It’s a couple of months now since I went to see Pompeii at the cinema with a very patient and generous friend, but I have been running around the place giving talks about Augustus so much since that I’ve only just had time to sit down and write about it. In fact, though, there is a lot I don’t need to say, because plenty of other Classics bloggers have already put fingers to keyboard. So I will start off by building on what they have already written.
Helen Lovatt in Pompeii: The Curious Case of the Body Casts discusses the prominence of the casts of Pompeii’s victims in the film, which begins with them and also closes with its romantic lead couple being transformed into casts as they kiss at the end. Helen notes that the casts have always been prominent in Pompeian receptions because of their apparent ability to bring us face to face with the real people of the ancient world in a way that mere artefacts, buildings and texts cannot, and cites some recent examples of the phenomenon (the British Museum exhibition, a documentary and a song). But she also says herself that she isn’t really into swords and sandals films, and I think if she had seen a few more she would have been able to slot what Pompeii (2014) does with them into a wider nexus of cinematic appearances. In fact, the device of positioning a film about Pompeii as a story about the casts ‘come to life’ is such a hoary old cliché that it is used to comic effect in the film version of Up Pompeii, where the regular characters all turn into ‘casts’ at the moment of the eruption, with some of them deliberately choosing the poses in which they wish to be preserved for posterity. Up Pompeii then ends by transitioning to the modern day, where tourists look at those same casts and wonder what the people they represent were like.
One thing which this use of the casts has in common with Pompeii (2014) is the way it plays upon, or at least does not bother to correct, the popular misconception that the Pompeian casts are like fossilised remains created naturally in the course of the eruption, rather than plaster casts made by archaeologists. This idea is so widespread that it’s a plot point in the Doctor Who episode Fires of Pompeii, where the Doctor comments that the effects of the Pyroviles mean that “The people of Pompeii are turning to stone before the volcano erupts.” And I do see why – coming to the site of Pompeii without any knowledge of how the casts were made, but with an awareness of the concept of fossilisation and a hazy idea of the difference between palaeontology and archaeology, it’s an easy mistake to make. More importantly, it is a very romantic mistake, which I think is what really gives it its staying power even when people have had the opportunity to learn the truth. The idea of the volcano itself preserving the bodies of people even as it destroys them, literally freezing them in time at the very moment of death is potent indeed – much more so, I think, than the prosaic and slightly morbid reality of cavities in the ash layer, funnels and plaster of Paris.
Peter Kruschwitz in Pompeii 3D says, yes, it’s historically inaccurate, and yes, it’s a rip-off of a whole bunch of existing ancient world and disaster movies, but more seriously it is badly acted, badly plotted and a wasted opportunity to make the most of what could have been a really exciting and engaging story. I agree wholeheartedly with this, and am particularly sorry that the almost-half-a-million people who went to see the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum last year got nothing better than this to carry forward their interest and enthusiasm. Those who are interested in this latest film’s roots in earlier cinematic takes on the destruction of Pompeii will be well served by this page.
Virginia Campbell, who was asked to comment on how important accuracy would be for the film before it had even been released, and thus before she had the chance to see it, argues in Pompeii and circumstance that accuracy isn’t necessarily that important for most moviegoers, and that the story of Pompeii is capable of fascinating and compelling without needing to be accurate in every detail. I’m guessing that Virginia would agree with Peter that it’s all the more pity, then, that in practice this film neither fascinated nor compelled. I’d also add that while she is right that total accuracy of the kind academics tend to yearn for isn’t necessarily what most film audiences want (indeed, it would probably put them off), non-expert viewers do still seem to talk about accuracy issues a hell of a lot when they discuss films with a historical setting. The message boards, ‘goofs’ section and user reviews on this film’s IMDb page are full of it, and every single professional review I’ve seen seems to have felt obliged to discuss the film’s accuracy too. I don’t think historical accuracy would have saved this movie if the standard of acting, story-telling, directing etc had remained otherwise unchanged, but I do think it is something film audiences look for and judge movies on when they present themselves as grounded in real historical events.
As if to prove my point, Caroline Lawrence offered a list of 12 Pompeii Movie Bloopers, which evidently reflects what she felt her readership (mainly young fans of ancient Rome) would be interested in. Along similar lines, Juliette Harrisson in Pompeii (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014) found it in her heart to love the film for its utter bonkersness, but also did a great job of unpicking some of the weirdly inexplicable things it has done with the historical material, and pointing out where it has rehashed familiar clichés from a whole range of other ancient-world and fantasy films as well. Juliette’s film and TV reviews are always fantastic value, and I am very glad indeed that she has given Pompeii a good going-over so that I don’t have to!
That said, I will add comments of my own on four aspects of the film which either haven’t been covered at all in the reviews above, or have been touched on only briefly:
1. Londinium. So frustrating! What Pompeii gives us is a beautifully accurate representation of Roman Londinium, complete with CGI fly-over… exactly as it was in the third century, i.e. about two hundred years after this film is supposed to be set. That’s like doing a biopic about Queen Elizabeth I, but putting her amongst the streets and buildings of 18th-century London without any comment or explanation. I mean, don’t get me wrong – historical stories can of course be successfully translated to other periods, as e.g. the BBC’s Sherlock shows. But there is a difference between doing that carefully and knowingly, and just getting the historical setting wrong. Roman-world films have, of course, always suffered from this, with my favourite and most reliable diagnostic being the Bust Of An Emperor Who Hasn’t Reigned Yet (which Pompeii also has). It reflects a view of ancient history as all happening at once in a single anachronistic melting-pot, which I think also affects the medieval world, but which no-one would dream of applying to any period of European history after about 1500 – and it takes quite some unpicking when students arrive at University.
2. Pompeians as somehow ‘not Roman’, and under the iron thumb of nasty, brutish military generals sent from Rome to keep them under control. This is complete and utter hog-wash for anywhere in Italy in the AD 70s, and double hog-wash for any city which had had a colony of Roman citizens imposed on it at any point in its history, as Pompeii did after its defeat in the Social War. In fact, the Pompeian elite (just like that of any other Italian town) had been busy putting up buildings which directly imitated those in Rome pretty much ever since, in a sort of ‘keep up with the Joneses’ move to demonstrate how much like the inhabitants of the fashionable capital they were. The complete erasure of all this in favour of the ‘nasty imperialist Romans’ trope obviously reflects the long history of using Rome on film as a cipher for modern imperialists, and particularly the British (as demonstrated by Kiefer Sutherland’s fake British accent), which is apparently so powerful that it has to be adhered to even when historically completely out of place. It is annoying, because it perpetuates myths and misunderstandings about how the Roman empire actually operated, which again have to be unpicked at University level. But actually here it is so obviously inappropriate for this historical and geographical setting, that I wonder if the trope has to some extent managed to undermine itself by ringing false and encouraging viewers to ask questions about what being ‘Roman’ or ‘not Roman’ even means which it doesn’t normally set off when it is used in (for example) Roman Britain? Certainly, I notice that one of the commenters on Caroline Lawrence’s blog post was obviously a bit puzzled by it, and wondered if it really applied in 1st-century AD Pompeii. If other viewers also found themselves raising questions about Roman identity and the relationship between Rome and its subjects as a result of the way the trope is mis-applied in this film, that’s all to the good.
3. The idea that Cassia’s father, Severus, should be hoping to secure imperial support so that he can build aqueducts, circuses and the like at Pompeii as an ‘investment’. Lol no! Ancient urban elites built public buildings as an investment, all right, but not a financial one – that is an entirely modern, capitalist concept. Instead, they paid for the buildings out of their own money and then gave them to the local community for free in order to win prestige and political support. They did not hope to get rich out of economic rents generated by the buildings themselves, which is very definitely what is suggested here. I think this error annoys me disproportionately as an urbanist – it’s no more egregious than the many others which Juliette and Caroline have already pointed out, and only adds to their number as yet another way in which the creative team behind this film have utterly failed to understand how and why the Roman world is actually different from our own. But annoy me it does. Also, Pompeii already had a perfectly good aqueduct, which all evidence suggests was functioning nicely in the run-up to the eruption, and there is no way it would ever had acquired a circus, since the only cities in Italy which ever got one were those used as imperial capitals – Rome, Milan and Ravenna.
4. The destruction scenes at the end. Yeah, these were inaccurate too, but this time in ways I actually really liked. They built on a lot of the tropes already established in earlier versions of the destruction of Pompeii, right from the fireballs and falling masonry of Briullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii to the full spread of previous film versions, while adding some great new motifs of their own. I particularly liked the sight of ships from the harbour being washed up along Pompeii’s streets, which I’m pretty sure must have been inspired by footage of recent disasters such as the Japanese tsunami in 2011. This is the sort of blurring of the lines between ancient and modern which I think films about the ancient world should do – drawing on equivalent modern situations to humanise ancient events and make them feel immediate and relatable for the audience.
In fact, the contrast between my reactions to the inaccuracies I’ve moaned about in points 2 and 3 and the treatment of the eruption in point 4 helps me to reach a better understanding of my own position on issues of accuracy and inaccuracy in ancient-world films. I think it comes down to the difference between one-off events, where there is room for doubt on how they unfolded and they need to have dramatic potency, and the fundamental social and political structures of the culture which is being depicted. On the treatment of the eruption, I would agree with Virginia Campbell that accuracy shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good and immediate story. We’ve got no evidence that ships were dragged along the streets during the destruction of Pompeii, and indeed the evidence we do have strongly suggests that they weren’t – but the image does convey the magnitude of the catastrophe in terms that a modern audience can quickly grasp. On the other hand, the total distortions of the basic dynamics of Roman politics and society covered in my points 2 and 3 don’t do anything to improve the story, but do perpetuate stupid myths and misunderstandings – and make no mistake, historical myths can be dangerous. It is here that I have to disagree with Virginia, and say that accuracy on these sorts of points does matter, and indeed that as an academic it is part of my job to point out why and how a portrayal of the ancient world is wrong. Whether film-makers choose to listen or not, of course, is up to them.