How Accurate is the Pompeii Movie to Reality?

The first 20th-century adaption of one of the most famous historical events, Pompeii brings this natural tragedy back to the individual reminding us of the lives that were taken. But is this Hollywood blockbuster just that? Another blockbuster? Or is there truth behind its special effects?

In 2014 Hollywood released a movie based on the 79 AD eruption that buried that city of Pompeii. One of the worst catastrophes in history, the destruction of Pompeii has become legend. Needless to say, the movies contained fireballs, crumbling buildings, fleeing crowds of extras and more. But how accurate was the movie to the actual historic event?

Plot Overview

Pompeii focuses around a young boy, turned man, Milo, who has his own vendetta against Rome. The film begins in 62 AD, in Britannia, where we see Milo’s family and his tribe brutally wiped out by the Romans, led by a man called Corvus who personally kills Milo’s mother. Luckily, by pretending to be dead Milo survives and runs from the scene only to be caught by slave traders who enslave him. 17 years later Milo has grown into a strong killing machine, which is noticed by another slave owner, Graecus, who brings Milo to Pompeii with him as a successful gladiator who the crowds call “the celt”. On their way there, Milo meets the other main character and love interest, Cassia, a noblewoman and daughter of the governor. Impressed by Milo’s compassion, the two have an instant connection which drives the remainder of the film. The two go their separate ways, for now, both being of opposite social standing. In Pompeii, Milo develops a rivalry with Atticus, another champion gladiator who must win one more battle to secure his freedom. At a party, where the gladiators are shown off, Corvus, now senator, tells Cassia’s father (the governor) that he will invest in his plans to reinvent Pompeii. This is seen as a ruse for him to get close to Cassia, who left Rome in an attempt to escape his advances. Tension builds when Corvus finds out Cassia and Milo have been spending time together. To punish Milo and his rival turned friend Atticus, the two are put to death in an ultimate contest against other gladiators. Though outnumbered, the two manage to survive. Cassia is forced to marry Corvus after he threatens her family, and then locks her up to stop her from escaping him. He then tries to put an end to Milo once and for all by getting him to fight officer Proculus. But their battle is interrupted when Mount Vesuvius begins to erupt…

The 79 BC eruption of Mount Vesuvius

In the year 79 BC, the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the ancient city of Pompeii and a majority of its citizens. The warnings started days prior to the eruption, with small earthquakes felt frequently for four days beforehand. However, this wasn’t a concerning event to citizens, as the Romans were accustomed to minor earth tremors in the city. Vesuvius then erupted, causing a loud thunder sound that blasted a large cloud of volcanic debris into the atmosphere, estimating to be over 19 km high. The volcano then blasted pyroclastic flow waves over 32km tall of gas, ash, and rock down towards Pompeii at speeds of 700km per hour. Those who were hit by this wave were burnt alive, with temperatures gathering up to 700 degree Celsius. The waves covered streets in thick layers of ash, with rocks crashing against roofs until they collapsed. Its entire eruption lasted a full 24 hours, slowly burying the city in a thick layer of ash and debris.

The Movie’s Adaptation

As with any Hollywood flick that is roughly based on real events, the filmmakers had a fair amount of creative license. However, scholars have stated the reality of the actual eruption to be quite accurate. Listing how the stage sequence was correct, with the earthquakes first, followed by the main explosion, and with the pyroclastic flows coming much later. However, to make the movie more dramatic, the writers embellished some stages. For example, the tsunami in the movie was much larger than in reality, with the tsunami being quite minor and never aggressively pushing ships into the city. Other than this though, the film has been credited with a tense and enthralling ending, as you hold your breath and clench your fists as the eruption unfolds and you will the protagonists to survive somehow. But (spoiler!) this is impossible. Director, Paul Anderson says that he got him and his team to observe the footage of other eruptions that have been caught on film. He cites the volcanic eruption of Mount Etna and various Japanese volcanoes as inspiration for Pompeii. This clearly paid off as this is the main part of the film that received wide critical acclaim. NASA volcanologist Rosaly Lopes supported Anderson’s work, stating that the film “realistically captured the earthquakes that preceded the eruption, the explosions and the pyroclastic flows of hot ash and gas that buried the city and its residents.” This wasn’t the only thing that was so accurate. The footage of the city itself used the existing ruins to map out the city, projecting computer-generated images over the top of the real photography. This incredible attention to detail is also seen in the raised cobblestoned streets, the political graffiti on the buildings and the amphitheatre where the gladiatorial battles would have taken place.

Criticisms

Whilst the historical accuracy of the film has been credited, the plot and the acting has been criticised for being too much like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), which similarly follows a man-turned-gladiator who goes after the man who slew his family and has a relationship with a woman far above his status. Peter Bradshaw wrote “the whole thing isn’t exactly teeming with originality. But director Paul WS Anderson punches it over with gusto and it’s undoubtedly watchable”. This seems to be the overall consensus. An easy watch for its predictable and almost classic plotline, but worth it for its thrilling end-scene which accurately reenvisions the eruption of Vesuvius. If you want something more visual and entertaining than Pliny the Younger’s epistolary accounts this might be worth a watch!

The consequences of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption can still be seen today.