The First Disaster Film

Note: This is the seventy-third in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1913 film, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, directed by Mario Caserini and Eleuterio Rodolfi.

1913 is the first year in my favorites list populated entirely by features. And it’s not really all that coincidental, as feature production increased exponentially in that year, and the years to come. Compared to the shorts still trying to cling to a promise of narrative complexity, the features were epics of unprecedented depth and high drama. Yet even still, they were heavy, slow-moving products of a struggle to make longer films entertaining. As a modern viewer not dazzled by the sheer concept of a feature length film, movies like THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1913) certainly dulled my senses at times.

Just the next year, certain comedy film pioneers would make agile, fun movies that are quite simply more enjoyable than many of the early feature films of the 1910s. There were certainly pioneering, influential, and entertaining shorts released in 1913 as well, but even with my hesitancy to say THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII is a great film, its sheer weight, for good and bad, ironically elevates it to a place among my favorites.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, based on the 1834 novel of the same name, is an Italian production and potentially the first disaster film. It’s certainly among the earliest, but only insofar as there is a “disaster” involved. This isn’t a movie made up of breathless action on the heels of a natural phenomenon, but instead one of politics, romance, and more “traditional” drama capped off with an exploding volcano.

And to be clear, that’s because of the source material. I think the concept of a period drama climaxing with something greater than human foibles (i.e. the force of a volcano eruption) makes for a really interesting storytelling structure. And that fits with the historical references we now have for Pompeii, the very idea that human life, normal or not, was arrested in the middle of it playing out and is now available for examination today.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII follows the love of Glaucus and Jone. But Arbaces, an Egyptian priest, is jealous and wants Jone for himself. When Glaucus buys the mistreated, blind slave Nydia from her cruel owner, she falls in love with him. She is the true hero and tragic figure of the film; it’s hard to truly sympathize with the slave-owning Glaucus. She asks Arbaces for a potion to make him fall in love with her, but it’s actually poison that will make him disoriented and unable to really function. Arbaces kills one of his disciples and blames it on Glaucus, who can’t defend himself. He is to be thrown to the lions as punishment, but Nydia tells a friend of Glaucus what happened and he tells the crowd in the arena ready to watch Glaucus be torn to pieces. And all of a sudden, Mount Vesuvius erupts and gives Glaucus a chance to revive his mind and escape his fate. Nydia leads Glaucus and Jone to a boat and sets them off, and kills herself since she cannot be with Glaucus.

There’s certainly something problematic in the portrayal of Nydia as a sycophantic, pining slave in love with her master, but Fernanda Negri Pouget is the star of the film. Her performance is theatrical and over-the-top, but imparts a sense of sympathy that drives the emotional core of the film and keeps it alive. Because otherwise, it isn’t super stimulating. My synopsis above is essentially all of the events of the film, and the film runs just a few minutes shy of 90. Most scenes are drawn out and last quite a bit longer than they should. The other actors also carry the stage style common in this era of silent film, but any scenes not centered around Nydia feel stale.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII has great production design, even though no other feature film had still been able to match the convincing fantasy of L’INFERNO (1911) and L’ODISSEA (1911) a couple years earlier. The backgrounds and sets are limited and stage-bound, but they have a good sense of depth. Perhaps for the first time for this era of film, I actually didn’t mind the feeling that I was watching a theater stage, especially since there are a few sets that expand the range of movement. They are illustrated beautifully, and while the costumes aren’t supremely authentic, they are convincing enough amid a varied set of characters and scenes so as to make THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII operate on (what was then) an epic scale.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII is slow but enlivened by the character of Nydia and performance of Pouget, as well as the set design, costumes, and final spectacle of the smoke filled streets and crumbling pillars. But it wasn’t the only film based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel released in 1913. It wasn’t even the only Italian one! THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII is perhaps the more notable one, but JONE OR THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1913), directed by Ubaldo Maria Del Colle and Giovanni Enrico Vidali, gives it a run for its money. Its sets are perhaps more authentic, but I really must admit I found a strange allure in Pouget’s performance.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII’s scenes are also a little tighter and paced better, but it’s incredibly interesting to compare the two movies as contemporaneous Italian productions of the same source material in a growing field of feature films. Directors Caserini and Rodolfi worked in film from the late 1900s through the early ’20s, mostly in literary adaptations, but as near as I can tell, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII is certainly their most well-known work.

And the film deserves that. It’s an impressive epic granted a smart structure by its source material, but Pouget’s performance drives THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and the movie’s climactic disaster is a compelling, tragic conclusion. I try to avoid using the term “product of its time” or judge a film as “good for its time.” But if those sentiments could be applied to any of the movies I’ve written about so far, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII might be the most deserving. It requires a certain amount of context, eagerness to appreciate what it does well, and a great amount of patience through the film’s slowest moments, but it’s an impressive creation at a really pivotal time in film history.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.