The Last Days of Pompeii opens with a disclaimer. Despite sharing a title, it is not based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel. That disclaimer should be read as a warning.
The film runs ninety-six minutes. The last days of Pompeii are the third act; the first two acts… wait, no. The timeline doesn’t even work internally. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, but when lead Preston Foster doesn’t give his life trying to free Jesus from the cross on the way to Golgotha, it’s 33 AD. Oh, sorry, spoiler. Last Days of Pompeii is not an exciting disaster movie; it’s a jejune Christian movie about how selfish dipshit jock Foster finds Jesus but not really.
In 33 AD, Foster’s got a nine-year-old adopted son—played by David Holt. It’s Foster’s second try at fatherhood; the first time, his selfishness and stupidity got his wife and baby son killed. After their deaths, he became a gladiator, eventually killing Holt’s dad in the ring. So Foster adopts him and strives to provide him with all the money in the world, including taking him to Jerusalem on a business trip. An old lady fortune teller tells Foster to take Holt to see the greatest man in Judea, so he takes Holt to meet Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone).
When the action gets to the Last Days, Holt’s character has grown into John Wood, who’s eighteen years older. Wood’s probably supposed to be playing a teenager, so screenwriter Ruth Rose’s taking the timeline even less seriously than she could.
Wood’s grown to resent his adoptive father’s greed and is trying to help escaped slaves get away from Pompeii. The slaves are headed to the gladiator games, dad Foster runs the games, but Wood knows he can’t tell his dad to stop being terrible. Even though they both met Jesus once, Foster has been trying to gaslight Wood into forgetting ever since.
The scary part of Foster’s performance is his angry old man, complete with makeup, is his best work in the movie. He’s lousy when he’s the greasy stud in the first act. He’s not the worst, but he’s bad. He slightly improves in the second act, when Pompeii introduces the real master of Judea, wink wink (not on screen, rather the Marsellus Wallace suitcase device), but only barely. Maybe the improvement is the lack of a greased-up chest.
Along the way, Foster buys a family slave, Wyrley Birch, who’s supposed to be a tutor but never tutors. Instead, Birch plays butler for Foster and sounding board for Wood. Birch seems like he’s always going to be better, but the movie never gives him anything to do.
Besides Rathbone alternating between sincere in his Christian movie performance and visibly restraining himself from chewing up the scenery, the most amusing thing about the film is spotting the character actors in the supporting cast. What other movie’s got Ward Bond as a gladiator (uncredited, which is weird because it’s a reasonably prominent role), Edward Van Sloan, Louis Calhern, Frank Conroy, and Jason Robards Sr. hacking it up in a costume drama. Plus a cameo from Jim Thorpe — All-American!
Unfortunately, the occasional appearance of a familiar character actor isn’t enough to keep the film going. Especially since none of them recur enough to matter. Alan Hale, but he’s second-billed and just not bad like Foster. Hale and some of the character actors can overcome the script, Foster cannot. Neither can Wood, unfortunately. Though he does better than his love interest, Dorothy Wilson. Pompeii’s got no time for ladies; they’re one kind of fodder or another, chariot or class.
Obviously, if the script were better, who knows. Director Schoedsack’s similarly unenthused, going from one rote setup to the next. He doesn’t even put any energy into the early gladiator fights, instead waiting for the finale when there’s much less time–though for a while, I wondered if they were going to skip the eruption altogether. The amphitheater in the finale’s much more elaborate than in the first act; maybe they weren’t done building it.
Most of Pompeii is just backlot street shots with questionable architecture. There’s not much special effects work outside some composite establishing shots. Unfortunately, the finale’s nowhere near enough to make up for it.
There’s more to say about Pompeii, especially the film’s presentation of slavery, but there’s not much reason to say it. It’s atrocious from the start, with some good but not good enough special effects at the very end.
Presumably, the Bulwer-Lytton novel has to have a better story, but I’ve got no inclination to find out.