Messiah-centric films have always been a staple of Old Hollywood. From epics like the original silent Ben Hur to its more famous remake to The Robe, a fascination across human history with Jesus has driven many an epic. The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) is a lesser-known morality piece.

It centers on a passionate young blacksmith idealist named Marcus. When a Roman compliments his magnificent physique and implies he could “make a fortune” as a Gladiator, the peace-loving Marcus shakes his head. He has no use for gold; in his wife and son, he has more than enough to sustain his joy. But his opinion reverses when the only way to fund the doctor visits his wife needs is to fight in the arena—he returns home drenched in blood, to find she has died. Full of bitterness, Marcus embraces the philosophy that if you lack money, you lack power, so he will never be without it again. He becomes Pompeii’s most celebrated, ruthless gladiator, known for his swift dispatches of his opponents.

Then a second chance comes into his life, in the form of Flavius, the orphaned child of one of his defeated adversaries. Marcus takes him in to raise, intending to give him everything a boy could dream of owning… and one day, meets a seer in the marketplace who says “the greatest man in Judea” will alter his son’s life, forever for the better.

Audiences know who she speaks of, Jesus. But Marcus thinks in more literal terms of Pontius Pilate, the governor. The seer is right. Both ‘great’ men leave an indelible mark on Flavus’ life, forever…

A cinematic flop on its release, which only gained back its sizable budget by featuring in double-matinees, Pompeii is heavy-handed in its moralizing, but presents an interesting premise: how the divine and the physical can alter a life. Marcus concerns himself with the ‘treasures of this world’ at the expense of the loss of his soul; in his mind, Pilate sets them on course, when the Judean prefect lures him into sin. Furious with King Herod, and desperate to profit at his expense, Pilate convinces Marcus to steal Harod’s horses (and treasure) rather than trade for them. This sets Marcus up for life, allowing him to establish a magnificent house in Pompeii and become the ‘Master of the Arena.’ He builds his greater fortune in the blood of the slaves he sends into the area to die.

While in Judea, Flavius falls off a horse and lies near death. Jesus heals him. Although the child cannot remember the Messiah as an adult, his encounter with Him changes his life forever. Flavius, far from being the spoiled, selfish child he was (eager to own slaves, and greedy for everything life offered), has become a mature, responsible, idealistic man willing to risk his life to free slaves. He clings to strange old words from his past. He cannot place them until Pilate pays them a visit and tells him, “I have heard those ideals before, from a man in Judea.” When Flavius asks what happened to him, a strange look comes over Pilate’s face. Remorse. He replies, “I crucified him.”

Marcus was also in Jerusalem that day, on business, but allowed his mercenary nature to turn him away from the Crucifixion; instead of rushing to help the man who saved his son, he saw his horses and treasure safely out of the city. It made no impression on him, unlike Pilate, who confesses, “I seem to remember everything about that day.” Try as he might, the former governor cannot blot it out.

Pilate has a long history of complex appearances on screen, ranging from more recent depictions as a brutal tyrant to the petty, limp-wristed aristocrat of Ben Hur. It’s interesting, therefore, that this early representation of him should be so sympathetic. He has his flaws, as he lures Marcus into greed and delights in the thought of stealing from Harod, but Jesus’ trial and Crucifixion wear on him. He returns having convicted “a man in whom I found no fault” to speak to Marcus. Att one point, he covers his face with his hands and moans, “What have I done?” Pilate flits between typical Roman arrogance and callousness (he sees Flavius’ refusal to travel to Rome with him on his later visit to Pompeii as foolish idealism) and remorse and misgivings about his decision. He shows unusual wisdom, too, many years later in Pompeii.

Basil Rathbone at first showed no interest in the part, because it required only a week’s work, but his manager convinced him to read the script as a favor to him. Basil said, “As I read it, I had cold shivers running up and down my spine. […] It was magnificently written, with economy of words—truly a sublime characterization. I played the part, and the director will tell you that everything you saw on the screen was the first take. Not because I was a good boy and learned my lines, or a superlative actor, but because the part was me, and I was the part.”

Though it is Marcus’ story, Pilate has a formidable presence in how he forever shapes their lives—he is the unseen ‘undercurrent’ that motivates what transpires. Had Marcus not mistook him as the ‘greatest man in Judea,’ his son would never have met Jesus. Marcus also would never have met Jesus or remembered him, toward the end of the film, when Pompeii rains down ash and fire around him. It’s not a perfect cinematic experience, by any means. To a modern audience, it has the heavy-handed preachiness of a post-silent film. But for the time, it is memorable. The disaster scenes are harrowing and impressive for 1935. It has an earnest, sincere profession of truth behind it. And it gave Basil Rathbone a chance to play one of most iconic figures in history.

I wrote this post as part of the Suave Swordsman Basil Rathbone Blogathon. Please click here or on the image below to read the rest of the articles.