"The Last Days of Pompeii" was a film that captivated me during childhood and still intrigues me today, albeit on a different level. As viewers' comments have noted, "Last Days" is a little heavy handed with its moral theme and the character development of Marcus the Blacksmith-turned Gladiator-turned head of the Arena. Marcus (Preston Foster) is an innately good man, blessed with a loving wife, baby son, and a career, until an out-of-control chariot shatters his existence. With his wife (Gloria Shea) nearing death, Marcus must turn to the Arena, against his earlier values, now faced with the reality that money is the key to everything. Marcus becomes a killing machine, progressing up the gladiator billing to the top spot, but then adopts the son, Flavius (David Holt), of a slain adversary, resulting in another change. Acquiring a Greek slave (Wyrley Birch) to tutor his son, Marcus eventually heads for the Holy Land to make his fortune, meets Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone), and encounters Christ. Pilate uses Marcus in a symbiotic way that benefits them both, but it is the Lord who heals Holt when he lies near death. Marcus turns his back on the Lord, despite the protests of Simon (Murray Kinnell), in order to get his money back to Pompeii. The scene shifts, with Flavius (John Wood) now a young man appalled by the events in the Arena and struggling to remember the man who healed him in his youth. The conflict between father and son, arrival of Pilate to take Flavius to Rome, the corrupt Prefect (Louis Calhern) who demands gore for the "Games," and Flavius' romance with a slave (Dorothy Wilson) all intertwine and lead to the climatic eruption of Vesuvius. Marcus redeems himself in the emotional conclusion.
As a child, I loved Marcus' spiritual journey from innocent joy to sorrow to hard-hearted bitterness to mercenary greed and, finally, to redemption. As an adult, I still like the tale, but have focused more on the acting and production values. I disagree with the commentators who call the acting "wooden." Foster gives one of the best performances of his career as Marcus. As many note, Rathbone renders a sympathetic, sensitive delineation of Pilate. And the supporting players are superb: Edward Van Sloan as a kindly neighbor, Frank Conroy as a kind but condescending noble, Gloria Shea as the young wife, Dorothy Wilson as the son's love interest, Calhern as the despicable Prefect, Zeffie Tilbury as an old Greek soothsayer, etc. Even the minor roles are well-etched: Ward Bond as a bragging opponent of Marcus, Jason Robards Sr. as the tax gatherer, Reginald Barlow as the slave market proprietor, Kinnell as the Judean peasant, and many more. One can even spot Jim Thorpe throwing coins after a gladiator battle. A few players did very underrated work in "The Last Days of Pompeii." Alan Hale Sr., as Burbix, captures the rough edges of a criminal and then the fierce loyalty to his understanding friend Marcus. William V. Mong, as the growling-at-times, cowering-with-fear at others, slave dealer, Cleon, gives a wonderful, colorful performance that is anything but "wooden." But it is Wyrley Birch, as Leaster, the kindly Greek scholar/slave, who provides the moral compass for the film, counseling Marcus, tolerating his greed and seeming imperviousness to the suffering of others, while educating his son Flavius that there is a better way and far superior values than those his father seems to endorse. Birch walks the tightrope and never becomes overly sentimental. Truly, Leaster represents the apex of Birch's career.
"The Last Days of Pompeii" is an enjoyable film on many levels, including as a morality tale. It is much more than that, however. And for lovers of old character actors, it is a treasure trove!