The filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack reinvented film spectacle with 1933's King Kong, dragging an ancient goliath into the modern world while proving a special effect could make viewers cry. Hearkening back to the historic spectacles of the silent era, their 1935 film The Last Days Of Pompeii (directed by Schoedsack and produced by Cooper) looks like a step back. Released on DVD to coincide with the new Kong, Pompeii plays like an effective-enough ancient-times melodrama until, of course, the big volcano flips its lid in the final reel. That's the problem with Pompeii stories: It's hard to keep the first acts from feeling like so much waiting around.

Taking the title and nothing else from the 19th-century bestseller by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night…" fame), the film follows an honest blacksmith (Preston Foster) as tragedy turns him into a bloodthirsty gladiator, and later, an uncaring aristocrat. A brush with Jesus nearly changes his heart and later inspires his adopted son (John Wood) to conspire against him to free a group of slaves, as Mt. Vesuvius rumbles in the background. No, the dates don't add up. But the fudging of a few decades allows Basil Rathbone to make a memorable appearance as Pontius Pilate, playing him first as a decadent bon vivant, and later as a man haunted by his encounter with true virtue. Apart from the still-impressive Kong—like effects of the big finale, he's the only element of the film that doesn't feel dusty.


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