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The ancient Italian city of Pompeii and its destruction via a cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD have held an enduring fascination through the three centuries since its hermetically preserved structures were first excavated from beneath layers of ash. Its story has repeatedly piqued filmmakers since the birth of motion pictures, and one of the worthier takes was realized in Hollywood by the creative team that transformed King Kong (1933) into an international success. Producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest B. Schoedsack and special effects master Willis O'Brien pooled their talents for RKO Pictures' The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), and wound up rendering a morality play that remains diverting to this day.
After an opening graphic disclaiming the tale as sharing only the title of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's historical novel, the film places its focus on the unambitious but proud Pompeiian blacksmith Marcus (Preston Foster). While the strapping craftsman is very much content with the humble life he carves out for his loving wife (Gloria Shea) and infant son, it all changes irrevocably when his loved ones are struck down by a chariot. Too poor to secure the medical attention that would have saved them, the embittered Marcus turns to the one means of a living wage that his strength can guarantee, by battling as a gladiator in the public arena.
But Marcus's fate lies elsewhere. He ends up raising the orphan son (Flavius) of one of his opponents in the ring. An injury forces him to quit the arena and hire himself out to slave traders. And a meeting with Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) leads to his involvement with a gang of horse thieves. Eventually, Marcus becomes one of Pompeii's wealthiest citizens, in charge of the very arena where he once battled. The now-grown Flavius (John Wood) has quietly disavowed his father's values, and has covertly used the family resources to help Christians escape persecution. Ultimately, Flavius is captured amongst his charges, and condemned with them to the arena. Marcus' desperate fight for his son's safety plays out against O'Brien's effective climactic recreation of the city's destruction.
Foster's career in Hollywood was relatively short-lived, but The Last Days of Pompeii came along during his peak period, and he turned in commendable work as a protagonist whose lifelong quest for redemption is finally realized. There are plenty of flavorful supporting efforts in the film, including those of Louis Calhern as the treacherous prefect, but Rathbone essentially walks away with the picture in a role that took all of a week to shoot. In turns contemptuous and conflicted, Rathbone gave Pilate perhaps the richest shadings of anyone to ever assay the part onscreen.
While the screenplay compressed the 45-odd years between the Crucifixion and Pompeii's destruction for dramatic purposes, few critics at the time called Cooper and Schoedsack on it. For all its production values and favorable notices, The Last Days of Pompeii failed to recoup its costs in its first theatrical release, winding up some $237,000 in the red. It would take a 1949 re-release on a double bill with She (1935) for the film to turn its first profit.
Producer: Merian C. Cooper
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper
Screenplay: Boris Ingster, Ruth Rose, Melville Baker (story), James Ashmore Creelman (story)
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt, Jack Cardiff
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Preston Foster (Marcus), Alan Hale (Burbix), Basil Rathbone (Pontius), John Wood (Flavius), Louis Calhern (Prefect), David Holt (Flavius as a boy).
by Jay S. Steinberg