Making the Grades
What happens when you take a historical event, which ends with an entire population being killed by an exploding volcano, and make it into a 100-minute movie? Well, you have to do a fair amount of postulating to fill in the details no one recorded. And that’s what the makers of the movie Pompeii have done.
In 79 A.D., the coastal city in the Italian region has become a kind of holiday resort for the Roman conquerors who’ve invaded the country. Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss) are Pompeians hosting Senator Corvus (Keifer Sutherland) and his contingency of soldiers. Severus hopes to find favor with the Roman military leader and in turn the new Emperor. He’s made detailed plans for a new coliseum, bathhouses and brothels to be built in his city for the visiting Romans.
But Corvus wants something more. He desirers Severus’s daughter Cassia (Emily Browning) for his wife. The young woman, however, has just returned from a year’s stay in Rome and she wishes to have nothing to do with the cruel and corrupted commander. Instead, she has her eye on Milo (Kit Harington), a Celtic slave who fights in the stadium with the other imprisoned gladiators.
To allow for story development the script begins several days before the actual eruption—long enough for us to know that Corvus has had a previous encounter with Cassia and that it is unlikely she will be able to refuse the merciless Roman who is used to getting whatever he wants. There’s also a flashback to Milo’s childhood when Roman soldiers slaughtered his entire village in front of his eyes and left the little boy for dead in a pile of bloody corpses. (The scenes of stabbings, neck slitting and unrestrained killings during the attack are graphic and gruesome.) Now as a man, the gladiator recognizes Senator Corvus, and his right-hand man Proculus (Sasha Roiz), as the leaders of the massacre. That awareness sets the stage for repeated attempts to get revenge when Milo escapes his chains and comes face to face with the barbaric Romans.
Disaster movies follow a pretty predictable plot line. And Pompeii is no different. Audiences are continually reminded about the impending explosion with frequent shots of the imposing volcano. Meanwhile the citizens go about their every day lives—hosting parties, doing business, dealing with unwanted sexual advances and engaging in political intrigue—unaware each rumbling tremor is slowly crumbling the undergirding of the city.
When the mountain finally blows her top, blobs of fiery lava rain down on the buildings, starting fires and leaving bodies charred and burning. People are crushed by falling stones and milling crowds. A gigantic tsunami capsizes boats and crashes through the ancient streets, drowning hundreds, while nearby a man races his chariot down a road conveniently clear of debris and throngs of people. In the midst of it all, several characters still stop to settle old grudges with swordfights.
Unbelievable? Yes. A little disappointing? Well, sure.
In the 1970s movies like Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure were a dime a dozen. But special effects and a cast of big stars are no longer enough to please moviegoers. Now they expect strong storylines to build empathy for the characters and enough attention to detail that implausibly empty streets in the middle of a disaster zone don’t become a distraction.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Pompeii.
How did the Romans treat those they conquered? What kind of reception does Corvus receive from the locals in Pompeii? Why does the Senator try to save face when Milo and a fellow fighter (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) defeat all the other gladiators by attributing their success to the will of a Roman god?
Why do the residents of Pompeii, as depicted in this movie, appear to be so indifferent to the increasing rumblings and plumes of smoke coming from the volcano? What historical information have archeologist gathered from ruins of Pompeii? Learn more about the history of this city.