Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Last Days of Pompeii (1984)

I’ve seen most of the screen versions of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 disaster novel classic with the same name. This is by far the best version, even if it’s still just a very expensive slice of Christian propaganda. I haven’t read the original book, but somehow it feels like it could have been the forefather to all the disaster clichés. Sure, there have been a few other early disaster movies that helped the film industry to design all future movies in the same genre (1933’s Deluge, San Francisco, 1936), but this has always been the mother of them all. Why? Because it has a fantastic gallery of stereotypes, from the evil non-christian priest, the proud slave, the good-hearted roman, the leader of the city that just want to please people with parties and fun, the old fart that knows everything etc etc.

Like almost all the other versions we mainly follow the noble Greek Glaucus, the up-and-coming capitalist Diomed and the good gladiator Lydon. All around these characters are a jungle of other personalities, all with their own agenda. But the main thing is the secret group of Christians that fight for their survival, both hiding in the forest having meetings and in the arena versus warriors and lions. It’s all pretty clear that the reason why Vesuvius finally erupt is because of the evil heretics who want to stop the good-hearted Christians from worshipping their god.

Anyway, this is a co-production between Italy and the US and has an impressive cast of heavy character actors: Ned Beatty, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quayle, Brian Blessed, Ernest Borgnine, Olivia Hussey, Lesley-Anne Down and two very familiar faces from Italian genre movies, the great Catriona MacColl and the awesome Franco Nero – both make probably the best performances in the series. A young and very sexy Benedict Taylor plays a future priest that has doubts about his profession. Olivier is for once really good, even if he uses all his traditional acting-tricks in the book (his use of eyes, the tongue, the nervous laughter etc). Ned Beatty and Ernest Borgnine, both of them good actors, are obviously playing the same parts like they have done so many times before, but it works.

The story unfolds slow and with a lot of dialogue and melodrama, but strange enough it never gets boring. Peter R. Hunt, the work-horse of British cinema, makes the story work without to much boring talking heads and shows his talent for action (this is the guy directing On Her Majesty's Secret Service, no surprise!) especially in the excellent gladiator-scenes.

But the reason for a production to exist is of course the final scenes should deliver something extra spectacular. I’m happy to say this version has the best and longest volcano eruption with fantastic use of both real sets falling apart and nice miniature getting crushed. This is also, I think, the only version I’ve seen so far were we actually see people (and animals) getting buried in the ashes (in dramatic poses, probably inspired by the archaeological excavations which made Pompeii famous). The special effects is top-notch and among the best I’ve seen in a TV-production from this time.

Right now you can only buy this mini-series in Germany. The set is quite cheap and is worth every penny. Quality? Ok, nothing fancy, but works fine on my big Sony Bravia. A must of disaster movie aficionados.

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