4 Things It Changes & 4 It Gets Right

6


Summary

  • Pompeii accurately showcases the stages of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, including earthquakes and pyroclastic flows.
  • The film exaggerates the effects of the eruption, including flaming balls of lava falling on the streets and ships being pushed into the city by a tsunami.
  • The characters of Senator Quintas Corvus and certain aspects of the gladiatorial subplot are fictionalized for dramatic purposes in the movie.

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In 2014 Paul W.S. Anderson, best known for the Resident Evil movies, directed the historic disaster film Pompeii, and while it gets a lot of right about the Roman city frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, it gets some things wrong. Mount Vesuvius was a volcano that erupted in 79 BC and destroyed the city of Pompeii while perfectly preserving its citizens in ash, which left quite the profound effect on Anderson during a trip to Italy. He wondered what sort of lives these people must have led, and what they were doing the moment the ash froze them forever.

The result of these ruminations was Pompeii, starring Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington as Celtic gladiator Milo seeking revenge on the Roman general (Kiefer Sutherland) who killed his family, and Cassia (Emily Browning), the Roman aristocrat he couldn’t help but love. The film follows storytelling beats from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and James Cameron’s Titanic leading up to the moment the volcano explodes, prompting some viewers to question if it was a historically accurate movie or the product of too much creative license. Fortunately, modern volcanists, National Geographic, and translated Letters of Pliny from the Institute of Geophysics, which contain a first-hand account of the event, clear things up.

8 True: The Eruption Of Mt. Vesuvius

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Pompeii doesn’t have Vesuvius erupting out of nowhere, but includes the earthquakes and tremors that shook the city in the days leading up to the big event. When it finally erupted, it blasted a thunderous cloud of debris into the air that was 20 km high, and ensuing pyroclastic flow waves even taller than that blanketed the streets with speeds of 700km an hour. As the movie shows, citizens hit by these waves were reduced to charred corpses within seconds at 700 degrees Celsius, while rocks included in the waves bashed buildings and homes until they collapsed.

7 False: Flaming Balls Of Lava Falling On The Streets Of Pompeii

Pompeii-fire-balls

The explosion of Mount Vesuvius was just one part of the major event that left Pompeii in ruins, but it occurred over an entire day, so Anderson decided to take dramatic license and speed things along. He included flaming balls of hot lava falling on the streets of the city like meteors, which set fire to several structures and made it more difficult for Harrington’s Milo and Emily Browning’s Cassia to escape. While this was visually striking and added to the tension of the event, it’s an example of spectacle being used to amplify what’s already horrific enough – albeit one that wasn’t happening quite as quickly as the storyline required.

6 True: The Stages Of The Eruption From Earthquakes To Pyroclastic Flows

Pompeii-explosion-Mount-Vesuvius

According to Live Science, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius happened in stages, and despite the fact that Pompeii hurries through other aspects of the movie such as its love story and revenge subplot, it takes its time to show these stages in detail. In addition to the earthquakes that precede the eruption, the film shows the main explosion as well as the pyroclastic flow waves that turned it into a full 24-hour event. While the waves came at the citizens quickly, they didn’t have the mass to incinerate them, instead covering them in a thick layer of ash and debris that preserved them in whatever they were doing right at the moment of impact.

5 False: The Gigantic Tsunami That Pushed Ships Into Pompeii

Pompeii-harbor-tsunami

The volcano’s explosion did have effects on the surrounding environment and topography, but it wasn’t the gigantic affair that it was made out to be in Pompeii. In Anderson’s film, Roman ships were not only thrashed about near port but actively hurtled into the city, with one actually being pushed down the main thoroughfare. There’s no evidence of ships being pushed into the city at the actual Pompeii, and what tsunami occurred as a result of the eruption was relatively minor, but Paul Anderson’s movies are known to focus more on blockbuster glitz than authenticity.

4 True: Shocked Citizens Of Pompeii Fleeing The City

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One of the most chilling aspects of visiting the real Pompeii is seeing all the citizens frozen in various positions; some as though they were completely surprised by the eruption, some performing mundane tasks in their homes, some still asleep in their beds, and many in the grip of agony and fear. The character of Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a fellow gladiator and friend to Milo in Pompeii, was based on the figure of a large, well-built man thought to be of African origin who was found trying to protect himself from the pyroclastic waves as they hit.

3 False: Kiefer Sutherland’s Senator Quintas Corvus

Kiefer-Sutherland-Senator-Corvus-Pompeii

Kiefer Sutherland turns in a strong performance as the diabolical Senator Quintas Corvus, a politician as well as a Roman general, who becomes the object of Milo’s ire and acts as a foil for his romance with Cassia. This character is fictional and created for the movie to be another humanizing obstacle, and there is no body of a senator or Roman general shackled to their chariot as he is at the end of Pompeii that matches his description in the city ruins today. A Roman senator and military commander named Marcus Aurelius Corvus lived about 300 years later.

2 True: Kit Harrington & Emily Browning’s Characters Based On “The Two Maidens” Cast

Kit-Harrington-Emily-Browning-in-Pompeii-2014

To stroll through the real ruins of Pompeii is to be taken aback by the victims in situ; mothers clutching their infants, children huddled in doorways, and entire families killed while praying to deities. Of the 2000 bodies excavated, one of the saddest casts called “The Two Maidens” consists of two people embracing as the ash swept over them, and Milo and Cassia’s love story in Pompeii, while a work of fiction, was created out of that level of immortalized devotion. While originally thought to be two women, new DNA evidence has suggested they were in fact two male lovers.

1 False: The Gladiators Understanding Each Other

Even Gladiator was historically accurate only half the time, but Pompeii it doesn’t spend nearly enough time on developing its gladiator subplot to feel effective or worth emotionally investing in. From the moment they meet in Pompeii, Milo is somehow able to understand Atticus despite both of them not sharing a common language, and in fact they’re able to communicate with other men taken from their homelands and forced into gladiatorial combat without any problems. National Geographic has already debunked a lot of myths about gladiators, from the fact that nine out of ten times they lived through their matches, to the fact that they weren’t all indentured.

Source: Institute of Geophysics, Live Science, National Geographic