In this movie (the premise of which needs no introduction) Kit Harrington—best known for playing Jon Snow in HBO’s Game of Thrones—plays the lead: a Celtic slave-turned-gladiator with a crush on a Roman noblewoman (Emily Browning) and a vendetta against a sadistic Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland). He is brought to Pompeii to fight in the amphitheater; his biggest rival (in every sense) being a huge African gladiator called Atticus. Despite omens, portents and earthquakes, Kit Harrington knows nothing of the disaster brewing above as he continues to fight his way to freedom. Then again, Kit Harrington knows nothing.
Director Paul Anderson did a remarkably good job of recreating the ancient feel of the city. He stayed loyal to the Roman sources in showing the minor tremors leading up to the disaster and even used the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger (who witnessed the disaster from across the Bay of Naples in Misenum) in portraying the beginning of the volcanic eruption. He has also been praised for his design of the ancient town. In drawing up his blueprint he used Pompeii’s real topography, based on the streets and buildings preserved in the ash, and he even replicated some Roman graffiti which would have been everywhere.
Even more commendable, the movie’s characters are based on actual bodies found at the site. Our protagonist and his lady-love are based on the “two maidens”: two bodies found embracing. In reality, however, CT scans and DNA tests revealed earlier this year that the “two maidens” were both men. Likewise, Anderson took inspiration for Atticus’s character in the molded remains of a large man, who archaeologists believe to be of African descent, found in Pompeii’s temporary gladiatorial barracks.
Where the movie goes a little off-piste is in its representations of the latter stages of the eruption. Anderson goes a little wild with the pyrotechnics, having enormous fireballs or lava bombs rain down on our heroes. As volcanologist Rosaly Lopes has commented, if Pompeii had been bombarded with lava in this way, we would undoubtedly know about it. Anderson also takes a little too much information from the Roland Emmerich apocalyptic disaster formula in having a giant tsunami sweep the town. While there may have been a swell during the disaster in 79 (though Pliny doesn’t mention one) it certainly wouldn’t have been strong enough to inundate Pompeii with ships from the harbor.