Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Last Days of Pompeii

Tonight's disaster movies on TCM include one that I've mentioned several times in the past, but think I haven't done a full-length post on: The Last Days of Pompeii, overnight, or early tomorrow morning depending upon your perspective, at 4:15 AM.

Marcus (Preston Foster) is a blacksmith in Pompeii with a wife and son. However, the two of them get in a chariot accident, and since a blacksmith in those days couldn't afford state of the art medical care, or what passed for Roman era state of the art medical care at least, the two die. So Marcus decides that he's going to take on the world. The only way he knows how, however, is to go into the gladiatorial arena, which normally means mortal combat and, we can presume, a short lifespan. Marcus, however, is extremely successful in gladiatorial combat, and becomes reasonably wealthy in the process. However, one of his opponents dies, leaving behind a seven-year-old son named Flavius (David Holt plays Flavius as a boy; the adult Flavius is played by John Wood).

Eventually, people get too old to keep fighting as a gladiator, and Marcus is going to have to leave the arena too. How to keep up that wealthy lifestyle? Marcus becomes a slave trader, which is morally corrupting, but hey, somebody's got to do it, and it's good money. Marcus also buys and sells horses. Marcus' work takes him all over the empire, since the slaves are people taken in conquest and have to get to what is now Italy somehow. They sure aren't going to get themselves to Italy.

And so, on one of these journeys east, Marcus and Flavius have a life-changing experience. Marcus hears from a fortune teller that he's going to meet a powerful man. Since he's on his way to Judæa, Marcus naturally assumes that means he's going to meet Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone), who is the Roman governor of the province. So marcus gooes to meet Pilate, who is busy dealing with those damn messianic Jews, some of whom are listening to the charismatic message of a man named Jesus. Flavius gets saved by Jesus when he's thrown off a horse, and Flavius reponds to this by deciding to become a Christian.

Needless to say, the presents big problems for Marcus. Christians are, or at least Hollywood presented the early Christians as being non-violent, virtuous, and a threat to those nasty Romans. Flavius works to free slaves, which brings him into conflict with the authorities, and with his own father. Can father and son reconcile their differences? Of course, we know there's a volcano waiting in the background to blow its top, since that's the one thing in this movie that actually did happen in history.

The Last Days of Pompeii is thoroughly ahisotical. It's not just fiction in the way that something like From Here to Eternity takes the looming attack on Pearl Harbor and sets fictional characters against that backdrop. Instead, The Last Days of Pompeii takes people and events from different eras and puts the together for its story line. Jesus, or at least whatever messianic figure in Jerusalem became the basis for the biblical Jesus, was crucified around 30 AD, and Pontius Pilate left Judæa for Rome around 37 AD. The Vesuvius eruption that destroyed Pompeii was in 79 AD. So Flavius would have been in his 50s by the time of his eruption, while Marcus would likely have been past 80. As for the story, it's not quite as entertaining a tale of Christian virtue as The Sign of the Cross, but then, The Last Days of Pompeii couldn't do the pre-Code things that The Sign of the Cross did. Still, it's moderately entertaining, and there's that looming eruption in the finale.

Various movies have been made with the title The Last Days of Pompeii. This 1935 version did get a DVD release, but I think it's out of print, since there are only a few copies available at Amazon while TCM says it's not available at the TCM Shop. If you've got high-enough speed internet and don't have any bandwidth issues, you could always try an instant download or perhaps the Watch TCM app.

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