Pompei: Anderson’s Obsession with Historical E[ic

pompeii_posterThe historical epic Pompei is released by Sony this Friday, February 21.

In 79 A.D., the city of Pompeii, a pleasure dome on Italy’s Bay of Naples, was buried by a cataclysmic eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano.

In just 24 hours, the bustling international port and its residents were obliterated in one of the ancient world’s worst natural disasters. Hauntingly, the city and its inhabitants were preserved virtually intact by the ash and lava showered down by the volcano.

The story of a glamorous metropolis destroyed in less than a day has stayed with director Paul W. S. Anderson since he was a curious schoolboy. In his latest film, Anderson turns a lifelong obsession with Pompeii into an epic action movie, complete with gladiatorial competition, political intrigue, star-crossed lovers and a terrifying fight for survival as hell seems to rain down on earth.

pompeii_4_harington“I’ve been interested in the Roman Empire since I was a child,” says Anderson. “I grew up in the north of England, where there were a lot of archeological digs. I became quite interested in Roman civilization and, in particular, Pompeii. The idea that a city and the people who lived in it have been frozen in time still fascinates me.”

Anderson and his longtime producing partner Jeremy Bolt, best known for their evocative explorations of a bleak future world in the Resident Evil series, spent over six years researching and developing Pompeii. They have created a meticulously detailed portrait of a lost world, as well as an iconic adventure that harks back to the age of the classic disaster films.

pompeii_3_harington_browning“When 3-D started to explode in the mid-2000s, Paul and I decided that the genre best served by the technology would be the disaster movie,” Bolt says. “He suggested we put together a movie about Pompeii. We decided to make the biggest sword-and-sandal movie ever, but with a volcano.”

It seemed a natural fit for Anderson, who has pushed the envelope technically throughout his career, with pioneering work in both 3-D and CGI, all while crafting taut and tension-filled storylines. “He combines an extraordinary visual ability with a tremendous technical knowledge and an interest in history,” says Bolt. “And he has also an innate understanding of what the audiences will respond to. This is not a documentary, but it is firmly grounded in reality while also being exciting, exhilarating and highly emotional.”

In its time, Pompeii was the most fabulous holiday resort in all of the Roman Empire, according to Anderson, adding, “It was like the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire.”

“The city was filled with brothels, bars, taverns and lots of holiday activities,” continues Bolt. “Because it was a seaport, people came from all over the Empire and it was a hive of colorful activity. Imagining who these people were and how to tell their stories was the genesis of the project.”

pompeii_1_haringtonJust after midday on August 24, Vesuvius, which had been dormant for centuries, released a gigantic cloud of volcanic ash estimated to be 19 miles high. Ash, rock and other volcanic debris poured down on Pompeii, gradually covering the city and causing the roofs of many houses to collapse under the weight. Avalanches of hot ash and gas sped through the city, instantly destroying every living thing in their paths. The city was completely buried and the vast majority of its inhabitants were killed.

Although there is a lot of archeological evidence as to what happened, says Anderson, with so few survivors, there are almost no first-hand accounts. “Historians have relied on the accounts of Pliny the Younger, who actually witnessed the explosion from a distance,” says the director. “He wrote a series of letters detailing the disaster, but people didn’t take him seriously. No one believed that a catastrophe of this magnitude was possible.”

In just 12 hours, the city suffered an earthquake, a volcanic eruption and the final deathblow, a tsunami. The top of Mount Vesuvius blew off with such force that the volcano lost more than 2,000 feet in height. The effects have been compared to that of a nuclear blast.

But the ash that enveloped the destroyed city also preserved it for posterity. “The images are unforgettable—loaves of bread perfectly preserved underneath the ash, a dog still on a chain—these are images of Roman life that have survived for two thousand years,” says Anderson.

Pompeii remained lost for almost 1,700 years, until 1748 when the Bourbon kings of Naples started excavations, uncovering villas and public buildings. By the early 1800s, visitors to Pompeii could wander along its streets and explore its preserved buildings. Archeologists began creating plaster casts of the victims from the voids left in the ash by their bodies, enabling visitors to the site not only to walk through the streets of the legendary city, but also to view the likenesses of the people who had inhabited it.

“When you visit now, it’s an inland town a mile or more from the shore,” says Anderson. “In Roman times, it was a port. The eruption filled in a mile and a half of extra shoreline.

The filmmakers made a concerted effort to keep the film as historically accurate as possible, bringing in an expert in the era to vet the production.

Amid all that historical authenticity, Bolt promises the audience a spectacle worthy of a Roman Amphitheatre. “You’re going to see lava bombs,” he says. “You’re going to see a blizzard of ash and a river of pyroclastic flow, which is essentially boiling steam, traveling at a high speed and incinerating everything in its path. You’re going to see a tidal wave. You’re going to see an earthquake. And that’s just the last act. Even before that we have sensational gladiatorial combat and war in Britannia, all of it seasoned with big emotions and a huge love story.”