aspic was sadder. He died while making it.
Mann was just 60 then, and barely known outside Hollywood. No Oscar nominations, little critical attention in the his homeland (though Jean-Luc Godard and the Cahiers du Cinema crowd were his champions across the water). Even today, if you type "Anthony Mann" into the Internet Movie Database search engine, the first name that comes up is Baz Luhrmann's. That’s a pity, for a body of work in film noir, the western and the epic that transcends almost anyone else's contribution to those genres.
But don't take my word for it. Go to your video store, walk up to the clerk and say, with the noble defiance of a Jimmy Stewart or Charlton Heston, "Mann Anthony."