|Ancient Babylon, from Intolerance.|
What saves the effort is the big ideas wrestled with on the screen. The story, which should be familiar to all, involves a potent mixture of war, intrigue, the attempt by a great man to secure his legacy and his fear of dying and having his life stand for nothing (a timeless concern that haunts us all). Aurelius is only on screen the first hour, but it is his conflict that drives the action here and his alone. The rest of the players are simply reacting to conundrums the great philosopher plays out in his head, while an empire and unknowing mass of people swirl in the whirlwind of unrealized thought and deed that he leaves behind (great men are often agents of chaos, whether they intend it or not).
For Boyd it is a frightening moment, one in which he truly becomes a son of Aurelius, for like the departed emperor, his life's work is made meaningless by the whims of a populist mob who has lost all sense of self. For the audience living in uncertain times, both then and now, it is strikes a chord of warning. When a society forgets its pride, when it ceases to defend itself and work toward greater ends, then it truly loses its way and its worth. The penultimate scene, wherein the throne of the empire is auctioned off to the highest bidder, shows how much and how little the title has become, thanks to collective social abrogation Commodus and his reign of terror gave voice to.