Peaceloving blacksmith Marcus refuses lucrative offers to fight in the arena...until his wife dies for lack of medical care. His life as a gladiator coarsens him, and shady enterprises make him the richest man in Pompeii, while his son Flavius (who met Jesus on a brief visit to Judaea) is as gentle as Marcus once was. The final disaster of Marcus and Flavius's cross purposes is interrupted by the eruption of Vesuvius.
Preston Foster ... Marcus
Alan Hale ... Burbix
Basil Rathbone ... Pontius Pilate
John Wood ... Flavius, as a Man
Louis Calhern ... Prefect (Allus Martius)
David Holt ... Flavius, as a Boy
Dorothy Wilson ... Clodia
Wyrley Birch ... Leaster
Gloria Shea ... Julia
Frank Conroy ... Gaius Tanno
William V. Mong ... Cleon, the Slave Dealer
Murray Kinnell ... Simon, Judean Peasant
Henry Kolker ... Warder
Edward Van Sloan ... Calvus
Zeffie Tilbury ... The Wise Woman
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack / Merian C. Cooper (uncredited)
Although never entirely flawless, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII ('35) was an ambitious undertaking for RKO to take at that time. The storyline, about a bitter blacksmith who turns gladiator, is really a morality tale wrapped up in biblical settings and given the usual "cast of thousands" publicity by the studio that spent a lot of money in recreating Ancient times.
PRESTON FOSTER was never a particularly charismatic actor, often accused of being "wooden", but there's a sincere element about his performance here that allows the film to work. So too does BASIL RATHBONE, giving some extra dimension to his take on Pontius Pilate.
Interesting to catch a glimpse of WARD BOND as a gladiator--an actor who has appeared in so many classic films it's almost amazing to realize he was kept as busy as he was.
With Max Steiner supplying the score, it's a lesser known gem that makes for enjoyable viewing even if it comes off as a cross between BEN-HUR and THE ROBE and lots of other stories dealing with the effect of the crucifixion on men's lives and their search for the truth.
Bulwer-Lytton has become, in a small way, a literary immortal from Victorian England - actually from late Regency through Victorian England). He was a wealthy landowner and aristocrat, who would be in the British cabinet as Secretary of State for the Colonies in the middle 1850s. He was the father of a would-be poet, who rose to be Viceroy of India. Lytton was a baronet when he started writing in 1825, and would eventually be an Earl (First Earl Lytton). He wrote all the titles (including THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) which I mentioned. Only PELHAM, his novel of Regency England's aristocracy (which he knew well) and THE LAST DAYS are still reprinted. That's because (as his own contemporaries - especially the greatly amused Thackeray noticed) Lord Lytton's ideas out paced his abilities. He wrote bad prose. A "Bulwer-Lytton" prize is now presented every year to those writers who write the worst, cliché-full opening paragraph for a novel. It is named for him because of the start of his novel EUGENE ARAM: "It was a dark and stormy night...."
He tried to be original in his concepts. EUGENE ARAM was based on the 18th Century schoolteacher, linguist, and murderer (hanged in 1759). Lytton tried to make a case that Aram's philosophical beliefs allowed him to take the blame for the murder he was hung for. The story sold well in the 1830s, but it met with mostly critical rejection. In MY NOVEL, his villain, Baron Levy, actually has a very human reason for his improbably complicated vengeance on two men: he's angry of their attentions to a woman he loves. Levy is Jewish, so it was a curious thing to make his motivation so mundane as love for a woman - but Bulwer spoiled it shortly after by adding the image of a vengeful Jew who had been insulted. That was always the problem with Bulwer-Lytton. He's a literary Ed Wood, in that his concepts outstrip his abilities (and in comparison Wood is more bearable - one of his movies lasts about an hour or so, while Bulwer can write a novel of over 700 pages!).
The reason THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII happened to have a long shelf life is that the subject (the small town near Naples that was buried in a sea of ash and lava by Vesuvius, and rediscovered preserved 1,700 years afterward) fascinates us, and to his credit Bulwer did his classical history homework. But as a piece of fiction his characters are dry as dust. One of the more interesting is a wealthy Egyptian who plans to take over the Roman Empire. He's the villain in the plot. The events that destroyed Pompeii are clearly revealed to us, including the earthquake that hit the town a decade before the volcanic eruption.
So when the movie was made they wisely jettisoned the actual story line (which I plowed through when I read the boring novel about 1985). Foster is a blacksmith who becomes a successful gladiator, and then a wealthy land owner near Pompeii. Early he lived in Judea, and met Christ, and he (like his old patron Pilate) are aware of an alternative to the materialist and corrupt empire. The film is old fashioned, but bearably so, and gave Foster one of his best screen performances (his retired police captain in KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is it's closest rival). Never a leading man in major productions, Foster demonstrated here that he could handle lead roles. Except for an occasional film though he usually was in supporting parts. For his performance, and Rathbone's Pilate, and for jettisoning Bulwer's idiot writing and plot, I'll give this an 8.
By the way, if you want to see an interesting, literary view of the later life of Pilate - by a Nobel Prize Winner no less - read the short story, THE PROCURATOR OF JUDEA by Anatole France. Far from being so thoughtful and sad as Rathbone's Pilate acts, France's version of the Procurator seems more realistic regarding his memories.
"The Last Days of Pompeii" was a film that captivated me during childhood and still intrigues me today, albeit on a different level. As viewers' comments have noted, "Last Days" is a little heavy handed with its moral theme and the character development of Marcus the Blacksmith-turned Gladiator-turned head of the Arena. Marcus (Preston Foster) is an innately good man, blessed with a loving wife, baby son, and a career, until an out-of-control chariot shatters his existence. With his wife (Gloria Shea) nearing death, Marcus must turn to the Arena, against his earlier values, now faced with the reality that money is the key to everything. Marcus becomes a killing machine, progressing up the gladiator billing to the top spot, but then adopts the son, Flavius (David Holt), of a slain adversary, resulting in another change. Acquiring a Greek slave (Wyrley Birch) to tutor his son, Marcus eventually heads for the Holy Land to make his fortune, meets Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone), and encounters Christ. Pilate uses Marcus in a symbiotic way that benefits them both, but it is the Lord who heals Holt when he lies near death. Marcus turns his back on the Lord, despite the protests of Simon (Murray Kinnell), in order to get his money back to Pompeii. The scene shifts, with Flavius (John Wood) now a young man appalled by the events in the Arena and struggling to remember the man who healed him in his youth. The conflict between father and son, arrival of Pilate to take Flavius to Rome, the corrupt Prefect (Louis Calhern) who demands gore for the "Games," and Flavius' romance with a slave (Dorothy Wilson) all intertwine and lead to the climatic eruption of Vesuvius. Marcus redeems himself in the emotional conclusion.
As a child, I loved Marcus' spiritual journey from innocent joy to sorrow to hard-hearted bitterness to mercenary greed and, finally, to redemption. As an adult, I still like the tale, but have focused more on the acting and production values. I disagree with the commentators who call the acting "wooden." Foster gives one of the best performances of his career as Marcus. As many note, Rathbone renders a sympathetic, sensitive delineation of Pilate. And the supporting players are superb: Edward Van Sloan as a kindly neighbor, Frank Conroy as a kind but condescending noble, Gloria Shea as the young wife, Dorothy Wilson as the son's love interest, Calhern as the despicable Prefect, Zeffie Tilbury as an old Greek soothsayer, etc. Even the minor roles are well-etched: Ward Bond as a bragging opponent of Marcus, Jason Robards Sr. as the tax gatherer, Reginald Barlow as the slave market proprietor, Kinnell as the Judean peasant, and many more. One can even spot Jim Thorpe throwing coins after a gladiator battle. A few players did very underrated work in "The Last Days of Pompeii." Alan Hale Sr., as Burbix, captures the rough edges of a criminal and then the fierce loyalty to his understanding friend Marcus. William V. Mong, as the growling-at-times, cowering-with-fear at others, slave dealer, Cleon, gives a wonderful, colorful performance that is anything but "wooden." But it is Wyrley Birch, as Leaster, the kindly Greek scholar/slave, who provides the moral compass for the film, counseling Marcus, tolerating his greed and seeming imperviousness to the suffering of others, while educating his son Flavius that there is a better way and far superior values than those his father seems to endorse. Birch walks the tightrope and never becomes overly sentimental. Truly, Leaster represents the apex of Birch's career.
"The Last Days of Pompeii" is an enjoyable film on many levels, including as a morality tale. It is much more than that, however. And for lovers of old character actors, it is a treasure trove!