The Last Days of Pompeii (1984)


Believe it or not, and even I was starting to wonder, the American miniseries did not always took place in the 1860s or the 1940s.  Let’s get goofier, let’s get more glamorous and let’s bring on the cheese, but without the usual apologies from the dumbest of miniseries (“Beulah Land” or “Pearl” come to mind), all of which have the same motto: “war is hell.”

Where shall we traipse off to?  We want something fun, something spectacular, something with a cast of thousands.  That would have to be the Roman Empire.  Since the invention of the printing press, let alone visual media, the Roman Empire is the touchstone for wild over-the-top extravaganzas.  Cecil B. DeMille milked it, as did that most staid dependable and venerated, the British miniseries, created one of the most fondly remembered of all television productions, “I, Claudius.”

So, one knows without a doubt that when Hollywood got around to Rome, we were in for a sex-crazed miscast rollicking adventure.  And so, we come to “The Last Days of Pompeii,” which is based on a book 150 years old by 1984 (aka in the public domain), but since no one from Pompeii survived to wag a finger otherwise, 1980s television turned the town into a mixture of Gomorrah, Peyton Place and Los Angeles.

No, that’s actually not true.  It’s wishful thinking.  In this long movie, there are some giddy delights, weird performances and a few special effects, but the body count is remarkably low.  But, we’ll get to that later.

The narration tells us, Pompeii was “the playground of the nobles,” in other words, the debauched, the dissipated, the drunk, though I’m sure a few slave girls can be tucked in somewhere.  However, it’s not all fun and games people, because the narration also notes that some dinky little new religion would “forever determine the fate of the empire and Pompeii.”  In 79 AD?  That’s giving Christianity a way speedier hold than history allows and as for Pompeii, I have a feeling that means someone is bound to blame this natural disaster on the heathens.

Off we go.  First stop, Linda Purl as a blind flower seller who is damn good with her cane, and a bunch of chorus boy rejects as the oiled up pranksters who protect her.  There’s Lesley-Anne Down as a prossie and Olivia Hussey as a novice in the Temple of Isis, who headlines a convenient religious pageant meant to impress the populous.  Brian Blessed is a blacksmith who prefers to stay on land and wonder about “the Christians,” who are “spreading through the land like a pox,” a friend tells him.  When he helps one, a rude sentry calls him perhaps the most deplorable moniker in all of miniseries history.  He calls him a…gosh, I can’t even type it it’s so terrible…a “Christian lover.”

For comic relief (well, for those who are managing to take this seriously, at least), there is “fish merchant” Ned Beatty, a grandee who has risen up the pyramid of power because of his money.  Born on a litter, Ned isn’t perhaps the smallest of men, and eventally his slaves stumble and Ned tumbles from his perch, to the delight of extras everywhere. “Remind me to sell you,” Ned tells the offending slave.

Right in the middle of the Isis pageant, which is being held to launch one of Ned’s ships, Greek-born Nicholas Clay causes a disruption, back from somewhere after a long time and far more interesting to his friends, not to mention Ned, who wants this notable young man to grace his house.  Linda Purl is secretly in love with him, but Nicholas is enchanted by Olivia Hussey, who is on her way to priestess virgin-hood if Nicholas doesn’t do something about it soon.

Brian Blessed, it’s time for some truthin’.  He’s a Christian.  He’s super angry that in the 50+ years since Jesus’ death, the religion is not yet a Top 40 hit.  He predicts a great fire will overtake the world for this, essentially inventing the Apocalypse, that foreshadowing fool!

Meanwhile, fey Nicholas Clay is still hung up on Olivia, but her protector, Franco Nero (a shoo-in participant in any miniseries that needs an accent) is very protective of her.  Her brother, cross-eyed Benedict Taylor, does not exactly pay her a huge compliment during a tearful parting so he can scamper off and become a priest.  “You’ve always been more like a mother to me than a sister,” he says.  Thanks, but no thanks on further compliments, kid brother.  Both miss their long-dead mother, but not to worry, they are certain Isis will take over as their mother.  Nicholas wants to know more about Olivia, so he asks poor waif Linda, who has tended his garden for the year he’s been gone (you might expect a color mash-up, but no, it’s perfectly coordinated) and who, as a slave, obviously can’t admit her love.

An afternoon spent at the barbaric games (in the shadow of Vesuvius, which is a constant reminder of what’s to come), introduces us to two more miniseries regulars (both of whom have played similar roles before).  Ernest Borgnine is in charge of making sure the games go well (and, I suppose maintaining the lions about to devour some whimpering Christians) and Anthony Quayle is the local magistrate, looking so miserable.  I think it’s his character, but then again, it also would be Anthony himself, caught up in yet another spectacle that I would like to think he took simply for the money.

In the grand melee of the brutal games, the crowd is nastier than football hooligans and Ernie Borgnine gives instructions from the sidelines, but it’s clear he’s not even on the same set as the real action.  Duncan Regehr, the biggest name competitor (wearing nothing but oil and a belt that can’t hide his paunch), sasses Ernest as he gets ready to make his big entrance.  “Be careful,” says a friend, grabbing his arm.  Also waiting to go on, but not quite as excited, is a room full of Christians.  “They think they are going to a better place.  I’m not so sure about you and me,” Ernie tells Duncan.  There’s a sentiment no one wants to hear upon entering an arena of death.

The crowd has a giant collective orgasm when Duncan strides into view.  “He looks terribly strong,” one woman says.  “Believe me, he is,” says her over-painted friend.  Duncan has a rather tough opponent (“at least he’s a Roman,” someone snaps), and though we experience some tension, Duncan wins, ordered to kill the guy by the thumbs down of Anthony Quayle.  Catriona McColl’s body is in the way of the camera shot showing the actual killing.

“I suppose they’re ready for the Christians,” Anthony sleepily mutters, and indeed they are.  As the tired, hungry and wretched stumble into the games, the place goes wild.  The Christians even sing a song.  My goodness, they even have songs a mere few decades after the death of the movement’s founder.

Caught between a fellow hooker with a nasty tongue and a gay dwarf with the same, Lesley-Anne gets a lot of razzing for being invited to Ned’s house for a party.  Oh, and she might be a Christian.  Lesley-Anne’s boyfriend, Malcolm Jamieson, is also Ned’s servant, and he’s not happy when she tells him she’s “entertaining” at the party.  Frankly, he’s an ass.  He berates her and even questions whether he’s the father of the little baby crying a few feet away.

Ned’s party isn’t cheap.  His fellow middle class denizens are caustic and mean, barely watching the slave acrobats, who aren’t very good, and eating the only food one ever sees in a movie about ancient Rome (or Pompeii): grapes.  Franco, blowing smoke up Ned’s ass, suggests Ned go into politics because Franco wants to bring back the republic, though Ned knows nothing of politics, or anything, for that matter, except money.

Duncan, with a Bruce Jenner haircut, goes into a seedy establishment with Ernest, gives money secretly to Linda and then has to defend himself when it’s noted that he’s been invited to Ned’s bash.  “Lords and ladies don’t mix with gladiators,” Ernest reminds him.  Ernie has a theory that Duncan could never be accepted by the chic middle class because though they love him in the arena, “at the same table, you are too real!”  He doesn’t listen to Ernie’s bluster, which is a consider amount of bullshit.  But, he’s not wrong.  When Duncan enters, one partygoer acidly notes, “dear god, they’ll be asking us to sit down with slaves next.”

No sooner than a partygoer, impressed with a fireworks display, comments that “it’s better than Vesuvius,” the whole place starts to shake.  “Someone throw another Christian on the fire, the gods are angry,” one of the boys-who’s-one-of-the-girls sarcastically jokes after the rumbling stops.  All of the guests underestimate nature, or find earthquakes a nuisance, such as the dame who says the last one knocked from her bed.  Ned’s wife, Joyce Blair, who is as insufferable as her husband, takes the ladies to see her jewels, so only the men are left when Lesley-Anne arrives to do her Dance of the 866 Veils.  There is absolutely nothing erotic about her performance, but the extras, most of whom have appeared to be unapologetically gay, get all lascivious.  Lesley-Anne does some spins in slow motion in front of Duncan, who is clearly uncomfortable.  The extras don’t help, egging in him to “show us how it’s done,” so Duncan gets up to leave, now believing what Ernie said, that they would never treat him like anything but a slave.  Indeed, “how quickly they forget,” Ned says in reference to Duncan, once a servant, not a hero.  Only Nicholas Clay comes to his defense.

When Duncan goes to Lesley-Anne’s rooms for succor from Linda Purl, ever chipper and supportive, Duncan has one of those groaners that are just dismal.  “Sometimes I forget who I am,” a reference to his past status of a slave.  At least I think so.  It could mean just about anything in this crappy script.  “Outside the ring, who is the great [Duncan]?  No money, no trade,” he murmurs.  We get it, the upper classes never let slaves or ex-slaves forget what they are.  It’s been the theme for the pat 30 minutes and yes, we know it’s a foreshadowing device because it’s going to be the guttersnipes who think nothing of trying to save someone wealthier once the big event happens.  For a former slave, Duncan is awfully philosophical, not to mention gloomy, and he has his mind totally wrapped around the ills of society.  That’s not even remotely believable, but whatever.

At the Temple of Isis, Franco channels the goddess to free a crazy woman from her mental state.  She may be kooky, but she knows how to slather on her make-up (that’s because she’s a fraud, part of the act).  Franco then rails at the crowd, unintelligibly, his way of snagging donations.  Nicholas does not donate.  He loves Olivia for Olivia.  Fey and pretentious, his friends crack jokes they must have recently learned at a gay bathhouse, but then they realize their pal is in love.  “Do you really think it’s love?” one asks, “It could be a plate of bad oysters.”  They think he’s in love with Catriona, Ned’s daughter, a sassy gal who doesn’t mind talking back to her nimrod of a father.

Cute blond Benedict Taylor is inducted into the Isis gang, having stayed mute for the previous week, and turning over his wealth to Franco, since members of the team have to take an “oath of poverty.”  Yes, the phrase is deliberately Christian-esque, as are many others in the witless script, which really should just concern itself with the soapy plots and leave “makes you think” to a smarter miniseries.  No sooner do we leave that, we get another lesson in politics from Franco, about two millennia before ideas like representative democracy would even appear.

The Secret Christian Society gathers at Brian’s home, including Lesley-Anne, who isn’t yet a Christian, but leaning that way.  Note to all: if you are going to be a secret organization, don’t let someone bring a crying baby.  The opposite of quiet decorum is Ned Beatty running for magistrate, stealing what sounds like one of Ronald Reagan’s 1970s speeches.

There is another rumble, but so early in the morning and so short, no one notices.  Certainly not Malcolm and Lesley-Anne in bed, at once frisky and wondering how they can escape the clutches of Ned and live as out and proud Christians.  Lesley-Anne is insistent that their son not grow up a slave.  Neither Lesley-Anne, in just a sheet, nor the gay dwarf are able to stop the brothel madam from taking Linda to the slave market.  “She gives the place an air,” the latter says.  He then runs to Duncan, interrupting training, to drag him to the market to save Linda.

Only a few feet away, Nicholas and the most swish of his friends watch Catriona.  Nicholas is smitten, and has been for a long time.  Try not to laugh when Nicholas thinks that his pal is in love with her as well.  If he is, he’s playing his character way wrong! His excuse is that she’s a merchant’s daughter and unworthy of nobles like himself.  Nicholas saves Linda before hulking Duncan can get there, wrapping her in a tunic and taking her to safety.  Brian stops the auctioneer from beating the slaves (black slaves, in case anyone doesn’t understand the thrust of Brian’s angry raging speed of humanity.  He is hauled off to the local senate, run by Anthony.  Brian doesn’t openly admit that he’s a Christian, though it’s clear to Anthony, who says, “don’t force me to ask the question that will send you to your death.”  Brian is sentenced to a flogging for “disturbing the peace.”  Franco and Anthony are impressed that Brian does not cry out with every lash.

You see, Franco is running Ned against Anthony for his own purposes, and proposes that Ned may be a challenge because Anthony has ignored Isis.  Anthony counters that he’s stayed neutral “on all cults” during his tenure.  Religion is so NOT the right main plot in what should really be a pageant of goofiness.  It’s boring.

Nicholas and Olivia take a lovely walk through a cemetery, where Nicholas almost kind of admits his love for Olivia, who tries to steer him to believing the power of Isis.  “I believe in you,” he says, which make her all nervous, so she rushes away quickly.  Duncan goes to Nicholas (both shirtless as they have been training), to inquire about Linda, but where they end up talking politics. “I yearn for Athens the way it was,” Nicholas says.  The only thing more boring than religion is politics!  Nicholas shows Duncan how to wrestle in one of the giddiest homoerotic scenes in the miniseries cannon, just the kind of possibly intentional fun this story needs, especially to balance out the sleepy lectures by character after character.

A third of the way into “The Last Days of Pompeii,” absolutely nothing has happened.  We have met a lot of characters, all completely one-dimensional and it’s already plain to see how it will all end, but the writers seemed to think they had a soapbox with this piece.  The miniseries is not the place to discuss the ills of the world.  At least not according to audiences, who loved the trash more than the serious.

But, on we go.  How Linda Purl made the perfectly color-coordinated lei she gives Nicholas, I have no idea.  In turn, he gives her a lovely necklace.  She, of course, thinks it’s out of love, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  He’s kicking her out of the house, sending her to Olivia’s, because “people are starting to talk.”  Uh oh, our hero just turned unlikeable.  “Slaves don’t have reputations,” Linda brays as Nicholas barks that perhaps he should just give her her freedom.  She begs him not to.  If anything in the previous two sentences makes sense to you, you are a much smarter person than I am.  He relents after she realizes he loves Olivia (“Am I that transparent?” he asks the blind girl).  Olivia is even more patronizing, telling Linda she hopes she will be happy living with her as a “companion, not as my slave.”

The world’s oldest gladiators are at practice yet again, and the jealous lines of dialogue about Duncan being in love with Linda and another gladiator or two lead to a sword fight of sweaty stupid brutes.  Horrified Ernest shouts, “you idiots, if you want to fight, wait until someone’s paid for it!”  Duncan could have killed the other guy, but doesn’t.  He could also pretend he’s not trying to be Bruce Jenner, but he doesn’t do that either.  But, let’s be realistic, a “Can’t Stop the Music” starring role comes along only once in a lifetime and Bruce did it.

Not turned on enough by making blood ooze from the tiniest of cuts, Duncan and Linda take a romantic walk in a lovely field in the shadow of Vesuvius with Linda.  “I’ve always loved you.  As you’ve grown and changed, so has the nature of my love,” he confesses, with studio-dubbed dialogue the quality of a Steve Reeves movie.  “I want you as my wife,” he continues, as Linda sucks in heaps of air that would leave to a heaving bosom if the camera dropped below her neck.  Want to hear her reply?  “There must be so many other women.  I can’t even see you,” she gasps and he continues the theme by saying she seems him better than anyone else.  There are plans made  and sublime happiness.  Any miniseries fan knows what that means.

Any minute now, we’re cuing the lava.  And not a moment too soon.  We need to start bumping off characters.  After two hours, it’s clear who will live and who will die (although there’s always a surprise) because not only are the characters so one dimensional they might as wear “I survive” and “I perish” togas, but the lessons of the 1970s disaster movies are still fresh in everyone’s minds, the now-and-forever template for who will shantay and who will sashay.

It gets worse.  The writers start to have fun.  “I’ve never known you to fear death,” Linda purrs as Duncan whines that he’s aging out of his gladiatorial career.  The tone takes swing to the wild when Linda demurs based on a mysterious love she already has, but Duncan assures her he can conquer that too, causing an (pun intended) eruption from Linda.  “I’m offering you something you’ve never had: love and freedom,” he wails, tossing her about in the air.  Um, sorry, I’ll allow the grammar police a moment here.  Love and freedom are two offerings, so Duncan spoke incorrectly.  I can put off the inevitable with every trick I know, and so can the writers.

Including yet another distraction.  Duncan’s father is a slave in Ned’s house and Duncan is ashamed that he has never used his money to buy papa’s freedom, but since dad is a Christian anyway, he would rather trust in God, though he does wish Duncan would not “go out on that tour,” as if he’s Janet Jackson making a tour of the Continent.  Again, what seems like a sweet “I love you Dad–I love you Son” exchange is really about religion, but you knew that already.

Who is in charge of the lava?  We need to start bumping off some of these characters already!

The next day, the gladiators go out on tour, with a cart instead of a pimped out bus, even passing Linda, making her famous flower leis, so Duncan can pine one last time.  Meanwhile, more foreshadowing at the bath, where Ned notes that they haven’t been properly rebuilt since the last earthquake.

Jerry Sunquist, channeling Roddy McDowell, is also there and bemoans the fact that Nicholas has money and he, ancient Roman elite, doesn’t.  But, Nicholas is there to question Jerry about finding information regarding Franco’s operation.  It seems the only person who can do is a shut in who sees no one.

Though there is absolutely no tension, the writers try to force it.  Nicholas helps a young boy knocked over in the street and finds out that sweaty men work under the baths to heat them.  “They are the lucky one, they already know what it’s like to work in Hades,” their boss says.


Where are the fact checkers?  The concept of hell as a burning pit was a Christian creation many centuries in the future.  To the Romans, it was simply where people went after they died.

Okay, remember the hermit?  Here he comes, embarrassing himself in yet another 80s trash role: Laurence Olivier.  He had already done “The Jazz Singer” and “Clash of the Titans,” and he was no miniseries virgin.  He was credibility for hire.  He’s a philosopher who spits out very long sentences that top all of the other political and religious discussions that have bored so far.  Unfortunately, Sir Larry clams up at the mention of Franco’s name and stalks off angrily.

A disciple of Jesus’, who even knew him, arrives in Pompeii, and ripples of fear and anger are immediate.  Franco is upset since he wants no one upstaging his act.  Anthony Quayle, once again kind, informs his soldiers “there is to be no killing” of Christians.  ‘They are to be brought to me…and tried legally,” he says with authority.  “No massacre, understand!”  They soldiers pay him lip service, but they want blood on their hands.  So ends the first episode, without so much as a sputter from the mountain.

Nicholas and Olivia go on a boat excursion, where the conversation is so silly, it’s borderline insulting.  It’s religious, of course.  Olivia confesses a desire to see Egypt, the birthplace of Isis and wonders if Cleopatra and Marc Antony really loved each other.  Nicholas tells her Isis would totally understand if Olivia found a good man and abandoned her beliefs.  “You mustn’t think of me as another one of your conquests,” she snaps when he goes in for a kiss.

The city’s Christians meet secretly outside the city walls.  Brian is thee, Malcolm, Lesley-Anne, kids and old men, you name it, every available extra fits into a cave to hear the disciple.  Well, right behind them are the soldiers, who are in no mood to play nice with Christians.  The soldiers, explicitly told otherwise, are out for blood, though there isn’t much in the way of a body count.  The problem is that Anthony Quayle instructed them to bring back Christians for trials.  The head soldiers find Malcolm and Lesley-Anne.  Her brilliant idea is to pretend to do her job, skirt up, legs up.  One of the soldiers recognizes her, but he’s impervious to her vamping.  Without any real explanation, he claims to recognize Malcolm as a Christian.  Now Anthony will have someone to try.  The other soldier decides he wants a little of what she sells.  But remember, the American miniseries wears a chastity belt, so we see nothing more than the soldier’s lechery and Lesley-Anne shrinking against the wall.

The next morning, Lesley-Anne goes to Nicholas, whom she knows to be a fair and kind man, and also because she knows Linda.  Olivia is there as well and wants to help.  Of all people, Isis-worshipping Olivia is the one to suggest Nicholas become a friend to Christians in need, but he refuses.

But only temporarily.  He hastens over to Ned’s to tell him that his slave is to be tried and reminds him of the political ramifications, since he is running for office.  “I hadn’t thought of that,” Ned says.  “No, I didn’t think you had,” replies Nicholas who has a plan, of course.  It involves Nicholas showing up the trial at the exact right moment (“Do you have business with the court?” Anthony asks, as if that phrase would ever have been uttered that far back in history).  Nicholas says Ned sold him the slave a few days before, he will cure Malcolm of his lust for prostitutes and claims that there is no way Malcolm can be a Christian.  In fact, there’s no way Malcolm was at the meeting and serving Nicholas all night, except when asked to take Nicholas’ lady friend home, where he was dabbling in sex when caught.  All of this was thought up in about 17 seconds.  Lesley-Anne promises to repay the kindness.  Uh oh, people are making plans again!

Some are more complex, like Franco, who wants Linda to be a priestess of Isis and has “plans” for Nicholas, as yet unspecified.

Almost three hours in, we get our first close-up of Vesuvius.

Having a picnic, Olivia relates a story to Nicholas her father told her, that the gods stuffed some bad guys in there and eruptions are their way of trying to get out.  Well, the story of Zeus and Cronus is well-known, but I don’t think it was Vesuvius.  Anyway, that tripe and more pleading from Nicholas gets him his first taste of her, but just as she’s pulling away…

Vesuvius sputters.

Nicholas and Olivia are able to outrun the avalanche of fake rocks tumbling their way and Laurence Olivier’s home as “suffered some damage,” but everything else is fine.  Larry is upset when Nicholas and Olivia arrive from their run down the mountain because he knew Olivia has a small child and is horrified to hear that she’s mixed up with the Isis crowd.  It’s scenery chewing time for Larry.  Olivia and Nicholas walk home and she insists they not see each other anymore.  He will not, however, let her return the necklace he gave her and that, my friends, smacks of foreshadowing.

If we can’t be tragic, we might as well be funny.  Funny would be the fresco the gay dwarf paints of paunchy Ned Beatty, who hates it.  Funny would be Franco Nero doing a spoof of every bad guy in movie history as he gives Ned instructions to have his daughter marry Catriona marry Nicholas, though she’s in love with Jerry.  This is done while Ned walks into a shallow decorous pond in his home.  She’s incensed that he would use her to further his career, stomping off after growling that they are both whores for what they want.

The next scene tops it.  Catriona has agreed to help her father, but only because of what’s in it for her.  So, she invites Linda to the bath where slaves are not permitted.  She offers Linda freedom and gobs of money if she will help get Nicholas away from Olivia.  Linda is horrified since she likes both of them so much.  She rises and goes to rush out, but she’s in unfamiliar surroundings and has to beg for help.  Now, this is in no way a giggle at the expense of blindness, only at Linda Purl’s inability to act.

Enjoy the orgy at Isis House because you know those people will be the first to burn.  Franco is not happy when Olivia confesses her love for Nicholas, which is making her reconsider becoming a priestess.  Franco tells some whopper lies, but the scene swings from sweet to volatile and Franco wisely hides behind his accent so no one can really blame him.  Olivia asks Linda for the truth and she finds it hard to believe Nicholas and Catriona are in love.  Olivia gives Linda the necklace (I told you it would come back, and something tells me this ain’t the last we see of it either), with instructions for Nicholas to bring it back to her in person if he really loves her.  What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Linda makes a mad dash to Catriona.  She and Olivia have what should be a showdown, but it’s hardly even a one-sided torment.  The difference in acting styles here is amusing.  Catriona is all bug-eyed and over-the-top, while Olivia, as always, is a consummate devotee of underacting.  Catriona has a necklace that looks just like the one Nicholas gave to Olivia.  As she saunters out, Catriona purrs, “try not to feel too wretched.  He really isn’t worth it.  I don’t know how I put up with him, except my pride seems to diminish where he is concerned.”  What the hell does that mean?  The more that sentence continues the less sense it makes.  Is Catriona trying to tell Olivia she’s into bondage of some sort?

As Catriona makes her exit, she drops the necklace on a counter and lets Linda feel her neck to prove it’s not there before flouncing away.  Poor confused Linda, used by everyone.

Three hours into the piece, what’s the one thing you want most of all?  Come on, spill.  Oh, but volcanic eruption is not one of the choices (sadly).  Yes, of course, you want Duncan and the gladiators to make a triumphant return to Pompeii and the plot.  The extras look at least mildly excited, nubile teenagers to the front of the crowd.  Duncan rushes to Linda, but finds Nicholas there and draws the wrong conclusion.  To keep all the lies straight, she has to tell Duncan she never wants to see him again.  “Be alone!”  he bellows as she cries on the other side of the door.

Nicholas’ questionably gay friends are not at all into celebrating the death of Emperor Vespasian.  They actually refer to him as the “c word.”

Commoner.  (GASP!)

Now remember, once Roman Emperors died, they became gods, which is the reason the gaggle of maybe-gays are standing around reading everyone.  Malcolm is carrying supplies when the soldier who arrested him steps into his path and calls him out as a Christian in front of the murmuring crowd.  He’s accused of not paying his respects to the new god, but he says he’s a poor slave, no coin on him.  One of the Isis guys offers money, but when Malcolm silently refuses, it’s off to court again.

Olivia’s brother Benedict Taylor, fully initiated into the Isis cult, but repelled by its excesses, seeks out Nicholas for breaking his sister’s heart.  Honestly, I’ve lost track of the truths and lies by this point, so when Nicholas suggests they take an excursion to Laurence Olivier, who knows the secrets behind Franco’s dastardly plans, I hoped sense might return to the movie.

In court, a barely-awake Anthony Quayle tries to get Malcolm to defend himself against the Christianity charges (could he be secretly supportive?), but Malcolm refuses to speak.  So, Anthony orders him to be tortured.

In the far more interesting plot, because it’s so cliche that the actors ham it up to the fullest, Sir Larry tells Benedict that Emperor Nero relied on Franco Nero, who had Benedict and Olivia’s father killed for his fortune.  It was our resident slumming legend who spirited the kids to safety and earned him the eternal scorn of Franco, who not only put both of Laurence’s sons to death, but vowed to kill him too.  He’s actually resigned to his death, even if his wife would rather have him alive.

Nicholas wants to help Benedict, but the latter insists on doing it himself.  “A day or two can’t matter, please!” he begs Nicholas.  That sentence will come back to bite him, unless it’s the 73rd red herring of the script.  Franco is ready with explanations.  He did it to test Benedict’s strength, the people don’t want truth, they “want to be in fate, something greater than themselves.”  The rest of the tirade simply takes Christian teachings and upends it.  “I can’t live with these deceits,” Benedict claims, but Franco is a hypnotic being and insists that all the things he’s been afraid of, he needs to actually try, or else how will he know if he’s making the right decisions.  It’s the most ludicrous speech, but it’s done over a fantasy sequence, which gives it an extra special level of cheesiness.  Bring on the people with goat heads, incense and dancing girls.  One of the latter is Lesley-Anne, proof that it happened, but she wants to get him out of Pompeii before it’s too late.

She takes Benedict to Brian Blessed, who can always smuggle Christians out of town, only to find Malcolm bloodied and barely alive after his torture session.  He even renounced his beliefs.  Brian takes Benedict on a sailing trip to school him in Christianity.  Reading a Bible might be more expedient, but this is Brian’s biggest opportunity so far to sink his teeth into the overacting pie and devour it.  He tells Benedict all about his change in feelings after spending time with Paul, before Nero had him thrown to the lions.

Nicholas assumes Benedict has filled Olivia in on everything, but obviously not.  He doesn’t reveal much, but she doesn’t blink while he speaks, so maybe he cut the conversation short to spare her eyes.  He goes off to find Benedict and tells Olivia that “whatever you hear…I love you.”

The showdown comes during a big nighttime ceremony at the Temple of Isis.  Benedict tells Franco all he knows and that Nicholas knows it too, having heard it right along with him from Laurence Olivier.  Franco stabs Benedict and runs off.  Nicholas arrives a moment too late, but Franco knocks him out and puts the bloody dagger in Nicholas’ hand.  That doesn’t quite make sense because how would Nicholas have stabbed Benedict and then passed out on his body.

And old woman finds them and cries murder.  The first to arrive are Nicholas’ friends.  Back at the palace, Franco’s head lackey, who saw everything, shocks the crowd by reporting Benedict’s murder.  The lackey then hastens to tell Olivier his version of events, finding only the Mrs.  Siobhan reads between the lines and doesn’t seem to believe what he’s telling her.  Benedict is given a lavish Isis-ian funeral, but Olivia believes that Nicholas murdered her brother.

So, dashing madly about the streets are Siobhan, who wants to get Sir Larry out of town, Olivia, who is told it’s not safe to stay, Linda, just because, Lesley-Anne, because she and her Christian lover and baby daddy are not safe.  The younger set arrives at Brian’s, but Olivia wants to call the Magistrate.  “He’s interested in election, not justice,” Brian says, though we have no way of knowing that since Anthony has pretty much slept through every scene, Christians or not.

Benedict’s funeral pyre is in flames as the second portion concludes.  Frankly, I think the creators of “The Last Days of Pompeii” are being a lot too literal.  Cut the mumbo jumbo and get to the mountain exploding.  Can’t we do “The Last Hours of Pompeii” and save us all some grief?

Ned is spitting wooden denarii that Nicholas’ arrest for murder will ruin him and his election bid.  Franco gets Ned to put up money for a massive stadium as “the emperor is mad for games” and though dejected, he agrees to the plan.  Jerry meets with Catriona and Franco and agrees to testify against Nicholas.  Wow, now there’s a good friend!

In case you don’t see what’s happening, every non-Christian character is sinking into the mud in the movie’s not-at-all-subtle theme of Christians rule.  Anthony is next to disappear into quicksand as he rallies the populace before Nicholas’ trial into a frenzy of adoration for his years of service.  This is the first time Anthony has shown a shred of emotion.  It’s here that Ned realizes Franco has been playing both sides, as cozy with Anthony as he appeared to be with him, so he jumps up and whips the crowd into a second frenzy, insisting that Nicholas meet his fate in the arena.  Anthony says there is no money for this, so Ned volunteers to pay for it all.  A third blowhard forces his way through the crowd.  Yup, Brian Blessed, who attacks both of the candidates.

During Brian’s speech, a tremor from Vesuvius is felt, and Anthony jumps to blame Brian and the Christians for making that happen.  Ned tries to run off, marking him as a coward, but Franco saves him from being torn apart by telling the extras that Anthony has to be the one to condemn Brian to death and then the punishment can be death at the games Ned offered to hold.

We haven’t heard much from the gladiators lately, but when we do, Duncan refuses to go into the arena for what he considers an unfair trial and result.  The other gladiators have no such scruples.  “Whoever feels like killing [Nicholas] can do so, but that man must first kill me,” Duncan tells the rest, with a full face of make-up that makes it hard to take him seriously.

So, all of the Christians and any other undesirables, await their fate in Brian’s shop, including Olivia and Linda.  Linda confesses that she gave Catriona Olivia’s necklace because she was jealous that Nicholas loved Olivia.  She begs for forgiveness, and here’s Olivia’s reply: “No, I’m the one who needs forgiveness.  I poured out all my joys and sorrow to you and never even wondered if you had any of your own.”  Wow, not that a damn selfish dame and one of the biggest hoots of the whole movie.

As the mob gathers, Duncan shows up first and leads everyone to safety.  When the mob beats its way into the chamber where everyone had been hiding, they find only Malcolm and Duncan.  Malcolm is killed quickly, but Duncan escapes, having killed a whole bunch of angry mob men.  All he needs to do is shake his head for Lesley-Anne to know her baby now has no father.

Brian and Nicholas share some religious talk and about the time Nicholas is ready to convert (based on 25 seconds of information), Olivia shows up so they can declare their love for each other.  Unfortunately, the Isis minions have followed her and kidnap her.  Meanwhile, Linda begs Duncan not to kill Nicholas for Olivia’s sake, but Duncan lays it out for her: if he doesn’t kill Nicholas, Nicholas will go to the lions.  “The best that I can do is kill him quickly and then never kill again,” he tells her.  Well, I guess that’s true, but there are other solutions.  Eh, whatever, let the killing begin.

Speaking of posses, what could be scarier than Lesley-Anne and the gay dwarf?  They arrive at the Temple of Isis a little too late because Olivia is already there.  Inside, Franco is blackmailed by his creepy assistant who knows he killed Benedict, so Franco knocks him out.

The only person who notices the smoke coming from Vesuvius is Laurence Olivier.  He tells Siobhan that he is going to kill himself (apparently, according to him, there are 1000 ways to make that happen, and he’s chosen one).  She wants him to run away, but he can barely speak, let alone run, so that’s not going to happen.  So, to justify his salary, he’s given more longwinded philosophical ramblings while poor Siobhan tries her best to look interested.

It’s time for the games.  Almost.  Lesley-Anne gives her baby to the gay dwarf and goes to free Olivia, having to ply her trade with one Isis priest and then haggle with the priest Franco knocked out but forget to make sure was actually dead.  Jerry admits to Catriona that he betrayed his friend Nicholas and he has to leave the city.  She, who hates her parents, but loves their money, welcomes to chance to go with him.  Ned looks like a fool in his ornate toga, and Anthony gets to nap right behind him.  In the holding cell, Brian goes on about the sunshine and waves and everything he will miss, but not to worry, death is not a bad thing.  Brian turns to what weather means in Christianity, which shouldn’t make a lick of sense, but comforts Nicholas.

Linda arrives at Catrionas just as she and Jerry are leaving.  Linda begs her to go to her father to stop the games as they now have proof that Franco was the killer.  Where did she get that proof?   I’m not sure, honestly.

Ned decrees the death of a gladiator and when he does, a big tremor frightens the crowd, but it doesn’t last.  Nicholas refuses any armor for his fight with Duncan.  Tension should be mounting as Catriona and Linda race to the arena to persuade Ned to stop the fight, which is has already begun.  Duncan tells Nicholas how to survive their fight and even offers to die instead, but Nicholas demurs.  “Help me save you.  FIGHT!  FIGHT!” he begs Nicholas.

Jerry enters with the half dead man who can finger Franco.  Ned won’t stop the games, for fear of his own life, and Franco tries to escape.  Meanwhile, Nicholas falls to the ground, Duncan begs him to get up, but he won’t, and he won’t even pick up his sword.  Duncan is about to finish off Nicholas when…


Amid the panic, Franco stabs Jerry.  Catriona stays with him, but that won’t help much.  At least Duncan doesn’t have to kill Nicholas, so they plan to meet at the doc with other assorted friends.

Special effects?  Not much. Paper buildings, the like.

With debris all around them, but not falling on them, Laurence and Siobhan have yet another conversation that takes way too long under the circumstances.  The world reborn, a better place, if only there were no men, whatever.  It rains crap bigger than Vesuvius.  But, he’s already taken poison, so he dies before the eruption can kill him.  Buildings crumble and a few extras are lost, but there’s a dog tied to a pole that is saddest.  Ned insists to his wife that, “we must save our fortune…what about your jewels? ”  A line like that is marking you for death.  A gladiator admits to Duncan, “I did love you,” and Ernest talks to him buried under a plank, but able to reach for a sword and off himself less painfully.  Brian can escape from his cell because the door is pushed open by the crumbling, and he stops his escape momentarily to wish Jerry and Catriona “God be with you,” even though they are dead in each other’s arms, looking already like we expected, ash-covered, and in perfect form.  Brian escapes, but a pack of lions comes his way.  But wait, they ignore him!  That’s a miracle.  Franco and his guys load up on Temple of Isis booty.  Nicholas saves Olivia, with no hindrance from Linda, who probably would be slowing them down, no?

If you want a cautionary tale Christian-style, a thief steals a bracelet from Anthony’s dead arm and then chokes to death moments later.  Franco has huge bags of plunder, but it takes only one dagger from Lesley-Anne to off him.  “I’ve found my way around Pompeii my whole life in darkness,” Linda tells Nicholas and Olivia.  Now, with only moments to go, does this character have ANY purpose!  Ned and his wife perish (representing greed).  Brian, Nicholas and Olivia make it to the harbor, but Linda turns back, taking Lesley-Anne’s baby from her just before Lesley-Anne dies.  Linda then does the oddest thing: she closes Lesley-Anne’s eyes. Ironic, no?  Duncan’s dad dies, but Linda, carrying the baby, finds Duncan.

The boats in the harbor are swamped, so there’s a lot of drowning too.  Somehow, Duncan and Linda make it to Nicholas’ boat and our heroes are able to leave, with heaps of dead bodies on the harbor of people who didn’t get on boats.

“My friends, let us look our last upon this place and then let us turn away…forever,” Brian tells everyone on board.  That would be okay, but then he has a seventeen page speech about the death of the Roman Empire and the fact that Christianity will one day overtake everything.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

2 Comments to “The Last Days of Pompeii (1984)”

  1. sospiro 6 August 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    “Gay” is without a doubt your favorite word. Bravo.

    I think it’s a fine miniseries, outstanding for a TV-production from the 80s. The chauvinistic christian aspects are truly upsetting, but the sets (most of them 1:1 copies of the real pompejan buildings), the costumes, the music and the eruption scenes are extraordinary.

    You write: “I hoped sense might return to the movie.” All the scenes and dialogues you mention as “questionable” make sense. You just don’t get them.

    One example: “Where did she get that proof? I’m not sure, honestly.” – She got the proof from Calenus from the Temple. Maybe you should listen more attentive to the plot instead of wondering who looks gay.

    • Bj Kirschner 6 August 2014 at 9:48 pm #

      “Gay” is not my favorite word, but it sure as hell does come in handy with over-the-top lunacies like “The Last Days of Pompeii.” To be fair, I watched it when it originally aired and thought it was wonderful. The beginning was boring, but by the time the lava came along, it became somewhat exciting.

      These reviews/remembrances/etc. are not meant to be literal in the sense that someone will read one and dash out to view it. So, since they are ages old, I’m looking at them in a particular way. This is all leading up to something and that something will certainly be branded with a wry sense of humor. I assure you, I listen to every word! For a typical four-hour miniseries, I spent about 10 hours watching it, many scenes over and over, pausing and rewinding.

      In the end, though, taken as a whole, the American Miniseries movement did not amount to much. A few classics that look as splendid today as they did when they aired, and a lot of roadkill that may have looked exciting as the week’s big offering at a time when cable did not have the hundreds of options it does today. There is great fun to be mined in these movies.

      And I thank you for calling me out via your reading. My favorite commenters here are the ones who challenge me!