The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) by matthew c. hoffman

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The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) was an early disaster film made by the same team responsible for King Kong (1933). Produced by Merian C. Cooper and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, the film was released in the wake of other epics like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). Nevertheless, Last Days gave audiences a story just as entertaining (and less sensational) with a style all its own. Though it lacks the production values of a major studio like Paramount, Last Days comes across as a mini-epic. The film was originally conceived in Technicolor, but this became impossible when the budget was cut. Despite these cost-cutting measures, the film that emerged remains one of the finest historical dramas of the 1930s.

The Last Days of Pompeii is a tale of a good-natured blacksmith named Marcus who becomes embittered when tragedy strikes his family. He begins to believe that money is the only real thing that matters in life. His natural strength leads him to the arena as a gladiator. With success, he becomes a man of some means, able to care for an adopted son, Flavius, and to purchase a slave to tutor him. When an injury forces him to leave the arena, Marcus earns a new living as a slave trader and then later as a mercenary for Pontius Pilate. While in Judea, tragedy strikes a second time and Marcus is forced to take his son to a healer known as the greatest man in Judea. The years pass, but the memory of this holy man stays with Marcus and shapes the lives of both he and his son. Unbeknownst to Marcus, Flavius will risk his own life to save those slaves persecuted by the Romans. Flavius is captured and, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, thrown into his father’s arena to fend for his life.

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Last Days of Pompeii is the story of a man who fails to understand the relevance of events happening around him. With the Ben-Hur character, it was revenge that had blinded him, and with Marcus, it’s his bitterness at what Fate has handed him. Both men would find themselves on a spiritual journey. The film is a morality play, but it is so beautifully done by screenwriter Ruth Rose. Today’s jaded viewers may find aspects of the film’s theme of spiritual awakening heavy-handed, but the religious elements were put forth with a sincerity back then that did not seem condescending the way so many faith-based films are now.

The filmmakers took the title of their film from a novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but aside from the setting, the book and film version have little in common. Though Last Days is centered on an actual historical event –the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD– the film takes liberties with history. As Pontius Pilate is seen visiting Marcus in his later years shortly before the destruction of Pompeii, it should be noted that Pilate is believed to have died nearly four decades earlier, possibly from a suicide.

The film stars Preston Foster as Marcus. Foster was a former Broadway performer who would make a name for himself in many movies for RKO in the 1930s, usually contemporary roles as a cop or detective. When Channel 7 in Chicago used to run the late late movie, it was usually something from the RKO vault, and this is where I first saw Preston Foster. However, he is probably better known to audiences for his later role as the police captain in 1952’s film noir Kansas City Confidential. His performance in tonight’s film has been called adequate or acceptable at best. In his defense, he was probably one of the few actors on the RKO lot who could meet the physical requirements of the character. Foster could pass as a blacksmith turned gladiator, although an actor like Victor McLaglen would’ve certainly given it a greater dimension.

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There are several fine performances from supporting players in the film, including Alan Hale and Ward Bond, but the most memorable is that of Basil Rathbone as Pontius Pilate. Though he only has a few scenes in the film, his casting was a real coup for the production. Rathbone created a Pontius who was calculating towards his enemies yet guilt-stricken by his role in the condemnation of Jesus. It’s an intelligent, sensitive performance by one of the finest character actors of that time.

As with Ben-Hur, the film tells a story about fictional characters who live through great historical events during the time of Christ. The Last Days of Pompeii also depicts Jesus in an indirect way. But unlike Ben-Hur, we see no actual image of Jesus except for a double exposure at the end. This was very much in keeping with the respectful attitude of the time. The image of Jesus on film was either shown in a reverent manner, as with Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), or He was represented by an onscreen effect, such as rays of light. With the exception of the French film Golgotha (1935), there were few major films at this time that depicted Jesus onscreen.

Last Days’ primary appeal to audiences, especially contemporary ones, is that it’s an early disaster film that makes use of special effects by Willis O’Brien– the same man who brought King Kong to life on movie screens. Though O’Brien is best known as a stop motion animation artist, he also supervised many kinds of visual effects. For instance, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of the Roman city were accomplished mostly through miniatures.

Willis O’Brien (right) with one of the models used in the film.
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In the December 1935 issue of American Cinematographer, cameraman Edwin Linden revealed, “The scenes in the arena, in which the Colossus crumbles and falls after the start of the earthquake was another thrillingly difficult scene. It was not ‘done with mirrors,’ as some reviewers have expertly stated, but was a combination of a full-sized arena set, with real people and horsemen, a miniature arena, glass painting, miniature projection, and a life-size breakaway Colossus which was photographed at high speed. The task of merely combining these shots into a homogeneous composite is an intricate problem of special-effects trickery in itself.”

The later sequences that Willis O’Brien supervised are effective, but I’m sure it will be a disappointment to younger viewers who are accustomed to half-hour sequences of computer-generated overkill. Despite the limited budget, The Last Days of Pompeii is a well-crafted film because its effects go a long way in creating the illusion of a world beyond the studio; the effects expand the restrictions of space. Effects such as glass paintings, travelling mattes, and composite shots that incorporated separate film elements are evident throughout, most notably in the opening shot of Pompeii. There are many memorable images in the film. One of which is a glass shot depicting Christ’s crucifixion in the distance as Marcus travels on horseback out of Jerusalem with his riches.

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Another of the film’s assets is its music. Roy Webb orchestrated an evocative score reminiscent of Max Steiner. In fact, as soon as the horsemen march into the arena near the climax we hear music cues from Max Steiner’s works including King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game. This leaves the impression that the production may have been pressed for time and simply recycled Steiner’s earlier music. Since he was a genius and the music is great to begin with, no one is complaining of Roy Webb’s/RKO’s appropriation.

The Last Days of Pompeii’s reputation grew after its initial release beginning with a 1949 reissue in which it was paired with 1935’s She. It was only then that the film began to make a profit. The film remains fondly remembered by an earlier generation of movie fans who first saw it on television. The film finally made its debut on dvd 10 years ago along with King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young. The Library is proud to be able to present it now in 2015.

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