Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Last Days of Pompeii

Based on the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii is the story about a centurion who returns home to Pompeii as he goes after thieves who had killed his father. Upon his search for the masked thieves, he discovers that a group of Christians are being accused just as Pompeii’s days are dwindling. Directed by Mario Bonnard and Sergio Leone and screenplay by Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and Ennio de Concini. The film marks the directorial debut of Sergio Leone who would later reinvent the Western in the 1960s. Starring Steve Reeves, Christine Kauffman, and Fernando Rey. The Last Days of Pompeii is a good and engaging film from the duo of Mario Bonnard and Sergio Leone.

Returning home from his service in Palestine, a centurion named Glaucus (Steve Reeves) hopes to meet his father as he sees a young woman named Ione (Christine Kauffman) lose control of her chariot as he saves her. On his way home, Glaucus encounters a young thief named Antonius (Angel Aranda) who was about to be punished until Glaucus helps him deal with the Praetorian guard Gallinus (Mimmo Palmara). Arriving at his home, Glaucus discovered that his father was murder with a cross symbol on the wall as he vows revenge on the killers. During a night with his friends, Glaucus decides to crash the party of council head Ascanius (Guillermo Marin) as he gets into a fight with Gallinus who tries to rape the blind servant Nydia (Barbara Carroll).

After his friend Marcus (Mario Berriatua) was killed when he tried to get into the Temple of Isis based on evidence given by Antonius, Glaucus wonders what is going on as Christians are being accused of the killings. When Gallinus hears about Nydia’s allegiance to the Christian faith, she is shocked when Gallinus knows what is happening as Ione goes to the Christian service with Nydia realizing that it’s not them. The Christians, including Nydia, are captured as Ione reveals to Glaucus about what she knows as he goes to Rome to reveal what he knows to the council. Instead, he is stopped by hooded men who attack him as he barely escapes with his wounds to the home of Ascanius. While Glaucus heals, Antonius arrives at the home revealing some startling information about who is leading these killings where the two confront the culprit.

Suddenly, Glaucus learns that things become more complicated as he’s accused by Ascanius’ mistress Julia (Anne-Marie Baumann) of murder as the High Priest of Isis in Arbaces (Fernando Rey) condemns Glaucus to be sentenced to death with the Christians. Just as Glaucus decides to fight for the Christians, all of it would be shaken up by an event that would change the face of Pompeii.

The film is essentially the story about a man seeking revenge for his father’s death as he learns about a conspiracy to accuse Christians of his father’s murder. With the help of a councilman’s daughter and a young thief, he learns about a plan to rid of the Roman Empire as he later has to fight for those who have been accused of murder. It’s a simple premise that does have a traditional structure of storytelling along with a few twists. Yet, it’s a story that is often quite predictable in terms of the schematics that is expected in a genre like this. Notably in the twists though it does reveal the motivations into why the antagonists want to get rid of Rome. It eventually culminates in a showdown in the arena where Glaucus has to defend the Christians that is then followed by the event that would shake Pompeii to its core.

Doing a lot of the direction for the film is Sergio Leone as the film definitely bears a lot of the visual hallmarks that he would provide later on his westerns. Though the film is credited partially to Mario Bonnard who became ill during the production. The direction definitely has amazing use of the widescreen format as well as very chilling scenes of violence such as the film’s opening sequence where Leone definitely shows his penchant for brutal violence through some amazing establishing shots. The direction also has some intimate moments and grand set pieces that is typical of the swords-and-sandal genre that includes this amazing 15-20 minute climax in the end where the crowd runs in chaos due to a catastrophic event. Overall, Leone and Bonnard craft a fine film that is entertaining despite the flaws in the script.

Cinematographer Antonio L. Ballestros does nice work with the film‘s colorful Cinemascope photography to capture the lush colors for many of the film’s interiors along with some stylish lighting for some of the film’s nighttime interiors. Editors Eraldo Da Roma and Julio Pena do some terrific work with the editing to capture some of the film‘s suspense along with more rhythmic cuts for its action scenes. Production designers Ramiro Gomez and Aldo Tommasini do great work with the set pieces to create the world of Pompeii with its homes and temples.

Costume designers Duilio Cambellotti and Vittorio Rossi do some wonderful work with the costumes from the armored uniforms the soldiers and guards wear to the robes many of the female characters wear. The special effects work of Dino Galiano is quite good for some of the visual effects stuff that happens in the film‘s big climax towards the end of the film. The film’s music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino is excellent for its soaring and bombastic orchestral score to play up the sense of drama and action that occurs in the film.

The film’s ensemble cast is pretty good though there aren’t many standout performances as many of the actors play mostly parts that are very typical of the genre. Performances from Mario Berriatua as Glaucus’ friend Marcus, Carlo Tamberlini as the Christians’ leader, Guillermo Marin as Ione’s father and council head Ascanius, Angel Aranda as Antonius, Barbara Carroll as the blind Nydia, Mimmo Palmara as the slimy Gallinus, and Anne-Marie Baumann as Ascanius’ mistress Julia are quite fine in the roles that they play. Fernando Rey is excellent as the devious high priest Arbaces while Christine Kauffman is terrific as Ione who tries to help Glaucus in proving the innocence of the Christians. Finally, there’s Steve Reeves in a superb performance as Glaucus where he has this great physical presence that makes him fun to watch although his attempts to emote aren’t very good as the dubbing of his voice makes him sound like a whiny John Wayne.

The Last Days of Pompeii is a pretty good film from Mario Bonnard and Sergio Leone. It’s a film that is fun to watch for its sense of action and period setting while it features a lot of the visual hallmarks and plot ideas that Leone would inject into his future films. It’s a film that Leone fans would definitely would want to seek out to see where he would get his idea to frame certain scenes as it does have moments that are quite captivating to watch. In the end, The Last Days of Pompeii is a stellar film from Mario Bonnard and Sergio Leone.

Sergio Leone Films: The Colossus of Rhodes - A Fistful of Dollars - For a Few Dollars More - The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly - Once Upon a Time in the West - Duck, You Sucker! - Once Upon a Time in America

Related: Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone - The Auteurs #16: Sergio Leone

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