“Forgive me. I am not myself. Just now I have been forced to condemn a Man. Poor Man, I found no fault in Him. But I must try to keep the peace.”
When I was younger I was fascinated with Ancient Rome. In third grade I dressed up as a Roman woman I saw in a book (remember those DC Eye Witness books? That is where I got the idea from. I still have those on Egypt, Rome, and Greece and are displayed proudly on my bookshelves). I can remember first seeing a plaster cast of a body from Pompeii. I was puzzled by how someone wound up in that condition and wondered if their bodies were still inside. Pompeii is such an interesting topic to learn especially from an archaeological/art historical point of view. The town and art works were so beautifully preserved. One of my life’s missions is to get to Italy and see Pompeii.
This all being said I had to watch the 1935 RKO film The Last Days of Pompeii. I thought the whole film would take place in the last day or two of the city but it actually took place over a series of years and the scene of the last day was not very long.
The story begins with Marcus (Preston Foster) a blacksmith. He takes down a slave that had escaped from the line he was in with other slaves. The slaveholder takes a look at Marcus and wants him to be a gladiator. Marcus does not want to be a gladiator he has enough money and he is happy with his wife and baby son. The slaveholder gives Marcus money for the job and a silver piece because he likes him. While out spending their money his wife Julia and their son get hit by a carriage. To get the money to pay the taxes and the doctor Marcus agrees to fight in the arena as a gladiator. Marcus does not do this task lightly he is a peaceful man he hates the idea of killing but he desperately needs the money. He wins a fight. Unfortunately when he returns Julia and their son have died.
Now all Marcus wants and sees is money. As the years go on he becomes a famous gladiator. After a fight a young boy named Flavius is looking for his father who had fought a match. Marcus tells the boy his father died. Marcus takes the boy as his own son. After he takes in Flavius he is more careful in the arena he is afraid of what will happen to the boy if something were to happen to him. During a fight in the arena Marcus was too careful and becomes seriously injured. His fighting days are over.
Marcus works for the slaveholder he had once helped by gathering conquered people to be gladiators. He now wants enough money to run an arena then he will truly be a rich man. An old soothsayer tells Marcus he will face either success or failure on his next journey. She also tells him to take Flavius to Judea with him to see the greatest man there. In Judea Marcus drops Flavius at an inn. The owner says the great man is at the inn. Marcus goes to see Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone). He takes Flavius with him thinking Pilate is the man the soothsayer told him about. Pilate has Marcus lead a group of prisoners to steal horses. When Marcus returns he finds Flavius has been thrown from a horse and is very sick. The philosopher Marcus had hired to be Flavius’s teacher tells him to go to a healer who has been traveling around Judea. The man heals Flavius. Marcus has a chance to save the man but he wants his money more and to get out of the city.
Years later Marcus and Flavius are noblemen living in a large villa. Flavius keeps trying to remember the man who had healed him Judea. Marcus tells him the man was just a myth. Some of the slaves Marcus has just captured for the slaveholder have gotten away. It turns out Flavius has been hiding them and want to send them to an unknown island where they can all be free. The Prefect (Louis Calhern) and his soldiers have found out where the slaves are. Flavius hears this at his father’s villa and runs to warn the slaves. The soldiers close in on the hiding place. The Romans captures the slaves as well as Flavius.
The Prefect has the slaves and Flavius sent to city to fight to the death as gladiators. The same day the slaves are fight Vesuvius begins to smoke. Marcus tries to delay the games to see Flavius. The Prefect has enough of waiting and he sends the slaves out into the arena. He refuses to stop the games. He feels Flavius should be punished as well since he helped the slaves. Just as the games are about to begin Vesuvius erupts. Marcus is oblivious to what is happening he is too stunned that no one would help him save Flavius.
A man who did not help Marcus save Flavius asks Marcus to save his son. Marcus does not want to help since the man did not help him. The man says to have mercy on his son. Marcus remembers he had asked the man in Judea when Flavius had been hurt. He picks the boy up and starts trying to save other people. Marcus risks his like keeping the Romans away from a ship with his money and the slaves on it. In the struggle Marcus is hurt and dying. He sees the Master who had helped his son reaching out to him.
There were two scenes I found to be very interesting especially because they are in an old film. When Marcus is speaking with Pontius Pilate, the emperor tells Marcus that he had to condemn a man who was not bad but he had to keep the peace. There is also a scene where Pilate tells the people of Judea that he washes his hands of everything. The film showed Pilate condemning Jesus to death and it is the way the Bible tells it. I took a Bible class in college as part of a requirement for Art History and the professor went over the Gospels where they tell of Jesus’ death. The way the film shows it is the way the Bible explains it. Pilate condemned Jesus to appease the people so they would not riot against him.
The Last Days of Pompeii is a good film. It was a little long in some parts but it moves along nicely. Preston Foster was great, he is such an underrated actor. Basil Rathbone was perfect in the part of Pontius Pilate he had the look. My only complaint is that the film is supposed to be about the last days of Pompeii and it mostly takes place over the course of several years and mostly away from Pompeii. Despite this complaint I would still recommend seeing The Last Days of Pompeii if TCM airs it again.