Monday, March 30, 2009

The Last Days of Pompeii: Great F/X, Bad History

The Last Days Of Pompeii
Warner Bros. // 1935 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“A sky ablaze in flame and ash!” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening shot…
The producer, director, screenwriter, and special-effects maestro who brought the original King Kong to life re-teamed two years later for this historical spectacle. This slow-moving melodrama accelerates in the final reel with a wild climax of destruction and chaos, engineered by one of the earliest — and greatest — special effects technicians in Hollywood.

A bit of plot…
In the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, peaceful blacksmith Marcus (Preston Foster, My Friend Flicka) refuses to fight as a gladiator no matter how much money he’s offered. Marcus prefers the quiet family life with his wife and infant son. But when his wife dies for lack of proper medical care, Marcus picks up a sword and begins to kill for a fistful of gold coins. Violent death and shady business deals pay well, and soon Marcus is the wealthiest man in Pompeii. His son Flavius (John Wood, Luck of the Navy) grows to manhood and chooses a different path. Having encountered Jesus on the road to Judea, Flavius turns toward Christianity and quickly discovers that his beliefs in peace and equality clash with his father’s avaricious values. Flavius vows to free the slaves of Pompeii. In Jerusalem, Marcus visits Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Robin Hood), who plots his political schemes and “washes his hands” of the Messiah’s fate. As Jesus faces crucifixion, Marcus barely escapes the rioting in Jerusalem with his friend Burbix (sturdy contract player Alan Hale, who would also appear in The Adventures of Robin Hood as Little John, opposite Rathbone and Errol Flynn). Returning to Pompeii, Marcus learns his son has joined the slave rebellion. As the skies darken with volcanic ash, Mt. Vesuvius rumbles ominously outside the city.

Historical significance and context…
This picture was made by famed producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Schoedsack and stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien after they stunned the world with King Kong. Like the classic, giant-monkey film, this tale of the Roman Empire was penned by Ruth Rose, Schoedsack’s wife and longtime collaborator. The Last Days of Pompeii delivers solid production values (and dubious history), while serving up spectacular destruction when Vesuvius inevitably erupts as it must. Until then, there is plenty of talk to pad the running time. Even the arena battles are rather pedestrian. Schoedsack relies heavily on montage, symbolism and portentous dialogue to propel the plot. And there's the problem. The basic story of financial hardship and family values clashing in a moral conundrum is spun from thin fabric. There's just not enough narrative cloth to drape across a feature-length film, especially a picture that exists mainly as a showcase for O’Brien’s special effects genius. His talents with miniatures and optical trickery remain impressive 70 years on — if we look at the film in the context of pre-computer technology.

Although computer-generated imagery may be more convincing, film connoisseurs should take time to savor the craftsmanship that went into these early spectacles at the dawn of the sound era. True, there's not much of O’Brien's signature stop-motion work in this picture. But his skill in combining miniatures, artificial lava and full-scale sets with hundreds of stampeding actors is proof that O’Brien (above, right) was expert at much more than manipulating rubber dinosaur puppets a frame at a time. In Pompeii, his effects are more convincing than Foster and especially Rathbone, whose acting in this picture makes a wooden Indian look positively dynamic.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. DVD video and audio are as good as the 70-year-old source materials. No restoration effort appears to have been made, as the film is pocked with scratches, blemishes, and apparent flecks of dirt on a faded print. No extras on the disc; not even a trailer, which is disappointing, given the film’s pedigree.

Composer Roy Webb receives credit for the original music score, but there's more going on here than meets the ear. There’s no question that large portions of the score, particularly during the climax, were lifted directly from Max Steiner’s classic score for the original King Kong, another RKO Radio Pictures property. Such uncredited appropriations were common under the old studio system, when everyone worked under contract and the major production companies controlled everything.

This practice of musical cribbing continues today. Just for fun, listen during the trailer for the Disney picture Chicken Little (2005) and you’ll hear snippets of the 1994 score for Roland Emmerich's Stargate. Disney also got a lot of mileage out of The Rocketeer (1991) soundtrack, which was reused in dozens of trailers throughout the 1990s. James Horner’s score for Aliens (1986) would be reused countless times – most notably whole sections in the final scenes of Die Hard (1988).

But let’s return to the audio for Pompeii. Careful listeners will realize that the foley artist also reused some of the old Kong sound effects, most memorably the awful screams of sailors plunging to their doom from the log bridge and, in an earlier scene, the poor fellow picked off a tree and devoured by an Apatosaurus. Those hideous yodels and yelps are heard again and again in ancient Pompeii, as extras are pulverized under tumbling temples and crumbling statues. Obsessive film historians might wonder how long it took a studio like RKO to amortize the cost of a reel of sound effects across the budgets for half a dozen or more films.

The Last Days of Pompeii
was released on DVD the same day as a trio of Cooper’s more famous films (all featuring O’Brien’s animated apes) — King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young. Warner probably did this as a housecleaning measure — dust off and release an obscure title by one of the fathers of epic filmmaking on the same day as its more famous siblings. Good marketing ploy, since the primary audience for this picture will be O’Brien’s fans and special effects enthusiasts. Like his other, lesser-known films, such as The Black Scorpion, O’Brien’s special effects in The Last Days of Pompeii are more interesting than the actors reacting in front of them.

Inducing restlessness until the mighty Vesuvius climax, The Last Days of Pompeii only comes to life when most of the characters meet violent death. For the grimly effective climax, I applauds O’Brien’s masterful techniques as the work of a true effects innovator. Sadly, his efforts went virtually unrecognized by film lovers until long after his death in 1963. Even a 1949 special effects Oscar for Mighty Joe Young seems inadequate compensation for a man who devoted his life to conjuring non-stop wonders on a movie screen via the painstaking process of stop-motion animation.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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