RKO Radio's spectacular production The Last Days of Pompeii utilizes the title but precious little else of the famous Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton historical novel (at least the film admits as much in the opening credits). Preston S. Foster stars as Marcus, a happy-go-lucky Ancient Roman blacksmith who is plunged into the depths of despair when his wife and child are killed by a hit-and-run chariot. Undergoing a radical personality change, Marcus becomes obsessed with money and prestige, and to achieve these he becomes a mighty gladiator. While on a visit to Judea, Marcus takes orphaned boy Flavius (David Holt) under his wing and also spends some time with governor Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone), who is presently preoccupied with the execution of a subversive young rabbi named Jesus Christ. Witnessing Christ's march to Calvary, Marcus is moved by His plight, but does nothing to help the man and indeed dismisses the whole notion of Christianity as superstitious nonsense. Years later, an ageing Marcus takes up residence in a lavish villa in the resort town of Pompeii, while his grown-up foster son, Flavius (now played by John Wood), gets involved in the burgeoning Christian movement. Arrested by the authorities, Flavius and his fellow Christians are sentenced to death in the arena, much to the dismay of Marcus. Still, it takes the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii for Marcus to undergo his long-overdue religious awakening, and in the moments before he himself is engulfed by lava he arranges the escape of Flavius and the young man's sweetheart, Clodia (Dorothy Wilson). The climactic volcanic holocaust is a triumph of special effects, but that was to be expected from the production team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the same folks responsible for King Kong. Though Preston S. Foster delivers one of his finest performances in The Last Days of Pompeii, the film's acting honors go to Basil Rathbone as Pilate, who transforms from a swaggering young skeptic to a conscience-stricken old man. On its original release, the film lost 237,000 dollars, but in the long run made a profit via periodic reissues.
by Hal Erickson synopsis