Being the first in a retrospective series celebrating the work of legendary Italian genre film director Sergio Leone

The name of politician and author Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton is but poorly remembered now, though he was once one of the most popular English-language novelists in the world in his heyday, back in the first half of the 19th Century. Today, he is best known as the originator of the canonically awful opening line "It was a dark and stormy night", itself the inspiration for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest to write the worst possible first sentence of an otherwise unwritten book (to be fair to the man, he also came up with the significantly better saying "The pen is mightier than the sword"). For such an impressively forgotten individual, whose works effectively did not survive into the 20th Century, it's kind of amazing to step back and realise that Bulwer-Lytton managed to write one of the most frequently-filmed novels of all time: his 1834 The Last Days of Pompeii has been adapted for the screen, big or little, no fewer than eight times, despite the fact that you nor I have ever met anybody who has ever read it.

Not that any of those eight adaptations are themselves particularly important or well-remembered masterpieces of cinema, mind you; in fact, the most significant reason that the 1959 Italian adaptation Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei remains important (it, and the 1935 American in-name-only adaptation, are the only ones anybody still particularly cares about today) is because of the man who wasn't credited as director; but thereon hangs a tale.

This 1959 film, the seventh overall and the first sound version to hold even approximately close to the matter of Bulwer-Lytton's novel, was at heart just another one of the pepla, the famous sword & sandal pictures that were the Italian film industry's first major foray into genre films after the end of World War II, eschewing the specifically Biblical trappings of the Hollywood epics that were their immediate forebears for glitzy escapist spectacle and more unabashed homoeroticism than you'd have thought was legally permissible in the '50s and '60s. The pepla were hardly a year old by this point, having been kicked into overdrive with 1958's The Labors of Hercules; but you know those Italian genre films, they breed like flies.

Initially, then, The Last Days of Pompeii was really just another pepla, though even by 1959 standards it was an unusually lavish, well-appointed one, to say nothing of the criminal cheapness that would enter the genre within a couple of years. It was assigned to director Mario Bonnard, a name of virtually no significance; also an actor and writer whose career in films stretched back to the silent era, Bonnard does not include in his career a single credit besides this one that anybody still pays much attention to whatsoever. Notice, though, that I say, "a single credit" for the story goes that Bonnard fell sick on the very first day of shooting and had to pull out of the project (a credible legend it is, when we note that he only completed two more films before retiring in 1961). The reins of the Pompeii film therefore fell to Bonnard's assistant director, who happens to have also co-written the script, a 30-year-old named Sergio Leone. Bonnard retained the directing credit, but perhaps as a means of subtly indicating the real order of things, Leone received what might well be the most prominent "2nd Unit Director" credit in the history of film.

So that, right there, is why this movie managed to survive to even the slight degree that it has: it jump-started the career of a man who would in a few years create four of the most beloved and famous Westerns ever made. It would be wonderful to say that it served, therefore, as a clear launching pad for the man behind The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West; but in truth, I cannot defend that statement. The Last Days of Pompeii is what we fans of the genre lovingly call "another fucking cookie-cutter peplum", better in a few ways (a hell of a lot of money was obviously spent on the sets and costumes, as much as in any given Hollywood epic of the era, I'd imagine), worse in others (it is unnervingly plotty). There are a few grace notes here and there that suggest, however slightly, the touch of the man who would in less than a decade stage the exquisite three-way standoff that ends TGTBTU, but in the main, it lacks very much personality in any way whatsoever.

The story goes as such: Glaucus (Mr. Peplum himself, American bodybuilder Steve Reeves) is a Roman legionnaire returned to his home in Pompeii from an unspecified frontier, looking to lead a peaceful and relaxed existence for just a little while, at least. But he can't do that: no sooner does he get into the region surrounding the city than he saves a woman, Ione (Cristina Kaufmann), in a runaway chariot - this is almost exactly how Labors of Hercules started up, with the primary difference that the woman's name there was Iole, so you can see why the writers didn't notice it - and when he arrives in the city itself, he finds that there's a plague of black-hooded Christians terrorising the populace, and that exact same day, this marauding, thieving gang murdered Glaucus's father.

That sets up the tragic revenge part of the plot, but the five writers - and Bulwer-Lytton himself, presumably - aren't nearly done setting things up. There's still the matter of the acrimony between Glaucus and the Praetorian Guard Gallinus (Mimmo Palmara), brought about when Glaucus attempts to prevent the higher-ranking man from raping Ione's blind, Christian slave Nydia (Barbara Carroll). Nydia is herself the beloved of Antonius (Ángel Aranda), whom Glaucus has already saved from Gallinus's rampages, so things couldn't be much worse between the soldiers at this point.

We're not even close to done. Glaucus manages to get himself under the protection of Ione's father Ascanius (Guillermo Marín), an important Pompeian politician who was throwing the very party where Glaucus and Gallinus came to blows; his concubine-wife is a steely-eyed blonde named Julia (Anne-Marie Baumann), who is clearly all sorts of bad news from the moment we see her. And somewhere on the edges of all this, the Priest of Isis, Arbacès (Fernando Rey), plainly is up to mischief that we'll learn about in due course.

So much intrigue! I am torn in all sorts of directions: the first hour of The Last Days of Pompeii is deadly, full of people talking and scheming and heroing, but despite being crammed to the rafters with stuff, it's almost entirely devoid of incident; the young Leone had not yet learned the art of making the slow boil exhilarating to watch, unfortunately, and it doesn't help matters that his cast is largely made up of the usual sort of people in an Italian genre film of this sort: namely, a cross-section of Europe and America, all tossed together without it mattering that half of them can't speak any of the same languages as the other half, because it's all going to end up overdubbed anyway. So most of the performances take place in a void; typical stuff for a peplum, but ordinarily they're interrupted every five minutes by a fight with a minotaur or a chariot race or whathaveyou. Not here! This is a bastardly historical drama hybridisation of the pepla, and that means that, save for a decent but far too short fight between Glaucus and Gallinus at the party, there's not much action to speak of in the first hour of a 95-minute film. But a man like Reeves, though he is iconic beyond a doubt, and nobody ever made a better badass muscleman wearing wee tiny Roman skirts, he wasn't an actor. It wasn't a skill he needed to play Hercules; but Glaucus, at the center of murder and politicking and the like, isn't Hercules. And watching Reeves not beating the shit out of men and monsters is the vastest antithesis to what we want from him. Really, only Rey gives a genuinely good performance, though Baumann does well enough; most everyone else is down at Reeves's level, with Carroll's vacant expression that stands in for "blind" representing a particular low.

And then there's the other side of things: you see, this sort of material could be and frequently was covered in America in prestigious epics that were just as lugubrious as the slower bits of Last Days of Pompeii without the benefit of the Italian film's climax, about which more anon. For example, The Robe, which touches on similar plot elements, is 135 minutes of pure rancid boredom, Richard Burton looking with noble sadness at everything and lots of people parading by in terribly lush costumes while nothing vaguely interesting happens. At least Leone's film is comparatively brief, packing the same amount of crap into a much smaller container, which gives it the undeniable benefit of going by faster.

At any rate, all is made up for by the last third ("Should have just made The Last Hour or Two of Pompeii" I thought sarcastically to myself while I was watching; in my defense, I was tired), including a far-too-short battle between Reeves and a "crocodile" that he has to wiggle about to make it seem like it's not a rubber dummy; a fairly perfect battle between Reeves and a more-real-than-not lion (this is after he's come to help out the Christians once the characters have caught up to where we were pretty much from the second the movie began and found out they were being framed), and of course, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the subsequent burial of Pompeii underneath a thick grave of ash and fire. Having not read the novel, I can't speak to how things played out there; in the movie, Vesuvius draws a thick line dividing this part of the movie, where there is plot, from this part, where there is destruction. Whatever happened to the characters, that's all done: for large parts of the destructive climax, we're not even following characters we've met before. And it is probably not a coincidence that it's in this sequence that the movie starts to get really good (barring the awkward cheapness of the effects work: let us leave it by saying that red fireworks feature prominently, and it's hard to tell what part of the eruption they're meant to represent - this is all thrilling, but confusingly edited). The Leone we'll learn to love finally shows up, after only sometimes prodding his youthful self into setting up a particularly lovely CinemaScope composition, for in this section, the devastation and death are legitimately harrowing in a way that disaster movies only very rarely are, and in a way that is instantly familiar from the nihilistic tone, if not the specific aesthetic moves, of his future work. More than once, as fire and rubble and water fall down in the background as people scream and run about, Leone will slow down the cutting and pace of the movie, push the camera right up next to some poor victim, and watch them for a few moments, studying their shell-shocked awareness that from here on out, everything has gone to hell. These are not cozy moments, and they make the end of the film far less fun than disaster movies usually are.

Yet, isn't that sort of a good thing? One of the big problems with so many action movies and horror movies and disaster movies and everything else under the sun, is that they make sport of human death. The Last Days of Pompeii certainly doesn't avoid that; when the villains die in a suitably ironic fashion, it's hard to ignore the feeling that we're supposed to cheer. But in just the right measure, Leone strips down the popcorny elements of his unmistakably lowbrow big-budget B-picture, and confronts us with the reality that there is suffering and death and broken families and human loss in all of these presumptively entertaining things we watch - Vesuvius really did bury Pompeii, the film tells us in that moment. It's only a small taste of the cosmic existentialism that Leone would eventually dabble in to such miraculous effect, and it doesn't do anything to fix how desperately free of any personality, even as disreputable but fun trash, the first two-thirds of the movie are. But it's something.