Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 15, 2015

Recent Watches: The Last Days of Pompeii (1959)

Let it never be said that the Italians didn’t know a good thing when they saw it. For decades, the Italian film industry was always chasing cinematic trends. “A Fistful of Dollars” was popular, so they made a shit load of spaghetti westerns. “Dawn of the Dead” was popular, so they made a shit load of zombie movies. “The Road Warrior” was popular, so they made a shitload of post-apocalyptic action flicks. The earliest time I can pin-point this happening was when 1958’s “Hercules,” starring Steve Reeves, was a big international hit, leading to a huge burst of sword and sandal flicks, many of them also starring Reeves. (“The Ten Commandments” was perhaps the Hollywood flick that started off the trend, though it was set on the wrong continent.) One such movie was “The Last Days of Pompeii.” The Reeves-starring film would probably be forgotten as just another peplum flick if a funny thing hadn’t happened. Assigned director Mario Bonnard became sick on the first day of filming, forcing assistant director Sergio Leone to step behind the camera. Though Bonnard got the final credit, Leone directed the entire movie. In the next decade, Leone’s own stock as a filmmaker would ascend considerably.  What does one make of his uncredited feature debut?

During, dah-dum, the last day of Pompeii, the Roman centurion Glaucus returns to the city to visit his father. Before heading to his dad’s place, he befriends the lovely maiden Ione and the thief Antonius. Arriving at his dad’s home, he finds it raided, ruined, and his father dead. The centurion promises revenge against those responsible. Along the way, he uncovers a conspiracy within the political and the religious centers to frame Pompeii’s growing Christian population for the crimes and fund an uprising against the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Mount Vesuvius looms ominously over the city.

Separating “The Last Days of Pompeii” from the countless other peplum movies is that it is not set in the distant days of Greek and Roman mythology. Instead, it is set 74 years after the birth of Christ, when Christianity was a small but growing cult among the still largely pagan Roman Empire. The film focuses extensively on the Christian sects within Pompeii, giving it a slightly different center then most movies of this ilk. The conspiracy marking their murders and crimes with crosses is a memorable image, if nothing else, and can even be seen as somewhat daring. When evil kings and slave rebellions are more commonly seen in these flicks, one making room for faith and religious prosecution is a welcomed change of pace.

This isn’t to say that “The Last Days of Pompeii” doesn’t skimp on the convoluted political intrigue and interpersonal drama that all too often characterizes the more grounded examples of the genre. Oh boy, does it have that in spades! The main villain of the film is Arbaces, the high priest of Isis and co-conspirators of the plot, played by a very Vincent-Price-looking Fernando Rey. He’s collecting gold, in order to fund a coup of the emperor. The girlfriend of another one of Arbaces’ conspirators, Julia played by the hourglass figured Anne-Marie Baumann, has a personal grudge against Rome. I bet there would be easier ways to steal gold then a complex plot to frame all the Christians in the city. Meanwhile, every supporting character gets their own love interest and subplot. Antonius the thief falls in love with Ione’s blind slave, Nydia. Nydia’s blindness has her accidentally revealing vital information to a bad guy who just happens by. There are more details but I’ve honestly forgotten most of them already.

What is memorable about “The Last Days of Pompeii” is Steve Reeves doing his thing. Reeves is a charming screen presence, with more range then you’d expect. More importantly, his chiseled build and heroic chin makes him a more then passable action hero. When Reeves is in a temple, flipping and stabbing guys in black hoods, that’s fun. When he’s hacking and slashing gladiators, including one with a trident and net, that’s even better. Even this soon after his break-out role, the guy was still a natural in a skirt and carrying a sword. Despite playing a dude of normal lineage, Reeves still performs some Herculean feats of strength. He wrestles a flimsy, flippy-floppy crocodile, tearing its jaw off entirely. As a follow-up act, he chokes out a friggin’ lion, a more convincing stunt. Less talk of political upheaval and more scenes of Steve Reeves doing awesome shit would have made “The Last Days of Pompeii” more bearable.

As the title indicates, “The Last Days of Pompeii” ends with Mount Vesuvius blowing up and taking the whole city with it. Weirdly, there’s very little foreshadowing of this. Change a few lines of dialogue and cut off the last ten minutes, this movie could be set in any ancient Roman city. Once the volcano goes off, it’s fairly spectacular. No, there are no giant clouds of black ash petrifying people in seconds. However, fiery sparks rain down on the crowds. Buildings crumble, the sea burns, and a giant crack in the ground opens up. The movie’s religious (barely) subtexts pays off at the end. The temple of Isis collapses on the villains, crushing them with their own idols. Meanwhile, the Christians escape unharmed, escaping the presumed wrath of their own god. That’s subtle. Even the scenes of destruction go on a little too long, brushing up against tedium.

“The Last Days of Pompeii” offers very little as a Sergio Leone film. Despite being filmed in CinemaScope, few scenes in the movie benefit from the ultra-wide screen. There’s none of the sweeping vistas, lingering close-ups, or lively action direction that would characterize Leone’s spaghetti westerns. (Interestingly enough, Sergio Corbucci worked on this movie as well. Corbucci would also go on the make many notable spaghetti westerns, like “Django,” “Navajo Joe,” “The Great Silence,” and several others.) If you’re looking for Steve Reeves choking out animals or a big ass volcano, “The Last Days of Pompeii” eventually provides. However, I mostly found it rather dull and uninteresting. Sorry. [5/10]

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