Last Days of Pompeii

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Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

"...And another thing:
Hercules would never sing!"
There must be something about the novel The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, because it has been committed to film at least eight times. The novel isn't known very well today, but the Cecil B. DeMille version from 1935 is the best known, despite the fact that it has little to do with the novel. In 1960, Italian filmmakers went back to the original novel, then liberally rewrote it to turn into an action vehicle for then hot-stuff star Steve Reeves, the actor who first played a flesh-and-blood version of the Greek demigod Hercules. Probably the only thing these three versions of the story (the novel, the 1935 movie, and the 1960 movie) have in common is that at the end, Mt. Vesuvius blows its top and kills a whole bunch of people. Ah, if there's one concept that is universal to all cultures it's that destroying cities is fun!

Sturdy Steve plays a legionnaire named Glaucus who arrives back home in Pompeii after an adventure on some frontier or another. He arrives on the edge of town just in time to see beautiful Ione (Christine Kaufmann) lose control of her chariot. Those lady drivers will never learn, huh? Glaucus saves Ione's life, then heads into town to see his father. On the way, Glaucus saves a thief named Antonius (Angel Aranda) from the gentle ministrations of a Praetorian Guard named Gallinus. Then he goes on his way.

The guy on the left probably
made his own hood.
Upon arriving home, Glaucus discovers that his father is dead. Pompeii is being terrorized by a group of black-hooded thieves who are killing off entire families, then looting their homes -- and it looks like Glaucus' family home was the latest stop on their tour. The gang leaves behind the Christian cross as a calling card. Needless to say, Glaucus vows revenge. But first it's time for a party!

In order to convince the Emperor that the mass murders are not a sign of trouble, the Consul of Pompeii orders a festival. (Natch!) In the streets, Antonius rolls a drunken soldier and steals his pouch. The pouch contains a ring that belonged to Glaucus' father and a black hood. Antonius brings the ring to Glaucus' friend Marcus, who follows the suspicious soldier to Pompeii's Temple of Isis. But before Marcus can tell anybody what he has discovered, he is killed by the High Priest of Isis, and his body is left to be found with a Christian cross carved into it.

"Does Chairman Kaga know
you stole his outfit?"
Meanwhile, a drunk Glaucus crashes a party at Consul Askinius' house. Relationship check time! Askinius is also Ione's father. Ione has a blind slave named Nydia (Barbara Carroll). Nydia is also Antonius' beloved. Askinius also has a concubine named Julia, but she acts his wife. There will be a quiz on all this later.

While we're on lessons of Italian filmmaking, here's one to keep in mind. In most cases the true nature of the women in these kinds of films can be divined by their hairstyles. If a woman wears her hair down, she's good. But if she wears her hair up or pulled away from her face, watch out! Julia always wears her hair in a bun, so even though she didn't do anything overtly suspicious the first couple of times she appeared, we watched her like a hawk, waiting for her to do something evil.

At Askinius' party, the disreputable Praetorian Guard Gallinus tries to rape Nydia, much to the amusement of the crowd. Glaucus puts a stop to Gallinus' carousing, which causes Gallinus to challenge Glaucus to a fight. This is a really stupid move on Gallinus' part, because as played by Reeves, Glaucus is about four inches taller and about a foot wider across the shoulders than the other man, not to mention the washboard abs and the rippling muscles placed here and there. Perhaps Gallinus is near-sighted. And as you might expect, Glaucus takes Gallinus out with a cursory punch, and then humiliates him further.

"Today's theme ingredient is --
Nightingale tongues!"
The next day Marcus' funeral is held, with Glaucus and Antonius in attendance. After the ceremony, Antonius reaffirms his anti-Christian prejudices. But Nydia is a Christian, and she tries to tell Antonius that he should attend a secret Christian gathering to find out how good the Christians really are. Sadly, she's actually talking to Gallinus at the time (remember, she's blind), and he happens to be in charge persecuting Christians. Women, huh? Can't keep a secret. That night all the Christians are rounded up and imprisoned.

Glaucus sees the wholesale torture of the Christians, and he decides that they aren't guilty. He makes to ride for Rome to plead for their freedom, but is waylaid by the black hood gang, led by Gallinus, that rat! Though Glaucus only takes one minor arrow wound to the shoulder, Gallinus decides that Glaucus must be dead. If only that guy would get glasses!

Glaucus recovers, and learns from Antonius of the shenanigans at the Temple of Isis. He informs the Consul of his plan to get proof at the temple, then heads out with butt kicking on his mind. And then it happens: Julia shows her true colors! She's behind the black hood gang, she's building an army to drive Rome from Egypt, the whole nine yards. Then, after explaining her whole plan to the consul, she kills him. Wow, these Italians really have something against women!

"We've got to find a tailor who can
finish a job!"
At the temple Glaucus gets into big fight with the black hood gang. Because most of them sport beer bellies, they don't put up much of fight against the one-time Mr. Universe. Then Gallinus shows up with an axe, and he tries to kill Glaucus. But goodhearted Steve actually tries to help Gallinus with some primitive Lasik eye surgery. Then Julia shows up and drops Glaucus down the temple's secret door trap. All good temples have a secret door trap. At the bottom of the pit, Glaucus fights a smallish rubber alligator and escapes, only to be captured and put in jail for the Consul's murder.

And then it's gladiator time! Everybody into the ring to be eaten by lions! Can Studly Steve fight off lions and legionnaires and save the lives of the Christians? Does it really matter, since the volcano is going to blow any time now?

As the previous thousand words indicate, The Last Days of Pompeii is one of the most plot-heavy sword-and-sandal epics in existence. Precious time that could be used to ride chariots, drink heavily, or engage in death-match wrestling bouts is wasted on dialogue vital to a plot so boring that we were begging the on-screen ghost of Steve Reeves to start bashing heads. Even the mildly exciting alligator fight and the climactic battle with a lion (which was stolen in toto for the later Sybil Danning vehicle Warrior Queen) were such a relief that we were praising Reeves' name: our hero! He rescued us from the rest of the film!

So that's how Italy chooses a Prime Minister!
The overabundance of plot kills what could have been a reasonably-paced movie with high production values (for an Italian flick, anyway -- just look at the sets and costumes!) and a cast of actors who at least knew what to do with a good line when it came their way. Although Reeves is no Olivier, he gets the basic emotions right in each scene. (He's also really good at putting his hand on people's shoulder, which is the major form of communication in these kinds of films.) The supporting cast is good enough to carry the film the rest of the way. Aranda's Antonius is a bright, scrappy thief with a quick smile -- too bad about that doomed love affair with the blind girl. And Christine Kauffman's Ione gives Glaucus every reason in the world to fall in love and be a hero.

Our biggest beef would have to be with the special effects: given that most folks will tune in for the chance to see the volcano explode or watch as Reeves conquers the alligator, the bargain-basement tricks these filmmakers employ are almost sure to disappoint. The eruption is particularly fake, what with all the fireworks and pink smoke (What is this? A Godzilla movie?) -- even Warrior Queen, which also took place on Pompeii's final day, had the good sense to use stock footage. The only redeeming sequence is the lion fight, which is well staged with a real lion (mostly) -- which is probably why the makers of Warrior Queen saw fit to steal it.

On a final note, it should be mentioned Steve Reeves injured his shoulder while making this movie. Biographies state that he was injured when he drove a chariot into a wall, though no such scene made it into the body of the movie. Reeves would go on to make movies for another decade before the shoulder forced him to retire after A Long Ride from Hell. Even if Last Days of Pompeii is a rather unspectacular example of Reeves craft, it's still nice to see him knocking black hoods around and flexing his pecs. Eat your heart out, Kevin Sorbo.

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Review date: 5/10/00

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* Okay, Steve actually shoves a hot brazier into Gallinus' face. Go back!































** There's a scene where Antonius lays his hand on Glaucus' shoulder (as is the fashion in Roman times) and Glaucus flinches. This causes Antonius to exclaim, "You are injured!" Maybe Steve wasn't acting. Go back!