• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, February 17, 2017

    The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

    The Last Days of Pompeii is one of the few Bible movies that is also a disaster movie. From the moment it start we know how it's going to end - badly. It's title is the ultimate spoiler, in a genre hardly renown for its unexpected plot twists. Indeed perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to span the time from well before the death of Christ circa 30 A.D. to the eruption of Vesuvius 49 years later within the adult lifetime of its leading character, Marcus (Preston Foster).

    Marcus is already reasonably old when we first encounter him several years before the death of Jesus. His wife is run over by a chariot and Marcus ends up having to accept a fight in the gladiatorial arena to pay her medical bills. Yet despite his victory as a gladiator, when he returns home he is too late to save her life. Angered and grieving Marcus returns to the arena, works his way up the pecking order with success after success until he is able to retire and diversify into supplying fresh slaves for the arena.

    Throughout the early part of the film Marcus maintains something of a moral core, even though he is pulled this way and that by anger, grief and the need to overcome poverty. So when his victory over an opponent leaves a young boy orphaned, Marcus decides to adopt him. Yet in order to be able to support the boy (Flavius) he takes a job capturing slaves and making orphans of their children - a point that is nicely underlined by a fade between a shot of a captured slave holding his son and one of Marcus back in Rome holding Flavius in a similar pose.

    All of this is part of Marcus' transition from all round good, but tough, guy in the opening scenes to someone with a good heart increasingly trapped and shaped by their decisions, decisions made based on very limited options (at least that is what we are led to believe). But this is never really very convincing on either front. For someone with a supposedly good heart Marcus is persuaded to commit atrocities all too easily. Conversely, for someone struggling to make even a basic living honestly, he seems to climb to the top of the greasy pole, with all its wealth and power, with consummate ease.

    Crucially, Marcus has a chance encounter with an old woman who precedes to tell him, (whilst ominously starring at the ceiling), that he must take Flavius to meet "the greatest man in Judea". So based on little more than the advice of her and one of her comrades, Marcus and Flavius head to Judea intent on going to meet Pontius Pilate. Before he gets to Jerusalem, however, they almost have a chance encounter with Jesus, except this time he's not quite in the mood for taking vaguely sage-like pronouncements from total strangers, so he presses on to the capital. The filmmakers offer little plausible reason for this inconsistency; it's just an eye-rollingly clumsy plot device, scantily clad in some cod-theology about fate and determinism. No-one quite walks on and says "Ah, but God moves in mysterious ways", but someone definitely thought it. At some point. For at least about two seconds before deciding to worry about something else instead.

    Not dissimilarly Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) is sat musing about his his need to find someone to covertly infiltrate and hamstring the Ammonites. "If I could only find a man" he utters, seconds before his servant mentions that our former champion gladiator turned horse-trader is coincidentally waiting in the lobby. Marcus agrees to go out stealing Ammonite horses for Pilate, but when he returns Flavius has been in an accident with a horse and is almost dead. As luck would have it, though, there's "a young man, a wandering healer passing through the village..." and so Marcus and his son get to have their chance encounter with Jesus after all.

    Despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) had only debuted eight years previously, and was probably still doing the rounds here and there, the film opts not to show the face of Jesus. It's possible that this decision was based purely on artistic motives, but it's far more likely that it was indicative of the level of outrage that had been unleashed by Claudette Colbert's nipple popping out of that bath of milk in The Sign of the Cross three years previously. Things had certainly soured and it's striking to see how quickly the atmosphere had changed.

    Instead of filming Jesus, the filmmakers shot much of the healing sequence (sorry about the plot spoiler, but it was never going to turn out another way) from Jesus' point of view. Marcus carries Flavius to the front of the crowd with his eyes, and the eyes of the crowd, all transfixed on the camera. The heavenly music kicks in, there's a wide, reverse shot from a distance behind the crowd, and then they and Jesus obligingly wander stage left, leaving Marcus on his knees and Flavius back on his feet.

    Flavius's healing, though, appears to have been more or less Jesus' last. By the time Marcus has returned to Jerusalem Jesus is already on trial. Pilate washes his hands of it all, of course, and his duplicitous dealings with Marcus could easily have been spun into suggesting it was all for show. But the film opts instead for a shell-shocked Pilate putting his head in his freshly washed hands and murmuring "What have I done? What have I done?". There's some nice double meanings in their initial conversation, as Marcus nice-but-dim fails to appreciate that his new found friend is somewhat shell-shocked, but soon Pilate is complaining that he was "forced" to condemn that "poor man" and coming out with banalities such as "Oh, let men wallow in the quicksand they have made of life" and "Pin your faith to gold, Marcus". Whilst there's hardly any mention of the fact that the "mob" is predominantly Jewish the description of them, and the exaggerated extrapolation of their actions (to looting and violence) is certainly troubling from an anti-Semitism point of view.

    In trying to circumvent this still-angry mob, Marcus inadvertently gets spotted by the man who led him to Jesus in the first place, who begs him to intervene to prevent him being crucified. When Marcus asks what he, one man, can do, all his friend can suggest is "You can die for him" without really explaining what that would do to help. He does lay a good guilt trip on him though. "When your world crumbles about you, you'll understand what you have done today". "Crumbles" geddit? I wonder how this is going to end...

    Two contrasting shots of hilltops (three crosses atop Golgotha versus a smoking Vesuvius) lead to a jump ten or so years into the future. Flavius is almost grown up (and played now by John Wood) and Marcus, who now runs the arena, is wearing a greyish-looking wig. Unbeknown to his father Flavius is stashing away runaway slaves, intending to transport them to an uninhabited island, before a major celebration in the arena the next day. Flavius is somewhat haunted by his memory of Jesus, an encounter his guilt-hardened father is trying to pass off as a dream.

    Things come to a head when Pontius Pilate turns up for dinner amid news that a slave has been captured who is going to reveal the hiding place of the others. Flavius refuses to "keep silent forever in the face of injustice and brutality" recalling his 'dream' of Jesus saying "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". Marcus tries to reassert his lie. Pilate cannot. Shame falls upon the two of them and suddenly everyone remembers exact quotations from their wordless encounter a decade (or five) before. Flavius returns to the slaves' hiding place, in undoubtedly the best photographed scenes of the entire film; the tight compositions and moody lighting perfectly supplementing the slaves' fear and paranoia. Flavius is accused of being a spy just as the soldiers arrive to capture them

    The re-capture of the slaves is good news however for Marcus and the rest of the town's elite, deemed a better omen than smoke from Vesuvius. The games contain the most spectacular scenes of the movie, the grand arena, replete with a giant statue of a naked soldier with only a sword to preserve his dignity. When Vesuvius 'unexpectedly' explodes, initially with all the special effects expertise of a high-school chemistry set, the statue is the first thing to go, crumbling like a sandcastle on a spin-dryer. The scenes of the eruption are spectacular, howver, not least for the sheer scale of their destructiveness. DeMille's falling masonry of 1949 has nothing on this in terms of spectacle. If these scenes could have, perhaps, used more meaningfully human interactions, then the shots of people drowning in the choppy waters as they attempt to escape the lava pouring down the hill are, nevertheless, rather chilling.

    I'm reminded of what Michael Wood ([1975] 1989: 178-182) says about "what is perhaps the most interesting of all the set scenes in the epic: the great crash." I'll quote at length (albeit abbreviating where possible).
    ...the idea of waste in these movies receives its fullest expression here...Here are costly sets, carefully built constructions, going up in smoke or toppling down in ruins, the very feats of engineering we have just been admiring are now thrown away. This is visible expense, like the crowd of extras, only more startling. This is money being burned...It is pure excess, a ritual expression of lack of need...Having all that cash to throw away is a sign of (apparent) financial health. But actually throwing it away is a sign of moral health, a sign that you are not hampered by your riches...I don't think this is a reaction against a past of puritan prescriptions. It is rather the oblique expression of a faith. Here is God's plenty...to save money or gasoline or energy is to doubt the profusion of Gods gifts...For many modern Americans worldly goods are so abundant that that it becomes a form of scandal to want to hang on to any of them for very long.
    Here, in particular, the scale of this destruction is particularly suited to the story (or should it be vice-versa). Marcus starts the film care free and poor. It is only when he learns to worry about the future that he gets dragged down into immoral behavious. The message of Pompeii's destruction at the end of the film -- and it is a destruction quite in contrast to what actually happened. In real life Pompeii was preserved intact by falling lava, mud and ash; here it is levelled, destroyed by a shaking from below rather than above -- the destruction is Marcus' world being destroyed, along with his false gods and, I suppose, his idol of money. (SPOILER: Only once this happens is he liberated and able to see a vision of Jesus welcoming and accepting him with open arms. END SPOILER).

    From a historical angle the few nice historical touches (like Marcus burning a pinch of incense to the gods) do nothing to paper over the monumental gaps in the historical masonry - the gleefully disregarded for credible chronology being only one fault line among many.

    The directors of this film (Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper) came to it having had great success with King Kong (1933) and their ability to create iconic spectacle and destruction comes good again. Combining models with live action footage is again very much to the fore. The impressive nature of these few final spectacular scenes is not enough, however, to rescue the film from its tiresome, overly earnest performances and the paper-thin characterisations. The plot of Kong was so extreme that weaknesses in these areas didn't matter. But this is an epic and the demands of believable plot and half-decent characterisations are greater (albeit only a little bit greater). Making a giant gorilla both terrifying and sympathetic is one thing. Doing the same for Foster and Wood is entirely another. Ultimately last Days is more giant turkey than great ape.



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