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Pompeii Movie: True Story Analysis – 4 Modifications and 4 Authentic Depictions

by Lidia Lucovic

In 2014, Paul W.S. Anderson, renowned for directing the Resident Evil film series, helmed the historical disaster movie “Pompeii.” While the film does capture several accurate aspects of the Roman city frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, it also deviates from historical accuracy in certain areas. Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that erupted in 79 AD and obliterated the city of Pompeii while preserving its inhabitants in ash, had a profound impact on Anderson after a visit to Italy. He pondered about the lives led by these people and the moments they were frozen forever in ash.

The outcome of Anderson’s contemplations was “Pompeii,” featuring Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones as the Celtic gladiator Milo, who seeks revenge against the Roman general (Kiefer Sutherland) responsible for his family’s death, and Cassia (Emily Browning), the Roman aristocrat he fell in love with. The movie follows narrative patterns reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” and James Cameron’s “Titanic,” building up to the eruption of the volcano. This approach led some viewers to question whether the film accurately portrayed history or took creative liberties. Fortunately, insights from modern volcanologists, National Geographic, and translated letters of Pliny from the Institute of Geophysics, containing firsthand accounts of the event, provide clarity.

Accurate: The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

“Pompeii” does not depict Vesuvius erupting suddenly; instead, it includes the earthquakes and tremors that rattled the city in the days preceding the cataclysmic event. When the eruption finally occurred, it unleashed a colossal cloud of debris into the sky, reaching a staggering altitude of 20 km. Subsequent pyroclastic flows, even taller than the initial eruption, engulfed the streets at speeds of up to 700 km/h. As the film portrays, those caught in these flows were transformed into charred remains within moments at temperatures of 700 degrees Celsius, while the rocks within the flows demolished structures and homes, leading to their collapse.

While the explosion of Mount Vesuvius was just one facet of the catastrophe that devastated Pompeii, it spanned an entire day. To enhance the film’s dramatic impact, Anderson took creative liberty and accelerated the pace. He introduced flaming lava balls descending like meteors onto the city’s streets, igniting structures and complicating the escape of characters like Milo and Cassia. Although visually captivating and heightening the event’s tension, this spectacle illustrates how artistic embellishments can amplify an already harrowing scenario—albeit one that didn’t transpire as rapidly as the narrative required.

Accurate: Chronology of Eruption – From Earthquakes to Pyroclastic Flows

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius unfolded in stages, as reported by Live Science. While “Pompeii” expedites other elements such as its romantic plotline and revenge subplot, it dedicates time to meticulously depicting these stages. Alongside the precursor earthquakes, the movie portrays the primary eruption and the ensuing pyroclastic flow waves that extended the event to a full 24 hours. Though the waves swiftly enveloped citizens, they lacked the force to incinerate them; instead, they covered individuals in a thick layer of ash and debris, preserving their actions at the very moment of impact.

Inaccurate: The Enormous Tsunami Pushing Ships into Pompeii

While the volcano’s eruption did influence the surrounding environment and terrain, the impact was not as colossal as portrayed in the film “Pompeii.” Anderson’s rendition showcases Roman ships not only being tossed near the harbor but actively propelled into the city, with one vessel dramatically advancing down the main thoroughfare. Yet, historical evidence does not corroborate ships being thrust into Pompeii itself. The actual tsunami triggered by the eruption was relatively minor. However, Anderson’s cinematic approach often emphasizes blockbuster aesthetics over historical precision.

Accurate: Astonished Pompeiians Fleeing the City

A poignant aspect of visiting the actual Pompeii is encountering citizens petrified in various poses: some caught off guard by the eruption, others engaged in mundane activities at home, some still in slumber, and many gripped by agony and terror. The character Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a fellow gladiator and Milo’s friend in the film, is inspired by a well-built individual of African origin found in Pompeii. This person, seemingly trying to shield himself from the pyroclastic waves, lends emotional weight to the narrative.

Inaccurate: Kiefer Sutherland’s Senator Quintas Corvus

Kiefer Sutherland delivers a compelling performance as the malevolent Senator Quintas Corvus, a politician and Roman general who becomes a target of Milo’s resentment and a counterpoint to his romance with Cassia. However, this character is a product of fiction, introduced to the movie to serve as a humanizing antagonist. No preserved body of a senator or Roman general resembling his description exists in the city’s ruins today. Marcus Aurelius Corvus, a Roman senator and military commander, lived about three centuries later than the events depicted in the film.

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