I adore stories set in and around ancient Rome. The beauty of the Roman judicial system, compared with the squalor and bloodshed of the arena, fascinates me. So you can bet whenever they bring Pompeii to the big or small screen, my butt is in the seat.
The tragic story of the volcanic eruption of Pompeii has had various screen adaptations. I will discuss one of them in a few days at length, as part of the Basil Rathbone Blogathon, but also mention it here. That version plays out like a Catholic passion play set in three acts—an idealist’s fall from his ideals, his descent into the pursuit of wealth, his encounter with Pontius Pilate and Jesus in Judea, and his “redemption” when faced with a crisis. Though over-acted and preachy by modern sensibilities, The Last Days of Pompeii is memorable because of its exploration of a man’s soul. Granted, it pretends decades haven’t passed between the Crucifixion and Pompeii, but I give it credit for being original.
The 2014 remake takes some ideas from this earlier version (and later television epics based on the same book) and keeps the gladiators, but introduces a love story between Milo and a beautiful girl named Cassia. She has returned home from Rome to escape the unwanted attentions of the evil Senator Corvus. Alas, he follows her along with a henchman, Proculus. Cassia and Milo fall in “instant love” and do not have enough screen time to build up a convincing attachment before the second half of the film turns into a disaster.
Pompeii is an exquisitely designed epic, with gorgeous costumes, sets, and characters, along with incredible action sequences in the second half, but feels flat compared to the far superior Gladiator. It does not help that there are many strong similarities. Both involve a wronged man who wants to avenge the murder of his loved ones, who befriends an African slave-gladiator, rallies a group of gladiators to win a battle their master intended them to lose, and faces the man who murdered their loved ones at the end.
Had Pompeii chosen to be more original, given its script more time to breathe, and had a better casting director, it might have worked. I could highlight the lack of chemistry between the romantic leads or the lame writing as reasons for its box office disappointment, but in my opinion, without a good villain, you have no story. Villains exist to make heroes. I hate untapped evil potential. Which is why Pompeii disappointed me.
Gladiator’s running time allows its villain, Commodus, to have a back story and character development. We understand his motivations even if we cannot agree with them. Joaquin Phoenix gives such a powerful, unhinged performance, the audience feels both sympathy for and terrified of him, because they aren’t sure what he might do. One scene in particular, in which he threatens the child of his half-sister (whom he has a romantic interest in), stands your hair on end. His quiet presence alone is a threat.
Corvus is a stock villain, a Roman who wants whatever he sees and has a stereotypical callous disregard for human life. Cassia implies he intended to rape her in Rome, but she escaped before he could do it. On-screen, Corvus blackmails her, has Milo beaten in front of her, and tries to kill him in the arena, but we don’t know why beyond basic jealousy, so he falls flat. Keifer Sutherland has become so ionized as Jack Bauer from 24, he stands out as a “modern” actor in a period piece—he neither looks comfortable or fits the period or looks or sounds like a Roman senator. It’s a shame, because Sasha Roiz, who plays his henchman, has the perfect look and charisma for Corvus, but appears as the “beefcake with few lines” instead. I wish they would have combined Corvus and Proculus into one character and let Roiz play it, since I think that would have made the villain more memorable.
When casting about for what to say about Pompeii that did not wind up being endless negative comparisons to Gladiator, the Doctor Who episode about Pompeii came to my mind. In it, Eleven and his companion, Donna Noble, visit Pompeii in their time machine, the TARDIS. Distraught to discover what fate lies ahead of all the people in the city, Donna begs the Doctor to “save them.”
He shakes his head. “Some events in history are fixed,” he says.
In investigating a sinister cult in Pompeii, the Doctor winds up having to set off the volcano to stop something else from happening. He has to make the choice to kill thousands of people and realizes he is the reason for Pompeii’s destruction. It is a horrific and gut-wrenching twist… the alien who wishes he could save them winds up killing them. You can see the horror of the action, of knowing he must now live with this for centuries, on his face. In a compassionate move, Donna places her hands over his on the lever. She takes part of his burden, so he need not bear it alone. It establishes their season together as one of equals and friends. Then, when she helps the Doctor realize “who would know about Pompeii, if everyone died?” … he agrees to save one family. Just one. To tell the story.
Stories are an important part of our history. Before anyone could write them down, they told them around campfires. They etched them onto walls. Humans have always wanted to be remembered, to have their stories told, for the dead not to fade away. When we retell historical disasters as books or movies, we humanize the people involved and help audiences see them not as casualties but as “like us.” Human, with fears, desires, ambitions, love, and the potential for evil or goodness. No retelling of Pompeii is perfect, but each has something to offer, whether it’s Pilate lamenting Jesus’ crucifixion years later, Milo and Cassia watching a mountain of ash blowing toward them, or the Doctor standing on the hillside above the city. We came, we smelled the smoke and saw the fire, and left untouched in body, but not in spirit. Because for a few hours, we saw heroes amid the flames.
I wrote this as part of the Disaster Blogathon. Please click the below link to see more posts. Thanks for allowing me to participate!