The “Sword and Sandal” genre of films was the low rent version of Hollywood historical sagas. It began in Italy during the silent era, and often featured a historical event such as the burning of Rome with a simplistic story grafted onto it. The genre reached its pinnacle in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly with the Steve Reeves’ Hercules flicks. By 1964, it was all over, killed off by the six-guns of the Spaghetti Westerns. We’ve had an A-list version of the genre in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but that was an anomaly – mostly because it was a good film – and Starz did the Spartacus series, another take on the genre. Now there’s a new “Sword and Sandal” movie with the release of Pompeii. It serves to remind us why the genre had its deserved demise 50 years ago.
On the positive side, computer graphics allow the modern filmmaker to recreate the world of the Roman Empire in spectacular detail. Pompeii is brought to life in a way that’s a feast for a historian’s eyes. Kudos to production designer Paul D. Austerberry, visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi, and the film’s Art Department and SFX team for their work.
Apart from that, the rest of the movie is awful. The script is hackneyed and cobbled together from pieces of other films and the Spartacus series. The best part of it is the description that begins the film of Vesuvius’ eruption from Pliny the Younger’s account of the destruction of Pompeii. It’s downhill from there.
The plot begins with a rebellion by “Celtic horse tribes” in Britain, a gross mislabeling of the revolt led by Boudica, the Queen of the Celts. It’s like talking about the Napoleonic Wars without mentioning Napoleon. The Romans under the leadership of the Tribune Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his lieutenant Proculus (Sasha Roiz) destroy a Celt village. Milo, the son of the village leader escapes by playing dead, but he’s later captured by Roman slavers.
Flash forward to A.D. 79 and the grown Milo (Kit Harrington) is now a gladiator in Londinium who goes by the name the Celt. (Think of an ancient Roman version of The Rock.) He’s bought by a promoter who brings him to Pompeii to fight in the arena there. On the way he meets the noblewoman Princess Cassia (Emily Browning) when her carriage encounters a deep hole in the road and one of the horses breaks its leg. Milo put the horse out of its misery by snapping its neck, so of course Cassia falls in love with him.
The screenwriters, married team Lee & Jane Scott Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson, have little understanding of Roman culture beyond what they’ve seen in movies. At one point they have Cassia disparage the citizens of Rome and proudly proclaim herself a citizen of Pompeii. That’s a horn-honking, red-light-flashing mistake. Roman citizenship was a prized possession for all of Italy as well as certain outposts of the empire. For instance, Tarsus was the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia and its citizens were granted Roman citizenship around 65 BC. Thus the Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen because he was born there. Here the screenwriters assume citizens of Rome only means the residents of Rome.
Of course Milo’s nemesis Corvus, now a senator, comes to Pompeii to invest in a civil works project there that’s being proposed by Cassia’s parents, Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Severus (Jared Harris). Milo meets Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a huge Nubian gladiator who begins as a rival and then becomes a friend. And as this pot boiler action plays out, the mountain erupts.
Kit Harrington’s performance is like a watered-down version of his character in “Game of Thrones.” Emily Browning is winsome, but the script limits her to damsel-in-distress duty. Kiefer Sutherland chews the scenery with such relish it almost becomes fun, but like everyone else in this movie, his role is a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Mortal Combat) may have intended this as a prestige piece to burnish his reputation, but it’s just more of the canned video-game action that has marked his career.
The centerpiece of the movie, the eruption of Vesuvius, gets the generic volcano treatment with flying bombs of magna. In actual fact, it was an explosive eruption that ejected volcanic ash twelve miles into the atmosphere, enough to blanket 200 square miles to a depth of about fifteen feet. It turned day into night. There was also a pyroclastic flow, where superheated gas and pumice raced down the mountain at 70 mph and destroyed everything in its path. The eruption lasted for 24 hours, and at its end Pompeii had been wiped off the map, at the cost of 2000 lives. The ash preserved the bodies in the shapes as they fell, so when the site was rediscovered in 1748, it was a time capsule of Roman life.
There is a good movie to be made about the destruction of Pompeii, but Pompeii isn’t it.