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Marcus (Preston Foster), a blacksmith in the ancient city of Pompeii, is content to live a modest life until his wife and infant son die because he is unable to pay for a doctor. Deciding that money is the most important thing in life, Marcus becomes a successful gladiator. After killing an opponent in the arena, he adopts Flavius (David Holt), the man's orphaned son, and devotes himself to raising him as his own. Hearing a prophesy that Flavius will be helped by "the greatest man in Judea", Marcus travels to Jerusalem and seeks out Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone), who sends him to steal horses and treasure from the Ammonites. Marcus returns from his mission to find Flavius near death after a fall from a horse. Desperate, he takes the boy to see a "great teacher" who miraculously heals him. Years later, the now-grown Flavius (John Wood) tries to live by the great teacher's message of love and compassion by secretly aiding escaped slaves. With Marcus, now the richest man in Pompeii, determined to see Flavius follow in his footsteps, father and son head for an explosive clash of values while long-dormant Mount Vesuvius starts to smoke and rumble.
Cooper originally planned both The Last Days of Pompeii and his film adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's She (1935) to be lavish Technicolor productions with budgets of $1 million each. At the last minute, RKO slashed the budgets and told Cooper he had $1 million to make both films. Most of the money and effort went into Pompeii.
Although Cooper always regretted the necessity of scaling back the film, in the long run the budget cut may have been beneficial. Historical epics with huge budgets all too often succumb to the temptation to substitute empty spectacle for drama, indulging in frequent scenes showing masses of extras filing past the camera into the distance, or inserting some silly dance number and making dubious claims in the publicity that the film is recreating ancient customs. With the tightened budget dictating that most of the spectacle be saved for the final reels, The Last Days of Pompeii is forced to focus on story and character. The result is a leaner film that moves at a steady pace, every scene advancing the plot without hesitating to flaunt sets and costumes. The production values are very good; they simply aren't allowed to overwhelm the story.
Ruth Rose's script uses a plot structure common in religious-themed historical films: The hero begins as a simple man of good values. He becomes embittered by tragedy and loses faith in his beliefs; in some cases (although not in Last Days of Pompeii) he is seduced by a wicked woman. He eventually realizes the error of his ways and redeems himself. (Demetrius and the Gladiator (1954) is a typical example of a later historical film using this pattern.) The structure is as simple as a Sunday school lecture, and a mite predictable, but it works. We know through his love of his family that Marcus is a decent, caring man at heart, and we want to see him make the right choices and find true happiness. The audience keeps a rooting interest in him throughout, even if at times he acts like a short-sighted lunkhead. The script does have some problems in its third act, dealing with Marcus in his later years. The adult Flavius comes across as noble but bland, and the plot thread of his work with the escaped slaves is underdeveloped. A love interest played by Dorothy Wilson is introduced, but she gets little screen time. Overall, there's a feeling that Cooper and Shoedsack are worried about the audience getting impatient for the promised volcanic eruption, and want to rush through the family drama to get to the juicy chaos and destruction.
When Vesuvius finally does erupt, it does so in spectacular fashion with a combination of full-scale, on-set practical effects and high-speed miniature work overseen by Willis O'Brien. Crowds panic, mammoth statues and ancient buildings collapse, fires break out, chariots race madly through the streets, ash reigns down from the sky and segments of the ground collapse to swallow up luckless citizens. The effects work is superb by 1935 standards and still exciting today, with only some of the optical work looking a little dated. For all its visual excitement, the sequence adheres to the film's philosophy of avoiding spectacle purely for its own sake, since it is during the disaster that Marcus faces his final moral challenge. History buffs will note that in order to work both the death of Christ and the destruction of Pompeii into the storyline, the timing of the eruption of Vesuvius is shifted to around 44 A.D. or so; the real eruption was in 79 A.D.
If Cooper and Shoedsack triumph in the big action climax, the have only mixed success with the religious aspects of the film. Like many early Hollywood films, the movie avoids showing Christ directly; he is always obscured by crowds, and his voice is not heard. In spite of this, Shoedsack manages to avoid making the staging seem contrived, and the scene of Marcus taking Flavius to be cured is handled with simplicity and dignity. The film also avoids mentioning Christ by name, referring to him only as "the great teacher", "the healer" or "Lord." Unfortunately, this ends up making some of the philosophical discussions of the later scenes come across as stilted and awkward, with none of the characters openly saying the words "Christ", "Christian" or "Christianity." (Similarly, Marcus' Hebrew slave Leaster refers to a fellow Jew simply as "a member of my own race.") It's understandable that filmmakers of the era didn't want to proselytize or offend, but the religious themes central to Pompei's story come across as muddled and diluted when the characters can only discuss theology in the most general of terms.
As Marcus, Preston Foster is adequate but lacks star charisma. He's never entirely convincing as a citizen of the Roman Empire; one senses he'd be more at home in a western or a Warner Bros. gangster film. Similarly, the always appealing Alan Hale looks a wee bit out of place in his tunic. Basil Rathbone (with curly hair) gives the best performance as Pontius Pilate. He is equally convincing at portraying the young governor, casually arrogant about his power, and the older man, haunted by fateful decisions. Louis Calhern gets a small but juicy villainous turn as the Prefect of Pompeii, and he makes the most of it. The same cannot be said of David Holt, who is unable to breathe any life into the colorless role of the adult Flavius.
Warner Bros.' new DVD of The Last Days of Pompeii looks and sounds very good for a 70-year old film, with fine contrast and detail. Age-related damage is mild and never distracting. Film grain increases, sometimes significantly, in opticals, and a couple of the effects shots look a little murky, but these flaws are built into the film and are not in any way a fault of the transfer. There are no special features.
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by Gary Teetzel