What if I told you that the people of Pompeii had it coming? That the whole city was a moral cesspool and the eruption of Vesuvius was a final judgment on a corrupt society? You would probably object on grounds of basic human decency, and you’d be right.
But I’m not the one that thinks so. That would be Hollywood. There aren’t very many movies about the destruction of Pompeii, but the handful that exists share something quite objectively strange. Paul W.S. Anderson’s fiery dud is only the newest example of this genre, a disaster movie in which the audience is invited to find moral satisfaction in the flames. With Pompeii it isn’t quite so obvious, but I’d argue that’s just because the script is terrible and doesn’t know exactly how to express what it’s going for. You have to look at it in the context of the earlier, more explicitly judgmental Vesuvius flicks to get at the heart of Anderson’s shabby muddle.
Let’s start at the beginning. The new Pompeii is actually the first major motion picture retelling of the incident that isn’t explicitly an adaptation of one 19th century novel, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. There were a number of European silent film adaptations, but the first American production was the 1935 version directed by Ernest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper fresh off the success of King Kong. It is, to say the least, a paragon of headstrong Christian piety.
Preston Foster is the lead, a simple blacksmith named Marcus with a noble work ethic and a lovely wife and child. Then, suddenly, he is left broke and alone after a tragic chariot accident. Forced to become a gladiator to make ends meet, he finds wealth and power through violence and avarice. The city around him is presented as a whirlwind of brutality, slavery, and greed. In spite of his success, Schoedsack and Cooper keep us wary of his behavior, even after he adopts a young boy and builds a new family.
The hinge upon which all of this finally turns is a bit unexpected. Marcus gets to meet Jesus. He rushes off to Judea on the advice of a soothsayer and becomes a fast friend of Pontius Pilate, played by the deliciously villainous Basil Rathbone. He even misses an opportunity to save Christ from the cross. By the time that Marcus gets back to Pompeii for the AD 79 calamity (Schoedsack and Cooper play a bit fast and loose with chronology), he’s ruined all chance of saving his soul. When the volcano erupts, the audience is called upon to draw a sense of moral satisfaction not only from the demise of the entire city, but of the film’s protagonist as well.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, of course, but there’s nothing specifically Christian about it. Hollywood works in broader strokes, with little room for subtle theological connections. Pompeii is a brilliant stand-in, a city punished on an epic scale just after the Crucifixion. It’s a ready-made parable.
A slightly more tempered version was made a quarter-century later, this one produced by an Italian studio. The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) is actually a more faithful interpretation of the novel, which didn’t include the ham-fisted Judea diversion. It does, however, feature a large Christian community struggling against a plot hatched by some wicked Egyptian worshipers of Isis. The star is Steve Reeves as a Roman soldier, in love with the secretly Christian daughter of Pompeii’s Consul. The plot twists and turns quite a bit, handled with impressive deftness by the inexperienced first-time director: Sergio Leone.
As in the 1935 version, the population of the city doesn’t come off well. The same tropes emerge, from violence and political corruption to slavery and greed. This time there’s a bit more of a suggestion of sexual deviancy as well, always fun. Yet the difference is that here our hero remains a hero. Steve Reeves has no fatal flaw, no Roman original sin that dooms him alongside compatriots. An odd counterpoint to Ben-Hur, released that same year, Leone’s The Last Days of Pompeii intriguingly takes a small step away from the most obvious Christian messages.
And now, over five decades later, we have a new entry into this weird little canon of lava and ash. Anderson’s Pompeii doesn’t acknowledge the birth of Christianity at all, choosing to divide its characters into Roman vs. non-Roman rather than Pagan vs. Christian. Yet the stark sense of morality is still absolutely present, especially if you know what to look for.
Every trope from the earlier films is here. The principal sins of the Roman Empire in these movies are violence and slavery, which set up the entire plot of Pompeii. Milo (Kit Harington) is introduced as the last scion of a British tribe, his family massacred by the Romans in a bloody opening sequence. He arrives in the doomed city as an enslaved gladiator, with nothing in his future but imprisonment and bloody death.
The other transgressions are represented as well. His owner is a portly, effeminate bear-type who occasionally lets out his gladiators as prostitutes. There’s sexual deviancy, helped along by a strange scene in which Harington and co-star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje stand as beefcake on display at a high-class party.
The avarice falls to the leading local businessman, Severus (Jared Harris). It’s suggested that he plans to sell out his city and its population in the name of urban development, though this is never really explained.
Milo, of course, falls in love with Severus’s daughter Cassia (Emily Browning). She in turn is a conduit for the remaining grand sin of Rome, political corruption, and abuse. The visiting Senator Corvus, played by a lecherous Kiefer Sutherland, is intent on using his clout to force this young woman into marriage. He’s the skeezy centerpiece in a film that pulls out all the stops to leave a foul taste in your mouth, as you wait for Vesuvius to take its revenge.
And yet in the absence of Christianity, there isn’t one clear direction for your disgust. In a very strange and unexpected turn of events, it seems that Pompeii fails because it lacks the one-note confidence of its predecessors. The script keeps dividing the cast into groups, pitting Pompeii against Rome, the rich against the poor, gladiators against everyone else. Yet rather than create a complex moral universe, this just causes even more confusion.
So while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the 1935 and 1959 versions great movies, their brash morality makes them compelling and perhaps even entertaining. Anderson and the screenwriting team on Pompeii had the initial inclination to build a case against Rome’s reputation for decadence and wickedness, but not enough clarity to double down on any one idea. As a result, it’s just dull. Say what you will about single-minded religious movie-making, but it certainly gives a volcano some purpose.