Pompeii in the movies: A brief history of sword, sandal, and volcanoes.
By Richard Crouse – Metro Canada
It’s said the people of Pompeii regarded the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. with “a response more of curiosity than of alarm.” The volcano had burped and belched as many as 50 times over the years, so most of the city’s 20,000 citizens didn’t pay attention when Vesuvius started to gurgle.
Perhaps they were too busy visiting one of the city’s many brothels — like a proto-Las Vegas, this was the richest city of ancient times, ripe with amenities and vice — or enjoying their lunches of broad beans, olives, dormice (plumped up by chefs in terracotta jars) or even garum, made from the first blood of a still-gasping mackerel, to detect the cloud of deadly volcanic ash headed their way.
By the end of the day the dust “poured across the land,” claiming 2,000 lives. Buried beneath, “a darkness… like the black of closed and unlighted rooms.” The remains of Pompeii and its people were preserved, left untouched for two millennia.
Today the ancient city of Pompeii is one of the most popular attractions in Italy, drawing almost three million tourists annually. But if you can’t make it to the Italian region of Campania, a new movie aims to recreate the experience for you.
Pompeii stars Kit Harington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning and Kiefer Sutherland in a love story about a slave-turned-gladiator (Harington) who must rescue his beloved, Cassia (Browning), before a rolling mountain of lava and ash dooms her to the ages.
The big action adventure take on the story directed by Resident Evil helmer Paul W.S. Anderson has an ancestor in The Last Days of Pompeii, a 1913 silent sword-and-sandal movie based on the Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name. That book has been remade eight times.
The most famous version came in 1959. The big budget CinemaScope production was to have been directed by Mario Bonnard, but when he fell ill on the first day of shooting, screenwriter Sergio Leone (who would go on to make classics like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) stepped in. It’s big on pageantry, just as the advertising taglines would suggest. It’s a “Fiery Summit of Spectacle,” the posters screamed, promising an inside look at, “the City that Lived in Sin and Died in Flame!”
Certainly it’s more puffed-up than Up Pompeii, a 1971 Frankie Howerd comedy that featured a speech by emperor Ludicrus Sextus during Vesuvius’ eruption.
“I say, Lurcio, how did my speech go?” he asks his servant as the city crumbles.
“Master, you brought the house down!”