In the doomed Roman city, a gentle blacksmith becomes a corrupt gladiator, while his son leans toward Christianity.In the doomed Roman city, a gentle blacksmith becomes a corrupt gladiator, while his son leans toward Christianity.In the doomed Roman city, a gentle blacksmith becomes a corrupt gladiator, while his son leans toward Christianity.
Bulwer-Lytton has become, in a small way, a literary immortal from Victorian England - actually from late Regency through Victorian England). He was a wealthy landowner and aristocrat, who would be in the British cabinet as Secretary of State for the Colonies in the middle 1850s. He was the father of a would-be poet, who rose to be Viceroy of India. Lytton was a baronet when he started writing in 1825, and would eventually be an Earl (First Earl Lytton). He wrote all the titles (including THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII) which I mentioned. Only PELHAM, his novel of Regency England's aristocracy (which he knew well) and THE LAST DAYS are still reprinted. That's because (as his own contemporaries - especially the greatly amused Thackeray noticed) Lord Lytton's ideas out paced his abilities. He wrote bad prose. A "Bulwer-Lytton" prize is now presented every year to those writers who write the worst, cliché-full opening paragraph for a novel. It is named for him because of the start of his novel EUGENE ARAM: "It was a dark and stormy night...."
He tried to be original in his concepts. EUGENE ARAM was based on the 18th Century schoolteacher, linguist, and murderer (hanged in 1759). Lytton tried to make a case that Aram's philosophical beliefs allowed him to take the blame for the murder he was hung for. The story sold well in the 1830s, but it met with mostly critical rejection. In MY NOVEL, his villain, Baron Levy, actually has a very human reason for his improbably complicated vengeance on two men: he's angry of their attentions to a woman he loves. Levy is Jewish, so it was a curious thing to make his motivation so mundane as love for a woman - but Bulwer spoiled it shortly after by adding the image of a vengeful Jew who had been insulted. That was always the problem with Bulwer-Lytton. He's a literary Ed Wood, in that his concepts outstrip his abilities (and in comparison Wood is more bearable - one of his movies lasts about an hour or so, while Bulwer can write a novel of over 700 pages!).
The reason THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII happened to have a long shelf life is that the subject (the small town near Naples that was buried in a sea of ash and lava by Vesuvius, and rediscovered preserved 1,700 years afterward) fascinates us, and to his credit Bulwer did his classical history homework. But as a piece of fiction his characters are dry as dust. One of the more interesting is a wealthy Egyptian who plans to take over the Roman Empire. He's the villain in the plot. The events that destroyed Pompeii are clearly revealed to us, including the earthquake that hit the town a decade before the volcanic eruption.
So when the movie was made they wisely jettisoned the actual story line (which I plowed through when I read the boring novel about 1985). Foster is a blacksmith who becomes a successful gladiator, and then a wealthy land owner near Pompeii. Early he lived in Judea, and met Christ, and he (like his old patron Pilate) are aware of an alternative to the materialist and corrupt empire. The film is old fashioned, but bearably so, and gave Foster one of his best screen performances (his retired police captain in KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is it's closest rival). Never a leading man in major productions, Foster demonstrated here that he could handle lead roles. Except for an occasional film though he usually was in supporting parts. For his performance, and Rathbone's Pilate, and for jettisoning Bulwer's idiot writing and plot, I'll give this an 8.
By the way, if you want to see an interesting, literary view of the later life of Pilate - by a Nobel Prize Winner no less - read the short story, THE PROCURATOR OF JUDEA by Anatole France. Far from being so thoughtful and sad as Rathbone's Pilate acts, France's version of the Procurator seems more realistic regarding his memories.
- Jan 16, 2006