Sunday, September 27, 2015

'The Last Days of Pompeii' (1935) - movie review

The Last Days of Pompeii (1935 film)

The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) is an RKO Radio Pictures film starring Preston Foster and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, creators of the original King Kong. Although inspired by the novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the film has virtually nothing to do with the book.

This film made good use of artificially generated backgrounds, not entirely unlike computer generated graphics used in films today. The opening scene in Pompeii, with this imagery and music which sounded a bit like the fight song of the University of Southern California, was adequately believable. Black and white films, even through the 50s and even 60s, leave just enough shadow that it somehow allows for a little bit to the imagination.

Preston Foster plays the role of Marcus, a poor honest blacksmith who--through a series of events--ends up as a first rate voluntary gladiator. His character is ambiguous throughout the film. He starts out as a noble-minded and hard-working craftsman; but though some tragic events and great loss, takes on the cold attitude that "money is what really counts." Still, he never quite sells out completely, and the good man underneath remains somewhat dormant. He shows a good heart in adopting the son, named Flavius, of a man he has slain in the arena.

After a profitable period as a gladiator, Marcus becomes a slave trader for a short time, then a seaman and adventurer... something like a soldier of fortune. There are a lot of small but important and prophetic items during a time that he travels with Flavius to the Roman colony of Judea that sets the stage for the rest of the film, but are too numerous to mention in this short review. Now as a man of some fame, he meets the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontious Pilate, and they become close friends after Marcus leads what seems to be an off-the-record raid on a band of Pilate's enemies in the countryside. Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a wise man of some conscience, who seems to feel some guilt for having condemned a particular man to crucifixion. That man, although never named in the movie, was Jesus. They split the loot and Marcus returns to Pompeii.


Although the movie was obscure about it, Marcus and Flavius visited an encampment where Jesus was speaking and was active. At at later point, mentioned only later in the film in reference, they observed
Jesus and others being crucified. Both seemed strongly affected by their encounter with Jesus. Marcus denied the experience outwardly, while the young Flavius never forgot it. Basically this fictional film, through the story of the characters, subtly ties together the destruction of Pompeii with the beginnings of Christianity. When the now wealthy and popular Marcus returns to Pompeii, he becomes the important "head of the arena"; I suppose something equivalent to maybe a former football star becoming a director of football operations. During this mid-point in the film, Mt. Vesuvius is depicted ominously smoldering in the background, with one character making reference to it briefly.

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Spoiler alert beyond this point!

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Pompeii ruins with Mt. Vesuvius in the background
After a major slave revolt and escape, the new prefect for the region was compelled to hunt them down. The penalty for this crime was death. Flavius, with this "Christian ideas," was secretly helping to hide these slaves and making arrangements to lead them to a safe island. When they were all captured, Marcus was pleased and began organizing some arena "games" for them as part of their consequence. After being told just before the games that his son was captured along with them, he naturally goes bananas and tries but fails to free him before the prefect discovers what has happened. Finally, Flavius and the others are put into the arena to fight while Marcus dramatically and unsuccessfully scrambles to do something.

During the chaos, Mt. Vesuvius erupts and there's a very powerful earthquake. Pompeii starts to crumble as lava pours down towards the city. Actually in the real event, it was a type of super-hot and toxic smoke vapor that did in Pompeii and its inhabitants; but perhaps this wasn't known in 1935. After initially breaking down emotionally, Marcus quickly recovers--like the Grinch who stole Christmas--and saves a jailer (and the jailer's young son) who earlier would not accept a bribe to release his own son. He then starts loading children onto boats in the harbor ahead of himself. Eventually he saves his son and finally explicitly risks his life standing up to the prefect and his soldiers who wanted to take a boat for themselves away from some children. Marcus is badly wounded by a spear, but his effort allows that last boat to sail to safety.

As this was happening, the city was finally crushed. The final scene shows Marcus dying amid the ruins as he sees the spirit of Jesus come before him... presumably to reward him for his selfless redeeming efforts. Quite an emotional ending for this old film. This film, as well as numerous other works, was inspired by the 1834 novel 'The Last Days of Pomeii', written by the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

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