The Last Days of Pompeii
Cast & Crew
Ernest B. Schoedsack
After his wife and son are injured by a runaway chariot and later die because he has no money to pay for a doctor, an embittered Pompeiian blacksmith, Marcus, dedicates himself to a career as a well-paid gladiator. Although he never relishes killing his arena rivals, Marcus soon becomes the most successful fighter on the circuit, earning substantial sums in the process. His life changes, however, when he meets Flavius, the seven-year-old son of a defeated opponent, whom he adopts. Eventually Marcus is forced out of the arena and must support Flavius through the odious but lucrative job of slave and horse trading. Before leaving on a horse buying trip to Judea, Marcus befriends a Greek soothsayer, who prophesies that Flavius will go to strife-ridden Jerusalem and meet "a great man" and that Marcus will be confronted with a life-altering choice between success and failure. Marcus, believing that the great man is Pontius Pilate, takes Flavius to meet the ruler, who offers Marcus a job stealing horses from his desert enemy. Although the raid is successful, Flavius is thrown from a horse and nears death, but is cured miraculously by a stranger known only as "The Lord." Marcus pledges his dedication to the stranger, but when another follower later begs his help to save the prophet from crucifixion, Marcus chooses to save his ill-gotten gold instead. Many years later, Flavius, who is haunted by dim memories of the man who had once cured him, rejects his father's plans for him and devotes himself to liberating runaway slaves who are destined for Marcus' deadly arena. Caught with the escaping slaves, Flavius is sent to fight in the arena, in spite of Marcus' pleas and bribes for his freedom. At the start of the battle, however, Mt. Vesuvius erupts, and once again, Marcus is given the choice between saving his wealth and human lives. After tossing away his coveted gold, Marcus finally sacrifices his own life to rescue Flavius and his band of runaway slaves. As Marcus' soul ascends to heaven, it is greeted with open, forgiving arms by the spirit of the doomed prophet, Jesus.
Ernest B. Schoedsack
William V. Mong
Edward Van Sloan
Merian C. Cooper
James Ashmore Creelman
P. J. Faulkner Jr.
J. Roy Hunt
Archie F. Marshek
Van Nest Polglase
G. B. Stern
The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) - The Last Days of Pompeii
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
The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) - The Last Days of Pompeii
The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) on DVD
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.
For more information about The Last Days of Pompeii, visit Warner Video. To order The Last Days of Pompeii, go to TCM Shopping.
by Gary Teetzel
The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) on DVD
Money is all that matters. Well, I can get money! It's easy to get money! All you have to do...is kill.- Marcus
He still believes in things.- Marcus
And you and I are wiser? Perhaps. ...What is truth?- Pontius Pilate
My boy, I've heard such ideas, a long time ago. They are dreams--beautiful dreams, I know, but dreams nonetheless.- Pontius Pilate
Was it a dream that once I knew a man who said "Love thy neighbor as thyself"?- Flavius
There never was such a man, I tell you.- Marcus
Don't lie to him, Marcus. There was such a man.- Pontius Pilate
What happened to him?- Flavius
I crucified Him.- Pontius Pilate
The Cooper-Schoedsak-Creelman-Rose-O'Brien team were responsible for King Kong (1933) several years earlier. Parts of Max Steiner's score for that film were reused in this film without credit.
In an onscreen foreword, the filmmakers acknowledge the contribution of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, was used for "physical descriptions" in the film. Hollywood Reporter news items add the following information about the production: Although the picture was originally intended as an early Technicolor production, it was shot in black and white due to time and budget constraints. In July 1934, producer Merian C. Cooper announced that he was giving up plans to shoot the picture in Italy. RKO then planned to film at Prudential Studios in Los Angeles, but ended up leasing space at its own Pathé Studios in Culver City. Cameraman Eddie Linden and technician W. H. O'Brien supervised the filming of Mount Vesuvius miniatures, which began in mid-May 1935. Aloys Bohnen, who was assigned to do art work on the production, was a portrait and mural painter. At the start of production, RKO announced its intention to film two foreign language versions of the film, one in Spanish and one in French. Actors Preston Foster and Gloria Shea were to repeat their lines in each language. It is not known if these foreign versions were ever made. During filming, RKO, fearing that the production was becoming too costly, lopped off $35,000 from the budget. The final cost of the production was announced at approximately one million dollars. Hollywood Reporter production charts add Betty Alden to the cast, but her participation in the final film has not been confirmed.
Many films have been made from Bulwer-Lytton's novel, including several silent Italian productions, such as the 1926 movie, L'Ultimo giorno de Pompeii, which was directed by Amleto Palermi; a 1948 French/Italian co-production, Les derniers jours de Pompeii; and a 1959 German/Italian/Spanish version, which was directed by Mario Bonnard and starred Steve Reeves and Christina Kauffman.