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Warner Home Video presents
The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)

"It's easy to get money. All you have to do is kill."
- Marcus (Preston Foster)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: November 20, 2005

Stars: Preston Foster, Basil Rathbone, David Holt, Alan Hale
Other Stars: John Wood, Louis Calhern, Dorothy Wilson, Wyrley Birch, Edward Van Sloan, Ward Bond, Zeffie Tillbury
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (gladiatorial violence)
Run Time: 01h:36m:07s
Release Date: November 22, 2005
Genre: epic

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+B+B- D-

DVD Review

As a completely unheralded addition to the King Kong Collection, Warner Home Video is also releasing a followup to the Kong films from director Ernest B. Schoedsack, producer Merian C. Cooper and special effects wizard Willis O'Brien. But don't expect it to be an adaptation of the famous novel of that title by Edward Bulwer-Lytton; the opening titles specifically disclaim any connection other than the borrowing of some of his descriptions of the settings. Instead of Bulwer-Lytton's mediocre romance, the film presents its own mediocre melodrama with a religious tinge.

Marcus (Preston Foster) is a simple blacksmith who enjoys his family. But when his wife and infant son are run over by a chariot and he has insufficient funds to pay for the doctor, he turns to the arena to console himself and make certain that he will never lack for funds again. When he kills a gladiator who leaves a young son, Flavius (David Holt), Marcus becomes sentimental and adopts the boy as his own. A misunderstood prophecy from a wise woman (Zaffie Tillbury) that Marcus should take the boy to the "greatest man in Judea" results in Marcus forming an unofficial partnership with Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) to help the procurator out through horse thievery and pillage. But the now-adult Flavius (John Wood) becomes a follower of Jesus of Nazareth instead, leading to conflict between father and son when the boy starts to help slaves destined for the arena escape to freedom. Oh, and Vesuvius erupts and kills most everyone.

The use of Bulwer-Lytton's title is doubly deceptive. Not only does this have no relationship to the book, but the story covers the last fifteen to twenty years of Pompeii rather than its "last days." Instead, the film interweaves the story of Marcus and Flavius with that of Jesus, with Marcus being willfully blind to the prophet's message through most of the running time. The result makes this come off mostly as an ersatz Ben-Hur story, with gladiatorial combats taking the place of the chariot races. Unfortunately, low budget limitations apparently caused most of the action to occur daintily offscreen, with only a few sequences of combat in the arena. The horse-raiding expedition is skipped over totally. An argument could be made that these sequences if included would bog down the story, but the result is a pretty talky film that seems longer than its 96m running time.

One area that is pretty well done is the characterization of several of the main characters. Marcus is driven by a variety of motivations, and he displays a fair degree of selfishness for an ostensible hero. His character arc comes full circle, as Marcus first rejects everything but money, then is gradually turned to the idea that his original love of family, even in poverty, may have been the right idea in the first place. Pontius Pilate comes off rather well here (though the film avoids overt anti-Semitism as well), displaying a conscience over his condemnation of Jesus, but more than anything simply swept along by political realities and his desire to keep the peace. Louis Calhern is pretty entertaining as the prissy and egomaniacal Prefect in charge of Pompeii. A young Ward Bond makes an uncredited appearance as a braggart gladiator from Carthage. The less savory characters are by far the most interesting. Virtuous Flavius is utterly one-dimensional and dull, while his tutor, Greek slave Leaster (Wyrley Birch) is frankly incredible in his platitudes masquerading as wisdom.

Things do get interesting in the last dozen minutes, as the long-awaited eruption of Vesuvius finally arrives. O'Brien's work seems to be mostly devoted to various opticals and the eruption itself. The model and miniature work is frequently exquisite, as the temples and pillars of the city fall into wreckage. Things are helped along by the uncredited borrowing of large chunks of Max Steiner's score for King Kong, which are compelling even in a very different context. As historical epics, it isn't bad, but its piousness may be a bit over the top for modern audiences.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: For the most part, the full-frame picture looks quite nice, with excellent greyscale and well-rendered grain structure. Some sequences are rather flickery. A few optical shots look very dupey, which very likely is a side effect of the process used. Speckling is minimal and there's no major damage other than a little bit of warpage at one of the reel heads. It's quite watchable for its age.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 English track has the hiss and noise characteristic of 1930s optical tracks. It's pretty good for the period, with clear dialogue. The score has decent, if somewhat limited range. It's acceptable for what it is, but don't expect deep thunderous bass during the eruption, because it never would have been there in the original.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: There are no extras of any kind, not even a trailer. Chaptering is reasonably thorough.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

It takes a while to get to the eruption, but it's worth it. Some interesting character development doesn't hurt. It's an attractive transfer, but there is nothing in the extras department.


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