We’re getting buried in it again.
The release of Pompeii marks a century of Vesuvius erupting in theatres. The first film depiction of the Roman town’s burial beneath waves of molten lava dates to 1913, with the Italian production of The Last Days of Pompeii. In the ensuing decades, movie screens have been plastered with casts of thousands, as theatres rang with the sound of clanging steel, and audiences were pumped by the sight of muscular men in sandals and leather skirts.
Movies whose plots revolve around Old World action, adventure and disaster rank along the sister genres of fantasy, science-fiction and comic-book superheroes as one of moviedom’s surest franchises. If we start the clock with Georges Méliès’s 1899 production of Cleopatra, we are looking at a movie form that has thrived in virtually every decade since the birth of cinema. The appeal is hardly mysterious, and remains intact: The ancient world comes with built-in myths and familiar narratives, all overlaid with sensational images of cataclysm, conflict and beautiful heroes.
The Last Days of Pompeii and its chronicling of the blast that came in AD 79 was part of a wave of silent spectacles set in the ancient world. Julius Caesar was the subject of a 1914 production, just a year after Mount Etna blew its top in the all-stops-out Italian production of Cabiria. As the First World War itself erupted, the movies were a veritable deluge of reconstituted ancient rubble. Cleopatra had made no fewer than five title appearances in European movies by the time Theda Bara played her in the made-in-America 1917 version.
The promise of historical spectacle has an obvious allure. How else might we get a glimpse of what Cleopatra looked like, how Rome stood in its full glory, what gladiatorial combat involved, or how slaves were treated? And when effects were introduced into the pitch – which they were pretty much from the start – we were promised that much more: the sight of ancient cities crumbling and battles fought, or the very instant when the monuments of those worlds were turned into ruins.