Emily Browning, left, and Kit Harington are doomed lovers in 'Pompeii.' (Caitlin Cronenberg / TriStar Pictures)
Some filmmakers wouldn't know a good plotline from a hole in the ground. But plenty of filmmakers have found a good plotline in a hole in the ground. Specifically: the superheated crater of Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in the year AD 79, incinerating the Roman city of Pompeii and bestowing upon it a kind of instant immortality — one that thousands of people could have lived without.
This week, two more entries in the lengthy catalog of Pompeii movies became available to viewers: "Pompeii," director Paul W.S. Anderson's technically ambitious, 3-D re-creation/gladiator adventure starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Kiefer Sutherland, arrived in theaters Friday. Also: "Apocalypse Pompeii," from the people who brought you "Sharknado," arrived on DVD and video on demand Tuesday and imagines a modern-day eruption of a not-so-dormant crater. Run for your lives.
Not bad for a nearly 2,000-year-old catastrophe, one which left behind a city frozen — if that's the word — at the moment of death, with the population caught in a conflagration so rapid and intense that people had no time to move, or think they had to (despite the earthquakes, the clouds of smoke puffing out of the earth, the sulfurous smell to the water and the dead sheep on the hillsides in the days before the blast). In "Apocalypse Pompeii" the veteran actor John Rhys-Davies warns that "Pompeii will be under 60 feet of lava within four hours," but ancient Pompeii was never under lava. What wrought the destruction were pyroclastic flows — fragmented rocks and unimaginably hot gases.
"People are most familiar with pyroclastic flows from 9/11," said Janet Scott Batchler, who with her husband, Lee — and Michael Robert Johnson and Julian Fellowes ("Downton Abbey") — wrote the "Pompeii" screenplay. "When you saw the collapse and those giant smoke monsters chasing people through the streets, that was a pyroclastic flow — a cold pyroclastic flow. The Pompeii flow was 1,000 degrees, so it sort of preserved people in a sense, doing what they were doing — hugging their child, or sucking their thumb."
In the movie, Milo (Harington of "Game of Thrones") is a member of a Celtic tribe and now a Roman slave and gladiator who saw his family murdered by the evil Roman senator Corvus (Sutherland). Brought to Pompeii, Milo seems fated to battle the other undefeated warrior, Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Milo may have little in the way of political power, but he does have great abs, which attract the attention of the beautiful Cassia (Browning), daughter of Pompeii's first couple (Jared Harris, Carrie-Ann Moss), and a young lady whom Corvus would like for his wife. The stage is set for swords, sandals and soap.
Just like, say, "Titanic," the Pompeii story can't really have a surprise ending. On the other hand, it has an ending that's pretty impressive.
"We thought we should be historically accurate because history, in this case, is fantastic," said director Anderson, who grew up in the north of England, near Hadrian's Wall, making the study of Roman culture a big part of his childhood. "The more I thought about making the movie, and what happened when the volcano exploded, the more I realized the actual details were so phenomenal you didn't really need to dress it up in any way."
The destruction of Pompeii was recorded by the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who was on the Bay of Naples when the blast occurred. (His uncle, Pliny the Elder, probably died of smoke inhalation while trying to effect a rescue-by-boat of friends in Pompeii.) But what precedes the blast has always afforded filmmakers a lot of space to fill.
"We decided we wanted to do it our own way," said Janet Scott Batchler, "so we delved into some of the translated ancient documents. There are records of what Pompeii was like _ it had the second-largest coliseum, it was the top gladiator venue after Rome. It was a golden city, Las Vegas-meets-Beverly Hills-by-the-sea."
She said when they sat down to write the party scene "it led to days of research into just what they served. We discovered that dormice encrusted in honey and served whole was an incredible delicacy. When I read it I was like, 'Oooh this is disgusting ...' "
Lee Batchler said what they were striving for was "history without a history lesson."
"Pliny wrote that because of the seismic activity under the sea, all the water was drawn out of the harbor," he said, "which is what happened in Indonesia and during the Thailand tsunami — it pulled the water away and then it came back as a tidal wave. There was also a wave of boiling, poisonous hot ash coming down the mountain at 450 miles an hour, particulate matter so thick you couldn't see through. The volcano was such a disaster the tsunami almost seems sort of minor."
And why did no one get away?
"Nobody knew this was a volcano," said Janet Scott Batchler. "They didn't know that what they were seeing were warning signs. It's like here in southern California. Earthquakes happen. We don't think 'this is the big one.' We don't think, 'It's the end of the world.' "
Some like it hot
For more than a century, Pompeii has entranced filmmakers:
Last Days of Pompeii (1913): Taking its title, as do all similarly named films, from the 1834 novel by the now largely derided Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("it was a dark and stormy night ..."), this black-and-white Italian silent was directed by cinema pioneer Mario Caserini.
The Last Days of Pompeii (1926): This ambitious three-hour-long Italian production was colorized via the early Pathechrome process, and was also based on the Bulwer-Lytton book, which depicted the decadence of Roman culture and the tension between Rome and the Greeks.
The Last Days of Pompeii (1935): An RKO production from directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper ("King Kong"), it boasted Hollywood stars like Preston Foster and Basil Rathbone, but was emphatically not based on Bulwer-Lytton's book. Rather, it conflates the stories of Pompeii and Jesus Christ — Rathbone, in fact, plays Pontius Pilate.
Pompeii: The Last Day (2003): A BBC dramatization of the destruction of Pompeii and the neighboring city of Herculaneum, featuring a plethora of familiar British faces, including that of Tim Pigott-Smith ("The Jewel in the Crown") and Jim Carter (Mr. Carson of "Downton Abbey").
Sex in the Ancient World: Prostitution in Pompeii (2009): History channel special examining the thriving sex industry in the excavated city, preserved in ash and dust. How did they know? We really can't say.