Hollywood and History: Pompeii (2014)

by Hugh Downs

Plot Outline

Pompeii starts in A.D. 62 in Northern Britannia during the rebellion of the Celtic horse tribes. A young Milo witnesses Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and his troops massacre his family and tribe. The next day Milo awakens to see the bodies of the tribe’s warriors hanging from a tree with their weapons. Milo flees into the forest but is captured by slavers and taken to Londinium.

The film then jumps forward 17 years to A.D. 79. Milo (Kit Harington) is now an indomitable gladiator known as The Celt. Graecus (Joe Pingue), Pompeii’s games organizer, watches him defeat three other gladiators single handedly. Graecus is pleased with Milo’s performance and has him brought to Pompeii.

On the way Cassia (Emily Browning) and her handmaid Ariadne (Jessica Lucas) pass by in their carriage on their return to Pompeii after a year in Rome. Graecus’ trainer Bellator (Currie Graham) pulls the slaves off the road, ordering them to “make way for [their] betters!” Unfortunately, one of Cassia’s horses steps in a ditch and breaks its leg; Milo goes to help the horse, but he is stopped by Bellator. Cassia then orders Bellator to let Milo help. After observing the horse’s situation, Milo breaks its neck to put it out of its misery. Bellator apologizes to Cassia for this and calls Milo a savage. Ariadne asks Cassia why Milo would do such a thing, to which she responds that it was the kindest thing to do.

Upon reaching the villa Cassia first runs into her mother Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), who is surprised to see her back so soon. Cassia says that she had had enough of Rome and was eager to be back. Aurelia asks if she met anyone in Rome but Cassia tells her that there was no one worth mentioning. Aurelia says not to worry as Cassia’s father Severus (Jared Harris) has alerted all the unmarried men in the city of her return. Cassia goes to the stables to see her favorite horse, and the stable boy tells her that he will exercise it tonight so it’ll be ready for her tomorrow. While riding the horse, though, there is a small earthquake and the stable boy is thrown off and falls into a crevasse while the horse flees back to the villa.

Meanwhile, Milo is led into the gladiators’ living quarters by Bellator, who calls the slaves savages and animals. During dinner Milo is assaulted by another gladiator, whose brother he had killed in the arena. The fight is broken up by Bellator and Graecus, and Milo is thrown into a cell with Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Atticus asks Milo what his name is but Milo refuses to say, telling Atticus that there isn’t any point in knowing each other since eventually they’ll have to kill each other.

The next day during training Atticus and Milo spar together to get ready for the games. During the bout, the same gladiator who attacked Milo during dinner the previous night attempts to shank him in the back; Atticus saves him, however. When Milo asks Atticus why he saved him, Atticus responds by saying that “no gladiator should die from a blade to the back” (26:10). Atticus tells Milo that after killing him in the arena tomorrow he will be a free man under Roman law. Milo warns Atticus that the Romans won’t keep their promise and that the only freedom for a gladiator is to die unconquered in the arena and spit in the eye of Rome.

At this point Corvus (the Roman who slaughtered Milo’s tribe), his lieutenant Proculus (Sasha Roiz), and their men arrive in Pompeii. Severus, hoping to persuade Emperor Titus to invest in Pompeii, tries to curry favor with Corvus and allows him to camp near the villa. Cassia speaks strongly against this, telling her father that every wicked man in Rome has the ear of the emperor. Severus, however, ignores his daughter and invites Corvus to a party celebrating the Vinalia. Milo, Atticus, and the other gladiators are brought to the villa and put on display for the party. Cassia sees Milo and is smitten. During the party, Severus and Corvus talk more about a possible investment. Although Corvus says that the emperor is focused on Rome, he personally is interested in investing and will have the papers drawn up. He then asks Severus if Cassia could bring them drinks to celebrate. Corvus takes Cassia out on the balcony and tells her that he would like for her to return to Rome with him as his wife. Cassia refuses and leaves.

There is another small earthquake at this point which spooks Cassia’s horse once again and allows it to get out of its stall. Cassia orders Bellator to bring Milo and they rush to the stable. Cassia implores Milo to go in and calm down the horse. Milo succeeds, and Cassia enters to find him astride it. She asks where he learned to ride and Milo tells her about his people and their death by Roman hands. Cassia offers her condolences, but Milo gets mad at her because she is a Roman. Cassia responds by saying that she is not a Roman but a citizen of Pompeii and in fact detests Rome. Milo takes Cassia for a ride to the base of Vesuvius where he tells her they can’t be together and worries about what will happen when they are caught. Cassia urges him to ride for his freedom but Milo responds by asking “at what cost to you?” (44:17). He instructs her to tell the guards that the blame is his. Cassia reluctantly agrees to this as the two are captured and brought back to the villa. Corvus is ready to kill Milo until Cassia intervenes; Corvus has him lashed instead, saying that “after all mercy is a virtue” (45:30). While Milo is being lashed Proculus approaches Graecus and tells him that Corvus wants Milo to fight and die first tomorrow. Later Ariadne asks Cassia why she went with Milo to which Cassia responds that he made her feel safe. Back in the cells, Atticus tends to Milo’s wounds; a mutual respect develops between them and Milo tells Atticus his name.

The next day before the games Graecus tells Bellator to send Milo to the right tunnel so he can fight first. Bellator asks if he should do the same with Atticus, since the crowd would rather see Atticus die a glorious death than win his freedom. Graecus agrees, and Milo and Atticus are sent to fight in the opening of the games. The opening fight is a reenactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celtic horse tribes in Britannia. In setting the scene the announcers tell the crowd that Corvus gave the Celts many chances to surrender but “mercy was an alien concept to these savages” (55:10). This left him no choice and, “with a heavy heart Corvus ordered his mighty legions in the name of the emperor to attack” (55:18). The reenactment gets under way with Atticus and Milo fighting as Celts. Corvus notices Cassia’s worry for Milo and asks what he is to her; Cassia tells him Milo is “everything that you’re not” (57:40). Milo and Atticus triumph over the Romans and Milo takes the standard, breaks it in half, and throws the eagle into the dust, saying “I do not yield to the power of Rome, I spit on it!” (60:39). He hurls a spear at Corvus but it is deflected by Proculus. Corvus, seething with rage, orders Proculus to bring a detachment to the arena to kill Milo and Atticus. Seeing this, Atticus says to Milo that everything the Romans promised them turned out to be nothing but lies. However, the crowd is chanting “Live!” and before Corvus can give the thumbs down Cassia intercedes with a thumbs up.

Corvus is irate and tells her that she will marry him or else he will have Titus kill her and her family. Cassia agrees against her will and Corvus orders her to be taken back to the villa. Immediately after, another larger earthquake occurs, which Corvus tells the crowd is Vulcan anointing Milo as the new champion of Pompeii. He sends Proculus into the arena to fight and kill Milo in single combat. During the fight Vesuvius finally erupts; a massive earthquake hits the city, causing sections of the arena to collapse, including the section where Cassia’s parents and Corvus are sitting. The crowd erupts into pandemonium as everyone tries to flee towards the harbor. Milo continues his fight Proculus, knocking him down into the holding area for the other gladiators below the arena. Proculus admires his bravery but tells him that “no savage can ever be a match for a Roman” (68:20). Proculus attacks Milo, pushing him toward the lever controlling the cell door. Milo pulls the lever letting the other gladiators out. Proculus escapes but Bellator is beaten to death.

Above ground Severus, who survived the collapse, attempts to kill Corvus while he is unconscious, but Corvus wakes up and stabs him instead. Severus dies holding Aurelia’s hand. Corvus and Proculus then leave for the harbor. Milo and Atticus emerge from under the arena and hear Aurelia calling for help. She tells Milo that he must go to the villa to save Cassia. Milo tells Atticus that he has to rescue Cassia because she risked everything for him. They agree to meet at the harbor and Milo heads for the villa. At the villa Milo finds Cassia buried beneath some burning rubble; he lifts her out and tells Ariadne to bring some water. Ariadne gets water, but when she goes back to get more half of the villa collapses into the sea and she dies.

Back at the harbor Corvus realizes that he won’t be able to get a ship and begins trying to make his way back through the crowd. When this doesn’t work, he orders his men to start killing the civilians. Another earthquake shakes the town causing a massive tidal wave to sweep towards the shore. Atticus yells for everyone to run and flees back towards the arena. On the way, he rescues a child who had fallen and couldn’t get up. He manages to get away from the tsunami safely with the child and returns him to his mother. Milo and Cassia find Atticus and they decide to go to the arena to find horses so that they can head for the hills in the south.

When they reach the arena, Cassia sees the wrecked booth her parents were in and goes to see their bodies. Milo and Atticus go to fetch the horses, but discover that the arena is swarming with Romans. When they come back above ground they see Cassia shackled to Corvus’ chariot and surrounded by Proculus and some other guards. Corvus orders his men to kill Milo and Atticus and flees with Cassia. Milo and Atticus easily dispatch the other guards, leaving only Proculus. Atticus tells Milo to leave Proculus to him and go after Corvus. Proculus and Atticus duke it out but Proculus eventually gets the better of the gladiator and stabs him, saying that “a barbarian does not die the equal of a Roman” (89:04). Atticus, however, breaks the Proculus’ sword, grabs him, and begins pushing the broken blade towards his throat, asking him whether a Roman can die equal to a gladiator. Proculus begs for mercy, but Atticus tells him that gladiators do not beg and cuts his throat.

While Atticus faces Proculus, Milo chases Corvus and Cassia through the destroyed streets of Pompeii. The chase comes to an end after Corvus’ chariot hits a rock and overturns. Corvus and Milo begin to duel and Milo stabs Corvus in the arm. Cassia then shackles Corvus to the chariot to prevent his escape. Corvus shouts “Who are you to do this to me? I am Senator Quintius Avius Corvus!” (93:12). Milo responds, “And what is that worth?” before leaving with Cassia.

Milo and Cassia escape the city on horseback, but are not able to get far enough away before the horse needs to stop and rest. Milo says that the horse can’t carry them both and tells Cassia to escape. Cassia refuses, and the two embrace in a kiss as the ash cloud sweeps over them and turns them into stone.

Ancient Background

Pompeii is, as the name implies, based on the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and the subsequent destruction of the town of Pompeii in A.D. 79. One of the best ancient sources dealing with this topic is Pliny the Younger. Pliny witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius from his home at Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii. In his Letters, he includes two written to Tacitus, the great Roman historian. The first letter describes the events surrounding the death of Pliny’s uncle Pliny the Elder as a result of the eruption; the second letter discusses Pliny’s own personal experience during the eruption.

Pliny opens the first letter by thanking Tacitus for asking for an account of his uncle’s death so that he might “write about it more accurately for posterity” (Pliny, 6.16). Pliny continues his flattery, saying that “the immortal quality of your [Tacitus’] works will add much to keeping his memory alive” (6.16). After dispensing with the pleasantries Pliny finally gets into describing the actual eruption.; his description serves as a backdrop to the death of his uncle, who perished during the disaster. Pliny starts by describing a pine shaped cloud rising in the distance, which his mother pointed out to his uncle. The cloud was “sometimes white, sometimes dingy and spotted, depending on whether it carried earth or ash” (6.16) and Pliny surmises that it “was lifted up by an initial burst of air, then lost support as this grew weaker, yielded to its own weight, and thinned out sideways” (6.16). Ever the scientist, Pliny the Elder desired to study the cloud from a closer vantage point and ordered a ship to be made ready. Before he departed, however, he received a message from one of his friends pleading with him to help her and her husband escape from their villa at the foot of the mountain. Pliny changes his plans and sets sail to help his friends.

At this point Pliny the Younger provides more details of the actual eruption. He says that ash was now falling on the ships and was getting “hotter and thicker the nearer they approached . . . Chunks of pumice and other stones, blackened, scorched, and cracked by the fire” (6.16) also began to fall. So much debris was falling that the waters became shallow and the shore unapproachable. This forced Pliny the Elder to change his course for Stabiae.

After arriving at Stabiae Pliny eats with his friends and takes a bath, despite his friends urging him to depart immediately. While Pliny is relaxing in the villa “vast sheets of flame and tall columns of fire were blazing from many points on Mount Vesuvius” (6.16). Pliny tells his friends these are just fires started by the townspeople on the mountain and that they have nothing to fear. He then goes to take a nap. During his nap, though, the courtyard of the villa was quickly filling with ash and pumice, threatening to trap him there. To prevent this, Pliny’s friends wake him and debate whether or not they should flee, as “the walls were swaying under the repeated and tremendous shocks” (6.16) from an earthquake. The only danger outside was falling pumice, so they opted for flight and tied pillows around their heads for protection. Pliny the Younger describes the atmosphere outside as “the blackest and thickest of nights” (6.16) due to the enormous amount of smoke and ash billowing. The sea was still inhospitable to ships, preventing Pliny the Elder’s escape. There were flames and the smell of sulfur all around, which caused Pliny’s friends to flee, although he remained where he was. Soon Pliny succumbed to the ash and suffocated.

The second letter’s description of the eruption begins by describing the earthquake that preceded it. Pliny the Younger, who is still across the Bay of Naples from Vesuvius in Misenum, says that “the surrounding buildings began to shake violently” (Pliny, 6.20) which caused him and his mother to fear the buildings would collapse. Thus, they decided to leave. After leaving, though, Pliny and his mother still “saw many amazing sights and had many frightening experiences” (6.20). They were unable to use carts in their escape because the carts were “moving in opposite directions […] even with stone wheel blocks” due to the tremors (6.20). Pliny also notes that “the sea had been sucked backwards” (6.20), signaling the wave that would soon strike Pompeii. He continues, describing a “terrifying pitch-black cloud, broken by the frenetic twisting of fiery gusts, as it opened to reveal long flame-like shapes, similar to lightning, but bigger” (6.20). This matches the description of nuèes ardents (burning clouds)—very hot clouds of incandescent rocks and gas, which are created after the ash column of a volcanic eruption crashes back down onto the volcano (Francese and Smith 28).

Soon after seeing this Pliny says that the cloud “descended upon the land and covered the sea. It surrounded Capri and made it vanish, and hid Cape Misenum” (6.20). Ash started to lightly fall, and the cloud continued to follow Pliny “like a flood poured across the land” (6.20); after the cloud came darkness “like a dark room when the lamp is out” (6.20). In this darkness Pliny describes hearing the shouts, shrieks, and wails of women, children and men. He says that some prayed while others were certain that “there were no gods at all and that this was one last unending night for the world” (6.20). Still others spread tales, albeit false, that “one or another part of Misenum had collapsed or burned” (6.20). In the midst of this, the darkness lessened a little, which was taken as a sign of approaching fire rather than any real deliverance from the current plight. Although the fire didn’t reach Pliny, he notes that “darkness and ash came again, a great amount of it” (6.20). In fact, there was so much ash now falling that Pliny had to keep getting up to shake it off lest he be covered and crushed by it. At long last the cloud dispersed to a kind of smoky fog, and soon after this “real daylight” returned with the shining sun, although its light was diluted by the haze. Pliny describes what he witnessed at this point as “a changed world, buried in ash like snow” (6.20). He returned to his home. Even though the danger had passed Pliny still felt dread “for the earth was still shaking and a number of people who had gone mad were mocking others’ misfortunes and their own with terrifying prophecies” (6.20).

What Pliny’s two letters make clear is that the eruption of Pompeii was a harrowing experience. Pliny’s vivid descriptions of each stage of the eruption, especially in his second letter, paint an image of destruction and terror. Moreover, his clear and eloquent language place readers directly into the action as he himself experienced it.

Given Pliny’s descriptions of the eruptions above, how does Pompeii portray the disaster? Pretty accurately, it turns out. In fact, the movie has even been lauded by volcanologists for its realistic depiction of the eruption (Lewis). Anderson does a good job showing the sequencing of events during the eruption. Where most disaster movies simply skip right to the lava rushing down from the volcano Anderson takes audiences through each stage of the eruption. Following the sequence of events Pliny described in his letters, Pompeii first starts with an earthquake. It then moves on to depict ash exploding out of Vesuvius before climaxing with the “burning clouds” sweeping down the mountain into Pompeii. Anderson even includes the tsunami alluded to in Pliny’s second letter.

Anderson’s portrayal of the Pompeians’ reactions to the eruption is also very similar to Pliny’s description. In the city Anderson shows the citizens fleeing terror-stricken from their homes, rushing and pushing to escape their impending doom. Everywhere people are shouting and crying, and pandemonium abounds.

Aerial view of the eruption of Vesuvius
CGI Aerial View of Pompeii at the height of Vesuvius’ eruption.

This is not to say that Anderson portrays the eruption of Vesuvius exactly as it would have happened. After all, Pompeii is a movie, not a documentary (Lewis). Aspects of the eruption have been fabricated in order to make it more exciting for audiences. For example, during the eruption Anderson shows flaming balls of lava raining down on Pompeii and the Bay of Naples. Although these look impressive there is no mention in Pliny of anything of the sort happening. Furthermore, there is also no archaeological evidence of any objects crashing into Pompeii during the eruption. The tsunami depicted in the movie is also greatly exaggerated. In the film, a gigantic wave crashes into the city and carries a large ship down one of Pompeii’s main streets. While there is some evidence of a tidal wave hitting Pompeii (Lewis) and while Pliny does allude to a wave in his second letter, it would have been nowhere near the scale shown in Pompeii. As with the “lava bombs” Anderson includes this giant tsunami to make the eruption more exciting for his audiences.

Making the Movie

Pompeii is an action-romance disaster film directed by Paul WS Anderson, best known for the Resident Evil movie franchise which he both wrote and directed. The film’s screenplay was written by Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever), and Michael Robert Johnson (Sherlock Holmes, 2009). Pompeii was produced by TriStar Pictures, FilmDistrict, Constantin Film International, and Impact Pictures. It had a budget of $100 million dollars and grossed $117.8 million worldwide (most of which came from outside the US). Pompeii was not filmed on location but rather in the Cinespace Film Studios in Toronto.

As a brief recap, Pompeii stars Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as the protagonist Milo. Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) plays his love interest Cassia and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost) portrays his friend and fellow gladiator Atticus. The dastardly Roman senator Corvus, the antagonist of the film, is portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland (24). Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) play Cassia’s parents. Other cast members include Joe Pingue (Room) as Graecus, Sasha Roiz (Grimm) as Proculus, Jessica Lucas (Gotham) as Ariadne, and Currie Graham (NYPD Blue) as Bellator.

The acting in Pompeii has been criticized for its lack of energy. Screenrant.com calls the performances of nearly every actor “stiff” and “flat” (Kendrick). The review especially has problems with Sutherland’s Corvus, calling him “downright bizarre” and comparing him to “a cartoon villain” (Kendrick). Other reviews are not as nice. Writing for the Telegraph, Robbie Collin absolutely slams Sutherland’s performance, calling it “strange” and “slurping”, and compares his accent to “a man acclimatising to a new pair of false teeth” (Collin). Sutherland was even nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor in 2014. While Sutherland gets the brunt of the criticism for his acting, the other performances are simply too bland to make the movie as exciting as it could have been.

The main inspiration for Pompeii comes, as one would guess from the title, from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79. In an interview with the Huffington Post Anderson talked about how, when he saw the plaster casts from the city as a boy, he wondered “‘Who were these people, and what was their life story?’” (Rojas). According to Anderson, the main characters in the film are   “inspired by” these casts. Milo and Cassia were inspired by the two lovers of Pompeii, perhaps the most famous cast from the city. Atticus was based on the cast of a large man, most likely from North Africa, cowering in fear. Many of the other characters in the film are very similar to characters in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, which makes Anderson’s comment seem to really just be a bid to increase the authenticity of Pompeii.

In addition to Spartucus, Pompeii also borrows many elements from other films in its genre, most notably Titanic and Gladiator. Pompeii’s plot is very reminiscent of James Cameron’s great love story, albeit with a different setting and disaster. Both movies feature star-crossed lovers separated by class desperately trying to be together while the world falls apart around them. Apart from the setting and disaster, the only other major difference between the two stories is the ending; in Pompeii both Milo and Cassia perish whereas in Titanic Rose is rescued.

Some scenes in the film can also be traced back to Gladiator, especially the gladiatorial reenactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celts. In this scene, the gladiators play the part of the Celts and are meant to lose to the Romans. This is evocative of the scene in Gladiator where Maximus and the gladiators portray the Carthaginians in a reenactment of the Battle of Zama. In both scenes, the gladiators are meant to lose but instead prevail over the Romans. During Pompeii’s battle scene Corvus even remarks that he doesn’t remember the battle going this way; Commodus makes a similar statement in Gladiator. Milo’s hatred and distrust for the Romans is also reminiscent of Maximus’ feelings towards Commodus.

Being a disaster movie, Pompeii uses many CGI shots to recreate the eruption of Vesuvius; the film even won a Canadian Screen Award for Achievement in Visual Effects. The visual effects in the movie were done primarily by Mr. X Inc. although many effects studios were involved with creating the movie. While the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the film is CGI many of the visuals for it were based on actual eruptions. Anderson and his crew viewed footage and pictures of recent volcanic activity in Iceland and Japan in order to better understand what a volcanic eruption actually looks like (Rojas). In the same Huffington Post interview mentioned above Anderson even says that, while working on the visual effects for the movie, “we would have what we were doing up on the screen, and right beside it we would have real photography of actual events” (Rojas). Thus, while the visuals of Vesuvius’ eruption were created in a studio every attempt was made to ensure the depictions were authentic.

Visual effects were also used to create both Mt. Vesuvius and the aerial views of Pompeii in the movie. For these shots Anderson again stressed the desire for historical accuracy. He photographed the city’s plan from a helicopter and then overlaid a CGI image on top of this to make sure the layout of the city was historically accurate (Rojas). This same process was used for reconstructing Mount Vesuvius’ original cone shape that blew off during the eruption.

Despite the seeming ubiquity of CGI in Pompeii there are in reality only 500 visual effects shots in the film (ScreenSlam). The majority of scenes were shot on real sets using either practical effects or a green screen backdrop. Anderson chose to shoot the film this way so that the disaster and action appear more realistic. Although this required more work from the actors Anderson though it would make their acting all the more convincing and compelling (ScreenSlam).

Themes and Interpretations

The first major theme of Pompeii is that having power is not the same as having honor. There are numerous instances in the film of people in power (i.e., Romans) behaving dishonorably towards those they deem to be weaker. Bellator and Corvus exemplify this theme, although it is reflected to a certain extent by Proculus as well.

Over the course of the film Bellator is constantly demeaning and abusing the gladiators he oversees. He constantly calls them scum, animals, and savages and is unable to see them as anything but. It is inconceivable to him that anyone from outside the empire’s influence could ever be a respectable or honorable man. Thus, he treats Milo, Atticus, and the other gladiators not as one would treat their fellow man but rather as a farmer would treat their livestock. Bellator believes these men only to be good for fighting and dying in the arena for the entertainment of Romans. As such he does not see the need to treat them with any kind of decency because they are all going to die soon enough. This belief is echoed by Milo early on in the film when he refuses to tell Atticus his name because they’ll be forced to kill each other at some point.

Bellator’s belief that gladiators are only good for fighting and dying also explains why he goes to Graecus before the games to convince him to move Atticus to the opening fight with Milo. He hates the idea that Atticus will have “beaten the system,” winning his freedom after defeating his last opponent in the arena (even though it’s a Roman law which would grant Atticus his freedom). Bellator loathes this so much, in fact, that he would betray Atticus’ trust so that a “savage” might be prevented from going free. Up until this point in the film Atticus had faith that Roman law would prevail over Bellator’s personal vendetta, despite Milo warning him otherwise. Once Atticus realizes what Bellator has done, his attitude towards the Romans completely changes. After defeating the “Romans” in the reenactment, Atticus tells Milo that he was right all along and the Romans’ promises amounted to nothing but lies in the end.

Corvus, too, embodies this theme of having power not being the same as having honor. In some ways, he is even more dishonorable than Bellator because many of his actions are aimed more at Cassia and her parents (Roman citizens) rather than Milo, Atticus and the other gladiators. In pursuit of Cassia’s hand in marriage we see him use coercion and threats to secure his goal. When Milo is brought back to the villa after riding off with Cassia she pleads with Corvus not to kill him; Corvus responds by asking her what she would give him for not killing Milo. This question essentially forces Cassia to become indebted to Corvus lest she lose the man that she actually loves. Once Corvus realizes during the games that Cassia loves Milo and not him, he goes all out and coerces her into agreeing to marry him. He tells Cassia that if she doesn’t return to Rome with him as his wife he will have Titus hang her and her parents from Pompeii’s walls for doubting the emperor’s ability to lead (a made-up charge). Cassia agrees for the sake of her parents but remains defiant, prompting Corvus to threateningly promise to break her will back in Rome.

Not only does Corvus act dishonorably towards Cassia and her family, he acts dishonorably towards the other citizens of Pompeii as well. During the eruption, when everyone is fleeing to the harbor, he orders his men to kill the citizens after unsuccessfully trying to push through the crowd. As a senator and general of Rome Corvus should have been trying to help the citizens escape the eruption but instead he is only concerned about his own safety.

There is also a subtheme in the film that people deserve to be treated based on their actions rather than their station. This is shown in the deaths of Bellator, Proculus, and Corvus. Once Bellator and Proculus realize that they are about to die both begin to beg for mercy. What’s ironic about this is that both were killed by gladiators (i.e. slaves), a group that neither would have given mercy to were the roles switched. We even see exactly how Proculus acts towards Atticus when he thinks that he has killed him, telling him that “a barbarian does not die the equal of a Roman” (89:04). Corvus, on the other hand, does not beg Milo and Cassia for his life; rather, he seems to have trouble believing that they would even have the gall to chain him up and leave him for dead. This is illustrated by his question “Who are you to do this to me?” (93:12). There is irony in this statement, too, as it shows that Corvus believes that simply because he is a senator and general of Rome he should be treated with respect and dignity. Milo’s response, though, shows that it is not your station that dictates how you are treated but your actions. Corvus’ actions in the film were not only dishonorable but despicable as well, and Milo and Cassia leaving him to be killed by the volcano rather than killing him themselves shows that he received his just deserts. Proculus and Bellator also reaped what they sowed at the end of film, again showing that our actions, not our stations, dictate how we should be treated.

The other major theme of Pompeii is love, specifically love’s ability to make you forget what else is happening in the world. The love story of the film revolves around Milo and Cassia, a love which is uncertain from the start due to the different social statuses of the lovers. Milo and Cassia each have their own problems but being together allows them to forget their woes. This is first seen during the party after Milo takes Cassia for a ride on her horse. When Ariadne is talking with Cassia after Milo’s lashing Cassia tells her that Milo made her feel safe. It is important to remember that this ride takes place soon after Corvus asks her to return to Rome with him as his bride. During this conversation Cassia also tells Ariadne that the only reason Corvus didn’t have his way with her while she was in Rome was because she left before he could. Knowing these things, it is now easy to see why Cassia was so reluctant to return to the villa with Milo. She fears Corvus and what he may do to force her to marry him; riding off with Milo allowed her to forget these troubles and feel safe for the first time since she left for Rome a year ago.

Milo and Cassia at the end.

We see this theme again during the final scene of the movie. In this scene Cassia and Milo have gotten out of the city but their horse is not strong enough to carry them both to safety. So, against Milo’s wishes, Cassia chooses to stay and die with him. As the ash cloud bears down on them Milo tells her to focus only on him and the two embrace in a last kiss. At this point the soundtrack in the background

switches from the threatening rumble of the ash cloud to a calm, moving instrumental piece. This change in music also changes the tone of the scene. Whereas before it was frightening and tense it is now much more peaceful. It makes audiences feel what Milo and Cassia feel as they kiss: a sense of serenity. They use their love for one another as a shield against the reality that they are about to die; in this way, they are able to forget what is about to befall them.

Overall my biggest problem with Pompeii is that it is trying to fit too much in to its 105-minute run time. Not only is it a disaster film, it is also a love story with an element of revenge as well. I think that Anderson bit off a little more than he could chew and the film suffers as a result. All the different elements of the story seem to be rushed through in order to set up the disaster element. Consequently, they do not work as well as they could have had the film been longer or more focused on one movie trope rather than several. In regards to the love story, it is clear that Anderson was trying to emulate Titanic but falls well short of the bar set by James Cameron. This aspect of the film is too rushed to be convincing (Milo and Cassia never even exchange names) and lacks the depth needed to convince audiences that the two are actually in love and not just mutually attracted to each other. Likewise, the revenge element of the movie is clearly trying emulate Gladiator but again falls short; it is more convincing than the love story, yet it still lacks the depth required to make audiences truly care.

The one aspect of the film that Anderson does do well is the disaster. His use of visual and practical effects make for a pleasing spectacle as Vesuvius erupts and destroys the city. The burning rocks crashing down on the city are exciting and the tsunami is an unexpected surprise for those not familiar with the letters of Pliny. Even so, there isn’t anything all that innovative about here either. At the end of the day Pompeii is just another somewhat entertaining big-budget disaster film at heart that is not worth seeing multiple times unless you have to write a paper on it.

[Header Image: The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum. John Martin, 1822 (restored 2011). Reference number N00793. Tate, London, Britain. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)]


Collin, Robbie. Pompeii, Review: Jon Snow vs a Volcano.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 1 May 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Kendrick, Ben. Pompeii Review.” Screen Rant.

21 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Lewis, Tanya. “Lava Bombs and Tsunamis! How Accurate Is ‘Pompeii’ Movie?” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Mintzer, Jordan. Pompeii: Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter. 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Pompeii (2014).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 May 2016.

Rojas, Alejandro. “Interview With Paul W. S. Anderson, Pompeii Director, on the Film’s Scientific and Historical Accuracy.” The Huffington Post, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

ScreenSlam. “Pompeii: Director Paul W. S. Anderson On Set Movie Interview.”  YouTube, 07 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.

Smith, R. Scott, and Christopher Francese. “Pliny the Younger.” Ancient Rome: An Anthology of Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014. 317-321. Print.


Hollywood and History is an on-going series featuring the original work of students in the course Ancient Worlds on Film. Papers have been slightly edited for publication.