Mount Vesuvius is about to blow its top but things are even hotter in the drawing rooms of Pompeiian aristocrats as love triangles unfold, secret drugs flow and the knives come out. This mini epic abbreviates the massive bestselling novel down to two reels.
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Where’s the kaboom?
Historical spectacles had been present from the start of projected cinema but they became longer and more elaborate to meet audience demand for bigger, more narratively complex films. Italy was the undisputed champion of historical films pre-WWI and their most famous titles—films like Cabiria, Qua Vadis and the Mario Caserini version of The Last Days of Pompeii— were released in the 1910s. However, there is a particular charm to the historical epics produced by Italy in the 1900s. They are shorter and play more as a Cliff’s Notes version of their respective stories but I enjoy seeing the building blocks of a motion picture empire.
The 1913 Caserini version of The Last Days of Pompeii is quite famous but this 1908 version remains obscure, despite its importance in helping to launch Italy as ancient times picture powerhouse. It’s from the Ambrosio film company and directed by Luigi Maggi, who also directed the historical film Nero a year later.
The plot is pretty much your standard historical fiction stuff with love triangles galore. (Author of the original novel, Edward Bulwerd-Lytton, fancied himself the next Sir Walter Scott.) Glaucus (Umberto Mozzato) is the most eligible bachelor in Pompeii but he only has eyes for Ione (Mirra Principi). However, she is being lusted after by Arbaces (Luigi Maggi), a wicked priest.
Arbaces tricks Nydia (Lydia De Roberti), a blind woman under the protection of Glaucus who pines for him, into purchasing a potion that will render the drinker mad. Nydia believes she is delivering a love potion and spikes Glaucus’ wine. Arbaces then frames Glaucus for the murder of Ione’s brother and the stage is set for some mwahahahahaha triumph but… isn’t the sky a bit red and ashy today?
The Last Days of Pompeii was made during a period of transition for filmed spectacles. Elaborately painted sets, like those you see in the Georges Méliès epic The Kingdom of the Fairies, were on their way out. The Last Days of Pompeii is set-bound for much of the picture but the paintings are more realistic and less fanciful than those found in French productions.
The climactic volcanic action is spectacular to see but the direction is generally straightforward with the actors remaining a polite, full-body shot distance from the camera. There is one good scene, though, after Glaucus consumes his spiked drink and wanders about in an insane daze. Umberto Mazzato staggers toward the camera before lurching off to the side, which adds a dynamic quality to the sequence. (While not seen in ever film, actors approaching the camera for dramatic effect was not new. Méliès used it in his 1899 film series, The Dreyfus Affair.)
As for the film’s setting, Pompeii’s fame today lies in its destruction. The volcanic ash settled onto the city and preserved all manner of ephemeral goods that would otherwise be lost to time. Loaves of bread, fast food stands, the intact teeth of the cremation-centric Romans… However, the notion that Pompeii was a center of power can be blamed on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii. It was popular a city of trade and tourism but no seat of power. (Who knows? Maybe in a thousand years some novelist will tell us of the great American cities of New York, Los Angeles and Carmel-by-the-Sea.)
Historical flubs aside, Bulwer-Lytton’s novel was a runaway bestseller. (Though The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection points out that the oft-repeated factoid that it sold 10,000 copies the day it was published is yet another flub.) So successful, in fact, that it was ripe for the kind of film adaptation being done in the 1900s.
You see, before feature films caught on as the primary delivery system for cinema, audiences still wanted to see their favorite novels on the screen. So, filmmakers would basically offer up a “good parts” version of popular works. The best and most famous scenes were played out in loving detail with setup and minor characters sliced away and gaps papered over with title cards. It’s unfair to complain about any choppiness because this was baked into the production and these adaptations could only work with popular, familiar material.
The Last Days of Pompeii is easier to follow than most and the story should be comprehensible even to modern viewers who may not have read the novel. Of course, 1908 audiences would likely have had a passing familiarity with the book and remember that theatrical adaptations and abridged editions were available if 400 pages seemed a bit much.
The most obvious change is that a character called Julia, another admirer of that dreamboat Glaucus and the deliverer of the crazy juice in the novel, is combined with Ione. A bunch of subplots and characters are jettisoned as well, though I think that is actually a good thing as historical novels of this period tend to have overstuffed casts.
As was the case with Luigi Maggi’s 1909 film, Nero, the acting in The Last Days of Pompeii can be described as enthusiastic but it works with the material. Maggi cleverly took the best part for himself and his cackling Arbeces delighted me as I watched. What can I say? I am a sucker for over-the-top villainy.
And, also like Nero, the best part of The Last Days of Pompeii is when Maggi lets ‘er rip and delivers the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. We have a burning volcano in the background, a fierce red tint on the celluloid and Pompeiians running in a panic as Doric columns crumble over their heads. Give Signore Maggi some red tint and a bunch of extras and I could watch his films for days.
As was the case with many European films, it found an eager audience in the United States and the film press of the day was effusive in praising the picture. Gushing reviews called the picture beautiful, unexcelled and suggested that it was a model for all filmmakers to follow. And follow they did.
The Last Days of Pompeii was a groundbreaking film that showcased the power of epic filmmaking in miniature. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly during the grand finale. Get into the spirit, be ready to cheer the heroes and boo the villains and I think you’ll have a good old-fashioned time.
Where can I see it?
Watch it for free on Museo Nazionale del Cinema’s Vimeo account.
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