As a boy, I was a bit of an Ancient Rome junkie. I collected Roman Imperial coins, I read every book I could find on the Roman Empire, and, of course, I relished those period films. Even as an adult, I loved "I, Claudius" and Russell Crowe's performance in "Gladiator." I'm also a Peter O'Toole fan, so the stage was certainly set for me to settle in on a cold winter's night and curl up with this made-for-Italian-television three-hour film. And I did enjoy "Augustus"—despite one egregiously horrible scene, some soap-opera moments, and occasional wincing over apparent anachronisms.
You could call "Augustus" a more peripatetic and orgy-less "I, Claudius," because there are plenty of scenes that will otherwise remind viewers of that acclaimed 1960 BBC mini-series. The cameras frequently pull in for tight shots on the faces of Augustus (O'Toole) and his wife Livia (Charlotte Rampling), or on Marc Antony (Massimo Ghini) and Cleopatra (Anna Valle). The scene construction also resembles a stage play or a screenplay shot on a small soundstage, with characters talking at length to each other in close quarters. But unlike "I, Claudius," which was shot indoors—even implied faraway battle locations were filmed inside tents—this 2003 entry also offers scenery, scope, and large-scale battles. "Augustus" was filmed on location in Tunisia, and the production values are quite good.
"Did I play my part well in this comedy called life?" Augustus asks those who gather around his deathbed at the film's beginning. "Applause please." Then it's a flashback to the recent past, with the beloved Augustus milling among his people in the streets of Rome and surviving yet another assassination attempt. But perhaps because we haven't seen it before in films, the shot of Augustus walking through the crowded streets while the plebians applaud seems more appropriate to Martin Sheen walking onto the set of "The West Wing." Yes, Augustus was instrumental in encouraging public readings as performances, and the historian Suetonius talks about occasions when audiences were so rude that they talked, slept, or did nothing with their hands. But it was still a bit jarring—same with a line that Marc Antony says to Augustus: "You have no balls." Whoa! And yet, Rai Radiotelevisione Italiana enlisted seven professors as historical advisors, so perhaps these aren't anachronisms after all. Still, they sure felt head-snappingly contemporary.
The other major head-snapper was a battle scene where Augustus and Mark Anthony are about to face off with their armies when one soldier staring straight ahead at the opposing phalanx exclaims, "It's my brother," then another says "That's my friend, Marcus," and another says, "That's my wife's brother," and so-on-and-so-forth, until you expect them all to belt out a stirring rendition of "He's My Friend," a song from "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." It's contemporary, it's comic, and it beats you over the head with a point that a five year old could have gotten. Another battle scene features the corniest deaths by arrows many of you will have witnessed. Yet, those goofy moments aside, the battles, the scenes of political intrigue, and the "talky" scenes that lend some depth to the characters make for a collectively enjoyable viewing experience.
The action begins with Julius Caesar calling for Octavius (Augustus) to join him in Spain, and we see the pair fighting side by side and understand the secret behind Caesar's power: love the legions and work side by side with them and they will die for you. Later, Octavius takes on the name that his great-uncle bestowed upon him: Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, though he would become known as Caesar Augustus or, after his deification, the Divine Augustus. As the first master of public relations, Augustus also discovers that to succeed he must get the people to love him. Even as he's destined to be part of a second triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus, we watch him form part of a trio of close friends: Octavius, the leader; Agrippa (Ken Duken), the general; and Maecenas (Russell Barr, who plays the part in a flamboyantly flaming way), the politician. The film is narrated in an interesting way, told in flashbacks within a flashback as the dying Augustus narrates part of the story and an old Augustus shares part of his life with his daughter, Julia (Vittoria Belvedere). There's intrigue everywhere and always because the throne is at stake, and the film stays pretty close to the basic historical facts about Augustus' life, leaving out an earlier marriage and deviating slightly in other areas as well. But that's not bad. It allows the filmmakers to focus on the events that led to Augustus' swift rise to power, and his inclination toward peace when all around him preferred war.
O'Toole is the one who really carries the film, an old veteran delivering on a part that, in retrospect, seems as if it couldn't have been played by another. The supporting cast isn't as strong, but they still deliver believable performances. Part of the credit has to go to Eric Lerner, who contributes an intelligent script that only infrequently crosses the line into melodrama, and to Young, who manages to move the film forward so that 178 minutes doesn't feel like a punishment. This would have merited a 7, if it weren't for that really awful battle scene that's an insult to even a rock's intelligence.
Those of you wanting to read more about Augustus, who ruled Rome from 27 b.c. to 14 a.d., might consider the following as a starting point:
Buchan, John. Augustus. Boston: Houghton, 1937. Many consider this to be the modern definitive biography of Caesar Augustus.
Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1940. A highly readable and fascinating account of what it would have been like to live in Rome, including daily routines and customs, based on historical research.
Charlesworth, M.P. The Roman Empire. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968. Another good primer about life in Ancient Rome, this one focusing on broader areas of culture.
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves. London: Penguin Classics, 1957. The "horse's mouth" bio. Suetonius was born around 69 a.d. and based his lives of the Caesars on eyewitness accounts.
Walworth, Nancy Z. Augustus Caesar. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This one is suggested for younger readers.
The film is shot in color, 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a relatively fine-grain film stock given that this was made for television. Some scenes—inside the steamy baths or on the dusty battlefield, for example—appear slightly grainy, but for the most part the picture is very good and the colors (the reds, especially) vibrant when the muted earth tones of Tunisia aren't predominant.
What's surprising is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which has plenty of ambient sounds channeled through the rear speakers throughout the film. The sound is crisp and booming, as befits those moments of pageantry when the horns blare and legionnaires march or engage in battle.
Aside from the lapses in writing and directorial judgment that push "Augustus" in the direction of a bad soap opera, and despite some action scenes where the deaths seem as routinely dramatic as the cavalrymen shot by arrows in all those 1950s westerns, this made-for-TV movie is a respectable addition to a growing roster of ancient world spectacles—and no, we're not counting that thinly disguised porno flick, "Caligula."
"Augustus" is as good as or better than "The Robe" (1953) and its sequel, "Demetrius and the Gladiators" (1954), and the writing and performances are miles of aqueducts better than "The Last Days of Pompeii" (1960). As an epic celebrating a single character's life, it's on a par with "Cleopatra" (1963), but the storyline and action isn't as compelling as "Ben-Hur" (1959) or "Spartacus" (1960), and the cinematography isn't anywhere near as stylish as what Ridley Scott gave us in "Gladiator" (2000). Still, "Augustus" does a nice job of blending a relatively historically accurate narrative with some action and character development. In fact, those who think "I, Claudius" too talky and slow-moving might actually prefer "Augustus." O'Toole's performance is every bit as strong as Derek Jacobi's, and there's much more in the way of public scenes and battles to offset quieter moments—no orgies, mind you, but then again, Roman debauchery wasn't built in a day.