THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII erupted in 1959 as another version of the venerable story about history’s most-popular volcano and the alternately unfortunate or deserving Romans caught in the gas belch. ‘Erupted’ is too vital, really, as this time out ‘belched’ is more fitting. In “SuperTotalscope“.
Steve Reeves stars as former centurion ‘Glaucus’, who arrives in Pompeii to find the seaside Roman city is playground & slayground, with the usual suspects—Christians—being blamed for foul deeds committed by others. Between bouts with brigands, Glaucus falls for ‘Ione’ (Christine Kaufmann), fights a lion, falls into a trapdoor, gets shot with an arrow, wrestles a crocodile and tries to escape falling masonry and flowing lava when Mount Vesuvius decides who’s really in charge of cleaning the slate.
“Our over-zealous young centurion must be taught a lesson. His curiosity is most troublesome.”
When director Mario Bonnard was felled by illness, Sergio Leone took over, sans credit. Lots of jabber on well-appointed sets, plenty of galloping around the Italian countryside, not much in the way of excitement. Five writers slaved over the script, including Ennio De Concini (Divorce Italian Style), and Leone, but too many chefs burned the ravioli and left out the sauce. By playing it reasonably straight—stingy with heaving bosoms, no monsters, Reeves hero not a boulder-thrower like Hercules but merely muscular—it’s stiff, plot-heavy with gourds of boring dialogue, offering few laughs over the dubbing or hoped-for semi-lewd excess. Then the promised whopper climax doesn’t exactly call for a post-vent cigarette since the disappointingly weak special effects for the big blowup/down/out are at curious odds with the overwise fairly ambitious production values. The trailer is more fun than the movie. Audiences anxious for ancient city-smashing would have to wait for Atlantis the Lost Continent (prime cheese) and Sodom and Gomorrah (stylish S&M in the best Bible-lesson tradition).
“The divine Ascanius desires to speak to you at once.”
Reeves dislocated a shoulder when his chariot slammed into a tree, getting him benched from bench-pressing. His pictorial pecs were for show—he wasn’t actually strong—but mythical Steve was Marquee Man of the Year, flexing away in Hercules Unchained, Goliath and the Barbarians, The White Warrior and The Giant Of Marathon. The popularity of these goofy and entertaining pictures made the 33-year-old son of Glasgow, Montana the #1 boxoffice draw in 25 countries around the world.
“How you dare accuse the sacred high priestess of Isis.”
Kaufmann was just fourteen: “lax” is one thing, but that’s pushing it. With Fernando Rey, Barbara Carroll and Anne-Marie Baumann. 103 minutes.
* Edward Bullwer-Lytton’s 1834 book was joined by Lew Wallace’s “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” in 1880 and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 “Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero”, forming a sort of Judeo-Roman triumvirate of re-imagining the Ancient World for the supposedly enlightened 19th-Century inheritors of all that Mediterranean glory & gobbledygook. Though this version of Lytton’s saga was not a hit, it was at least timed right, coinciding with both the emergence of the “muscleman” adventures (all praise ‘The Sons Of Hercules’) and the renewed financial allure of Rome &/or the Bible on screen thanks to the mega-success of The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and Solomon and Sheba. The several ensuing years of silly “peplum” fodder featuring Reeves clones and Herc’s chesty titan pals had the side-effect of seeing worthy productions like the underrated The 300 Spartans and the classic Jason and the Argonauts overlooked by audiences and tarnished and dismissed by critics. Some of us toga partiers in the cheap seats, able to distinguish a phalanx from a Philistine, knew better…