Kampf um Rom (1969)

There are few things that Germans love more than the stoic acceptance of doom, so Kampf um Rom - also known as The Last Roman in English - is suitably German both in its depiction of the last kings of the Ostrogoths facing the destruction of their power and also as an overblown epic which struggled through production in the last great years of the genre's heyday.

Based on Felix Dahn's thousand-page blockbuster, a classic of boys literature in the late 19th century and a testimony to their youthful commitment, it is one of the few major films to feature Byzantium. It tells the tale of the collapse of Ostogothic power in Italy after the death of Theoderic the Great, the fractious Byzantine attempts to bring it back under their control, and the fictional story of a Roman aristocratic who wants to take his city back and hold it against all sides.

After the success of the West German film Die Nibelungen, a glorious two-part technicolour retelling of the tragedy of the hero Siegfried and his wife Kriemhild's cold revenge on his killers, it was decided to make another such film. It would also be in two parts, in colour, and based on German history.

But the adaptation proved difficult: the historical background was obscure, there was a complex series of royal successions to explain, and the resulting compression was criticised by some production staffers for making the characters unlikeable and the dialogue insufficiently mature. Against that, they marshalled a series of lovely Romanian locations and an international cast that included Orson Welles (persona non grata in Hollywood by this point) and Honor Blackman (who with a typically Teutonic approach to the flesh appears quite sexlessly in the nude).

 

The result is a film of frustrated aims. It assembles an impressive cast and deploys a great deal of money to convey its epic ambitions but is unable to ever achieve them. Admittedly it might not be helped by the low quality of the prints available but with its dubbed voices, pedestrian camerawork and stiff acting it all too often feels like a low-budget Italian peplum film.

Far too much of the fascinating material of the era is left off-screen: there is barely a hint that these Goths were Arian Christians, nor is the essentially Roman nature of Byzantium at the time - their military titles were still in Latin - drawn out. Instead we have an odd three-way conflict between the Goths in their too clean barbaric splendour, the Byzantines dressed in a sinister Oriental fashion that has half of Belisarius's army garbed like Arabs, and the Romans of the city who defy historical accuracy in order to dress up like Romans of the 1st century AD. 

This over-plump turkey burst onto screens which had already tired of the genre, drowned in a sea of low grade Italian "peplum" B-films. The knockabout comic-book plot with its betrayals and counter-betrayals carries the film briskly along without ever managing to make any of the characters interesting. The love story between a Roman ingenue and her Gothic romancer is painfully simple, although its tragic end has the stark power of German myth. Fans of the camp will enjoy the rivalry between the Gothic queens - in reality they were not sisters - which culminates in the most imaginative scene, when Honor Blackman is trapped nude in a steam bath to be killed by the heat and water.

The battles are the most enjoyable element, with over 1,000 Romanian extras and oxen-pulled siege towers involved in a set-piece attack on the walls of Rome. Military historians will find much to criticise, especially the costumes, but the scale is impressive and the bloody butcher's bill comes close to the doomed heroism of Dahn's book.

For a Byzantine it is the scenes in the court of Constantinople that are of most interest. Byzantium once against assumes its strange role in the Western imagination: a place caught between East and West, both alien and familiar. Rather than empathising with the alien, the film emphasises the exotic. The Armenian eunuch Narses in transformed into a dwarfish schemer, the empress Theodora becomes a plotter who surrounds herself with handmaidens whose hair-dos are clearly more inspired by Cleopatra (1963) than anything historical, and the court is populated with a Gérômian mix of golden opulence and black slaves. Somewhat inevitably, there is a veiled dance by scantily clad ladies. Only the general Belisarius comes out of it looking normal.

It follows a familiar pattern in which the Byzantium-shaped hole in Western history is filled by assuring the audience of their perversion, which serves to justify why they are left out of the great narrative.

It feels hard to be so tough on the film when it was German director Robert Siodmak's last film. He had to struggle against a mountain of issues which forced him to oversee every stage of the production and to rewrite scenes the night before they were filmed. Nor is everything bad. Laurence Harvey's dying scene brings some pathos to the screen, Orson Welles dominates the court with his gouty glower, and the final march of the Goths to Thule steps out of history and into the shrouded mists of myth in a way that makes you wish more of the film was like that. For a Byzantine there isn't much but as no other film has yet been produced about the Gothic Wars it will have to serve for now as an acquired curiosity.