THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and thousands of its citizens were sealed by the volcanic explosion of Mt. Vesuvius over two days in the summer of 79 A.D. Seventeen and a half centuries later Russian painter Karl Bryullov’s canvas capture of the catastroboom inspired Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 bestseller. Numerous silent films, two sound features, operas, a musical and a TV miniseries have kept the event and title alive in the imagination, along with the ever-ticking gasbomb that is Vesuvius itself. Best known of the cinematic versions is RKO’s entertaining 1935 showpiece. Merian C. Cooper, producer of King Kong, brought back the mighty ape’s director (Ernest B. Schoedsack), screenwriter (Ruth Rose, Schoedsacks wife), and effects maestro Willis O’Brien to give Depression audiences harder times to contemplate than those they were then enduring. The Dust Bowl, gangsters and that loudmouth twerp from Germany could make way for gladiator combat, natural calamity and Christian salvation, safely enjoyed from the balcony for 25 cents a ticket. *
“Money is all that matters. Well, I can get money! It’s easy to get money! All you have to do… is kill.”
The movie opens with a Foreword announcing “Although…the characters and plot have no relation to those in the novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, acknowledgement is made of his description of Pompeii which has inspired the physical setting of this picture“. With that bow & scrape out of the way, we find ourselves following ‘Marcus’ (Preston Foster), a blacksmith-turned-gladiator. Successful in that dicey arena, he turns to slave raiding, then eventually encounters both Jesus and Pontius Pilate, and finally finds salvation through sacrifice when the nearby volcano lays waste to the city of Pompeii.
Not-bad dialogue contends with mostly stagy acting, especially in the supporting roles. Tall and burly Foster, 34, does well enough by the action-prone protagonist: he was in seven films that year, including The Informer and Annie Oakley. The thespic honors belong to Basil Rathbone as a remorseful Pontius Pilate. Also in seven productions that year, Basil was breaking big, adding style and panache to a quartet of classics in David Copperfield, A Tale Of Two Cities, Captain Blood and Anna Karenina. **
The big city-creaming showstopper at the end wowed audiences of the day: the mix of full-scale mayhem (crowds panicking under collapsing temples), miniatures and optical effects is still reasonably impressive, though it’s interesting to see (or “behold” as it were) how the special effects artists would rapidly improve their destructive capacity, with next years San Francisco and especially 1939’s The Rains Came. Nothing brings movie rascals to Jesus or crowds to cinemas like leveling a sin-ridden metropolis.
Costing reportedly $1,000,000, it didn’t earn enough to recoup costs until re-released 14 years later; Cogerson has the final gross as $2,300,000.
Cinematography was the province of by J. Roy Hunt, but ambitious 21-year-old Jack Cardiff helped out, sans credit. In the cast, fighting, making declarations and expiring under debris are Alan Hale, John Wood (like his performance, wooden), Louis Calhern, David Holt, Dorothy Wilson, Frank Conroy, Edward Van Sloan and Ward Bond, in his busiest year ever, showing up in no less than thirty pictures. 96 minutes.
* —“The gas was hot and smelly”—besides “The Last Days Of Pompeii” and having his wife tossed into a mental institution when she satirized him, Victorian wordspewer and Parliament member Bulwer-Lytton gave us “the great unwashed”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar” and “It was a dark and stormy night”.
** Roman Roughneck to Renaissance Man: Preston Foster (1900-1970) was an actor, singer, composer, author, guitarist, songwriter and a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard during WW2.
History’s most famous hand-washer—Pontius Pilate has been portrayed by Richard Boone in The Robe, Frank Thring in Ben-Hur, Arthur Kennedy in Barabbas, Hurd Hatfield in King Of Kings, Jean Marias in Pontius Pilate, Telly Savalas in The Greatest Story Ever Told, Barry Dennen in Jesus Christ Superstar, David Bowie in The Last Temptation Of Christ, and Hristo Naumov Shopov in The Passion Of The Christ.