The summer after I graduated high school, I took a trip to Italy.
I absolutely loved it. There’s nothing more wonderful than being 18 and irresponsible in one of the most beautiful and romantic countries in Europe. I also loved it because everywhere I looked in Italy, I saw the remains of history. When I was in Rome, I visited the Colosseum. When I was in Southern Italy, I visited Comune di Melissa, the village where some of my ancestors once lived. When I visited Florence, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all that I nearly fainted.
And then there was Pompeii. I spent a day visiting the ruins of Pompeii and it was an amazing experience. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD may have been horrific for the Romans but it’s also gave history nerds like me a chance to step right into the past. Beyond just the thrill of seeing how the world once was, I have two main memories of Pompeii:
First, there was the visit to Pompeii’s brothel. An Australian tourist lay down on one of the stone slabs so that his family could take pictures of him.
Secondly, there was the fact that I wore a really pretty red dress for my visit but I failed to take into account that 1) the area around Pompeii is very hilly and 2) it was a very windy day. So, I can say that I’ve not only visited but I’ve flashed Pompeii as well.
The destruction of Pompeii has inspired several books and more than a few films, as well. One of the earliest was the 1935 film, The Last Days of Pompeii.
The Last Days of Pompeii opens with Marcus (Preston Foster), an extremely bitter blacksmith who lives in the bustling city of Pompeii. Marcus is bitter because he’s not rich and his family has been just been run down by some jackass in a chariot. Marcus does find brief fame as a gladiator but he’s stricken with guilt after he kills a man and then discovers that he’s made an orphan out of the man’s son. Marcus adopts young Flavius, just to then discover that the boy is seriously ill. A fortune teller informs Marcus that Flavius will be healed by “the greatest man in Judea.” Marcus naturally assumes that this is a reference to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone). However, upon traveling to Judea, Marcus meets a different great man and then watches as his adopted son is healed.
Jump forward about two decades. Marcus is now a rich man and is in charge of Pompeii’s gladiatorial games. Flavius (now played by John Wood) has grown up to be an idealistic young man who barely remembers the day that he was healed. What Marcus doesn’t know is that Flavius has been helping slaves escape from Pompeii. When Flavius is arrested, it appears that Marcus is doomed to watch his own son be killed in the arena.
But wait a minute — what’s that coming down the mountain? It’s kinda smoky and red and it looks like it might be really hot and …. oh damn.
Now, there’s two problems here. First off, from a historical point of view, the film’s timeline doesn’t work out. Jesus was crucified in 33 AD. Pompeii was destroyed 46 yeas later, in 79 AD. Therefore, there’s no way that Flavius should only be in his early 20s. Secondly, just the fact that the film takes place in Pompeii pretty much gives away the ending before the story even begins. Since you know that the volcano is eventually going to kill everyone, it’s hard to get too caught up in any of the drama. You just find yourself sitting there and going, “When isssssssssss the volcano going to eeeeeeeeeeeeerupt!?”
On the plus side, Preston Foster is one of the more underrated of the Golden Age stars and he does a pretty good job here. Plus, you have to love any film that features Basil Rathbone as a semi-decadent Roman. Rathbone plays Pilate as both a bored libertine and a guilt-stricken convert and, both times, he’s impressive.
Despite being directed by the team behind the original King Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii is a bit slow but, if you’re specifically a fan of old sword-and-sandal epics, it’s entertaining enough. See it for Foster, Rathbone, and the ghosts of old Pompeii.