The Colosseum was under construction for nearly a decade and was on the verge of completion when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, burying the much older amphitheater at Pompeii. The destruction of Pompeii was not the end of the Roman Empire but in cinematic history it serves as a kind of premonition, an intimate glimpse of the last days of glory for the Empire. A visit to the partly restored city, a short ride south from Rome, produces the same sensation in even greater intensity. In the areas where the volcanic ash has been cleared, visitors can walk the streets of and reconstruct in imagination what it was like on the day it was buried almost 2000 years ago. For those who cannot or will not visit, the movies may fill the gap.

The Last Days of Pompeii  (1913)

The Amphitheater at Pompeii.  Vesuvius on the horizon.

The Amphitheater at Pompeii.
Vesuvius on the horizon.

This was an ambitious film project for its time and it enjoyed great success. Produced in Italy, the contest of good and evil characters is played out in the language of silent film – placards and pantomime. Most of it is shot on interior sets but the last days before the eruption of Vesuvius find the characters at risk in the amphitheater of Pompeii. Once again, it is in the gladiatorial arena that the drama of the time reaches its highest pitch. The scenes of the erupting volcano are shown through a red filter. It was based on the 1834 novel of the same title by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

The Last Days of Pompeii  (1935)

This film makes a point of announcing that it is not based on the novel by Bulwer-Lytton. In fact it has more in common with the movies involving encounters with Jesus and serves as a compendium of the issues that will bring Rome to grief. The lead character is a blacksmith in Pompeii whose sad adventures take him into the gladiatorial arena, the slave trade, and to Jerusalem where he meets Jesus. It ends with the terrible rain of fire and ash from Mount Vesuvius, which seems a portent of more trouble to come.

The Last Days of Pompeii  (1960)

A loose version of the Bulwer-Lytton novel, this Italian production stars Steve Reeves. It follows the formula with fictional action leading to a penultimate scene with Reeves facing the lions in the Pompeii amphitheater. Suddenly, Vesuvius erupts.

 The Last Days of Pompeii  (1984)

A made-for-TV miniseries, this treatment of Bulwer-Lytton attracted some considerable ridicule, despite its big budget and a stellar cast.

Pompeii  (2014)

Though following the same formula, this film is not based on Bulwer-Lytton. It is, shall we say, inspired by Gladiator.

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