Gladiator crosses paths with Jesus and a Volcano
Preston Foster pulls off a great Forrest Gump feat, crossing paths with Jesus, Pontius and Vesuvius all in one lifetime! In 1935’s The Last Days of Pompeii, Foster plays a mild, humble and contented blacksmith in Pompeii, whose wife and son are run over by a chariot and die before he can raise the money for a doctor. The devastated Foster reorients his life toward the only thing he’s concluded that matters: money, and lots of it. He makes a quick buck doing Gladiator things and then turns it into a career, soon becoming an undefeatable attraction. One of his victories results in an opponent’s son being orphaned, so Foster, still with remnants of a heart, adopts the boy (named Flavius) and raises him as his own. Then one day Foster faces Ward Bond, who defeats and wounds him, ending Foster’s arena career. To make money, Foster takes work rounding up slaves and horses, and acting on a prophesy that his boy is about to meet the greatest man then living, Foster mistakenly arranges for a meeting with Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone).
Wrong man, but getting closer. Rathbone sends Foster on a big horse robbery, which also keeps him in the area long enough so his boy can meet the real Great Man, Jesus, who heals little Flavius (David Holt) after an accident. Not long after, Foster gets the chance to use his skills to save Jesus from crucifixion but chooses to escape with his loot instead. Years later, back in Pompeii, Foster is the well to do owner of the arena where he once fought, while grown up Flavius (John Wood), still holding a vague memory of the honorable stranger, dedicates himself to using all daddy’s money to free the Christians. On the day Wood is caught and imprisoned, Vesuvius blows and levels Pompeii, leaving Foster to wander through the rubble rethinking his life, ready to forgive and help whoever has survived.
With gladiator strength the movie stretches and bends history to make the points meet up conveniently, but if you can get beyond that, there’s epic entertainment with a healthy dose of morality. Despite his bitterness, Foster proves he’s essentially decent by raising Flavius and spending his last coin to provide a good life for the boy. Foster does break a vow he makes to himself, by choosing gold at one crucial moment and supporting slavery for years, but by the end he finally gets back to love, charity and sacrifice, doing his best to save more lives than just his son’s. Last Days is good example of 30’s blockbuster disaster spectacle, thanks to the involvement of King Kong’s producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest B. Schoedsack and effects man Willis O’Brien. It’s not just the catastrophic power of Vesuvius that impresses but also the design of the arena, with massive statues that predictably collapse and crush spectators, the caves around Pompeii, the enormity of Foster’s villa in the shadow of the volcano, and the lava flowing into and over the city, driving people into the sea.
However the greatest effect has to be Basil Rathbone, so imperious as Pilate, so superior and conniving until he condemns Jesus and shows guilt, which is not only still apparent but has deepened years later when he visits Foster in Pompeii and helps remind Wood just who that Great Man was. Rathbone’s excellence makes this movie a must for his fans. Preston Foster, an actor who always has edge and intelligence, does a fine job as the steady center of the story, believable in his grief, his caring, his pride, greed and strength, whether he’s fighting in the arena, counting his money or realizing his wrong choices, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen from him. The cast also includes Edward Van Sloan, Louis Calhern, and Alan Hale.