From the creators of King Kong (1933) comes an impressive historical epic with a great storyline and effects. WB USA R1 DVD.
After the incredible stop-motion sucess of King Kong
(1933), the director, producer and special effects team were quick to
attach themselves to another big effects project. They chose the real-life epic
story of Pompeii, destroyed by the volcano Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The
eruption itself would be a special effects masterpiece, but they needed
a storyline to preceed eruption. Inspired by the settings portrayed in
the Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel of 1834, but completely altering the
characters and storyline, the script writers created a complex story of
redemption and fall around a resident of the city.
(Preston Hale) is a simple blacksmith in Pompeii; living with his wife
and baby son, he declares himself to be as happy as any man despite his
poverty. However his happiness ends when both are killed by an errant
chariot and he is unable to afford the help of the doctor. Realising
that money is the key he heads to the arena to compete in the dangerous
but well paid gladiator fights and rapidly rises to become a hero.
Things change when he discovers that his victory in the arena left a
small boy, Flavius, orphaned. Adopting the boy as his own, Marcus
starts to become cautious in his combat and is soon injured and unable
to compete. Moving into work he despises, Marcus is forced to capture
slaves from Africa to compete in the arena; yet on a trip to Judea to
purchase horses, the lives of Marcus and Flavius are permenantly
changed as they encounter the brooding Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone)
and an enigmatic teacher and healer. Many years later, Marcus has
become everything that he had previously despised - the richest man in
Pompeii, he runs the arena where slaves are killed for sport. Yet
history will catch up with him, and money cannot protect a man from the
wrath of nature... or God.
For a film that could have become little more than a special effects reel, The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) boasts a very strong and interesting storyline that can even make the viewer forget to expect the film's inevitable
last reel climax, and would stand perfectly well as a film on its own.
Characterisation is strong, Marcus is taken on a strong fall and redemption journey and by the emotive ending we really feel
for him; the climax is strongly plotted and avoids a few potential
clichés along the way. The story has an
unexpected religious element to it, centered around Marcus' encouter
with Jesus near Jerusalem - these sequences are presented
unskeptically, rather surprising to a jaded modern viewer. Pacing
varies from fast to slow and
the film can feel like it runs much longer than the 96 minute run-time
yet the storyline does cut away jarringly at times, and throughout most
of the film,
action scenes are referred to but never seen - the limited budget and
the strict film regulations at the time probably prevented the big
battle scenes or gladiator fights being shown in any detail. It
is worth noting that the script is historically inaccurate - to meet
Jesus it must place Marcus in Judea at around 30 A.D., and while
the eruption occured in 79 A.D., the characters age only ten years or
so between the scenes, however this is largely ignorable for the sake
of a good story.
I cannot vouch for the precise accuracy of all the scenes and settings,
to the untrained viewer they do look very authentic. For a 1930s
production, the film boasts impressive use of matt-painted backdrops, a
big cast of extras, and some amazing model destruction in the
finalé - although viewers more used to the CGI wizardry of Gladiator
(2000) and its kin might have trouble adapting to the effects of an earlier age.
The camera work is standard but competent, working well with the effects, while the music is very similar to that used
in the earlier King Kong (1933).
Foster gives a rare leading performance here. Usually more at home as a
heavy in gangster or noir pictures, he demonstrates an effective range,
managing to be a believable strong man but with a deep emotional
side. Basil Rathbone gets limited screentime, but makes a good
performance as the historically controversial Pontius Pilate who
sentences Jesus to crucifixion, his typically aloof tones work well as
those of a Roman nobleman. Look out for early Universal Horror stalwart
Edward Van Sloan as Marcus' neighbour at the start of the film.
The Last Days of Pompeii
(1935) boasts a good cast, strong special effects and a very impressive
storyline that almost manages to make the volcanic climax a surprise.
This little known film is certainly worth a look for any fans of 1930s
cinema and early epic cinema from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, it is
also an interesting chapter in the portrayal of Jesus onscreen and
worth a watch for anyone interested in this cinematic legacy.
Anyone famous in it?
Preston Hale - a rare lead for a usual strong man, also in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) Basil Rathbone - Universal's 12 time Sherlock Holmes and lead in Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Directed by anyone interesting?
Ernest B. Schoedsack - the man behind the original King Kong (1933) and its sequels.
Who is it for?
Very interesting for fans of 1930s cinema or the early epics.
Standard big orchestral score.
Original Aspect Ratio - 1.33:1 fullscreen. Black and White. The print quality is very good, frequent speckles and scratches but never unwatchable. As good as 1930s films can look.
English language mono sound. Some light hiss on the audio, and sound levels are very low, otherwise fine.
English, French and Spanish.
Feature: 1hr 36m 08s
Region 1 (USA) - NTSC
A very good film - a good script, good cast and great effects all come together with surprising depth.
A good presentation of the film, print probably looks as good as it ever did. Total lack of extras is a shame.