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Now on DVD: “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (Mann, USA, 1964)

After the Second World War, as Hollywood started creeping out of the studios it retreated into after the introduction of sound, location shooting—the filming of a movie actually out in the open, off a studio lot—flourished. More often than not location shooting was just another money making gimmick—especially after television became a threat to the studios—which the industry used along with more widespread use of color and the introduction of widescreen formats to combat the smaller pleasures of that small screen. But many films benefited greatly from that move outdoors, and perhaps no 1950s American filmmaker benefited more than Anthony Mann, who was allowed to leave the studio confines and studio-like confines of urban cityscapes of his 1940s work in noir for a decade-long series of truly excellent westerns, all shot in the great outdoors.
Before changes in film stock and lenses, as well as technique naturalized location shooting in the late 1960s and into the 1970s to such a degree that unless a movie is filmed somewhere particularly exotic many movie-goers rarely note the difference between scenes shot on a stage and shot on a real exterior, Anthony Mann was able to produce one of the last great majestic works of Hollywood location shooting: 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire.
One of the most visually tight three hour epics ever produced, Mann kept his Spanish locations constrained to a tense grandeur. Like the interior production design (see above image) by John Moore and Veniero Colasanti (who worked on Mann's equally crafted El Cid), there is always a thickness, a density to the surroundings, Mann moving from the stifling low-budget solutions of baroque noirs to the richly hued splendor but no less violent or fatalistic world of big budget pageantry.
For the below images of the barbarian ambush of Roman troops in the film's first half, observe the dappled shadows produced by the forest canopy, the sunlight's glare behind the rising dust and mist gathering around the troop's riverside march, the fluid density between the trucks and the armored soldiers and furry barbarians—and realize these are real people in real spaces; see the effect of massive studio resources dragged half-way around the world for the reproduction of such effects in nature, and wistfully wish someone would re-discover such cinematic majesty for a new generation of film-goers.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is available on R1 DVD from The Weinstein Company.

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