Sunday, 1 March 2015


“Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster.” - Jim Wallis

When I was quite young, 9 or 10 years old, I read a Greek translation of “The Last Days of Pompeii”, a novel written by the baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1834. The novel was inspired by the painting “The Last Day of Pompeii” by the Russian painter Karl Briullov (see above), which Bulwer-Lytton had seen in Milan. The painting is now in The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia and is quite a spectacular work, oil on canvas a huge 4.6 x 6.5 metres. One can see why the author was struck by it and inspired to write his novel. The novel impressed itself on my mind and fuelled my imagination and pre-existing interest in things ancient.

This was once a very widely read book but unfortunately, it is now relatively neglected. The plot culminates in the cataclysmic destruction of the city of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The novel uses its characters to contrast the decadent culture of 1st-century Rome with both older cultures and coming trends. The protagonist, Glaucus, represents the Greeks who have been subordinated by Rome, and his nemesis Arbaces the still older culture of Egypt. Olinthus is the chief representative of the nascent Christian religion, which is presented favourably but not uncritically.

At the weekend we watched the 2014 Paul W.S. Anderson film “Pompeii” starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland. I must confess that the only reason I wanted to see the film was the novel I had read in my youth and my continuing interest in things ancient. Alas! The screenplay was pure hogwash manufactured by the trio of Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson. It had nothing to do with Bulwer-Lytton’s novel and the story simply had to accommodate as many special effects as possible in order to make the film as spectacular and as worthy of 3D treatment as possible.

The plot begins in Roman England, where a Celtic tribe of horsemen is slaughtered by a Roman army commanded by General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his right-hand man Proculus (Sasha Roiz). The boy Milo is the only Celt survivor of the tribe, and is captured lto be sold as a slave. Seventeen years later, the slave Milo (Kit Harington) turns into an invincible gladiator in Londinium and is brought to Pompeii to participate in the games of this resort city’s arena.

While travelling to Pompeii, the noble Cassia (Emily Browning) and her chaperone Ariadne (Jessica Lucas) cross paths with the marching gladiators and Cassia is fascinated by Milo, who kills her injured horse bare-handed so that it does not suffer. In the gladiators’ quarters in Pompeii, Milo shares the cell of Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye- Agbaje), who is near to get his freedom provided he wins his last fight.

Meanwhile Cassia meets her parents Severus (Jared Harris) and Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) and learns that she has been betrothed to the corrupt Corvus, now Senator and close to emperor Titus. During the games, Mount Vesuvius erupts allowing Milo and Atticus to escape from the amphitheatre. However, Milo learns that Cassia has been confined in her villa by Corvus and he decides to rescue her in the midst of the catastrophic events…

The movie is full of historical and physical inaccuracies, but one expects that of Hollywood. One may forgive such lapses if the story is good. However, the story is thin, too full of clichés while the acting is rather wooden and the movie becomes a shallow disaster flick. Historical accuracy should not be sacrificed unless it fulfils a purpose in the movie. This movie got it wrong, making it confused, illogical and a poor film. The bad script began it all, the poor direction helped it all along, and finally the immense pressure by the producers to make it as “epic” as possible with special effects thrown in left, right and centre, as well as lots of violence and fight scenes.

After watching this movie, I’ve discovered that there is a 1984 television mini-series broadcast on ABC-TV, adapting the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It was the second English-language adaptation of the book for film or television (previously adapted mainly in Italian; the 1935 RKO film was unrelated to the novel and the 1900 adaptation by Walter R. Booth, the first adaptation to the cinema in English language, was a short film). It is available on YouTube and I’ve bookmarked it to see it. A casual glance revealed rather cheap costumes and sets, but the acting is good (Laurence Olivier plays in it) and the plot is much better! It is also available on DVD if you can get your hands on it.

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