Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper will forever be remembered for their 1933 monster classic King Kong, but it was not the only film they made together. In 1935 they co-directed the RKO Pictures Roman epic The Last Days of Pompeii. It was supposedly based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel of the same name, although a foreword to the film openly notes that there is little to connect book and film beyond the title. The film stars Preston Foster, Alan Hale, and Basil Rathbone.
In first century Rome, blacksmith Marcus (Foster) turns to the quick profits of the gladiatorial arena when his wife and child are critically injured. When they die regardless, a now-cynical Marcus begins a lifelong journey that takes him from Rome to North Africa, Judea, and finally to the coastal city of Pompeii.
The first and most obvious thing to note about The Last Days of Pompeii is just how little of the film actually takes place in the ill-fated city – annihilated in a volcanic eruption in CE 79. Instead its story follows a long journey for Marcus from working class citizen to gladiator, then to slave trading, horse thievery, and finally to prosperous and legitimate business. There is a deeply moral sensibility involved in how the film relates his often corrupt and criminal exploits. It is no coincidence that Marcus’ travels take him to Jerusalem: not only does he meet and befriend Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Rathbone), but when his adopted son is thrown from a horse Marcus brings him to Jesus Christ to have him healed.
It is very reflective of its time that The Last Days of Pompeii is a story of sin, forgiveness, and Christian conversion. Released in 1935, it follows the enormous commercial success of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923) and King of Kings (1927) as well as MGM’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). Pompeii most resembles Ben-Hur, with a Roman setting and a broadly original story intersecting with Christ as depicted in the Bible.
Sadly the film relies heavily on Preston Foster’s performance, and that is an aspect in which there is a noticeable lack of quality. Burly, all-American, and frankly one-dimensional, Foster dominates the film. He feels out of place, particularly when sharing scenes with the vastly more entertaining and sophisticated Basil Rathbone. He plays a large part in pulling Pompeii down from a film classic to a reasonably entertaining diversion.
Thankfully when the destruction of Pompeii finally arrives, it is with the full benefit of Schoedsack and Cooper’s well-established gift for visual effects. It takes benefit of the story’s crushing inevitability: it clear from the outset how the narrative is going to end, and the well-developed models and simulated lava go a long way to making the climax at least work as a crowd-pleaser. This is a somewhat flawed film, but when it excels it does so with style.