As flaming balls of lava and ash rain down on the streets of Pompeii, the renegade gladiator Milo gallops on horseback after a chariot ridden by his beloved Cassia, who has been kidnapped by an evil Roman senator. Meanwhile, a massive tsunami floods the harbor, sending a ship careering through the city’s streets.
The new 3D “Pompeii” movie, in theaters tomorrow (Feb. 21), provides a front-row seat to one of the worst catastrophes in history: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, which entombed the city and its residents in mammoth mounds of volcanic ash.
Excepting the lava bombs and titanic tsunami raging in Pompeii’s harbor, the dramatic depiction of the historic and horrific disaster stays relatively true to reality, scientists say. In fact, laser technology and aerial photos (digitally enhanced) ensured an impressive recreation of the city of Pompeii, from the lavish villas down to the paving stones. [See Clip from POMPEII Movie]
The film, produced by TriStar Pictures, tells the fictional story of a slave-turned-gladiator named Milo (played by Kit Harington) who falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Cassia (Emily Browning), and their struggle to escape a villainous Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland) amid the devastation of Pompeii.
“Obviously, it’s a movie, not a documentary,” said the movie’s director Paul Anderson, “but the story of Pompeii is so remarkable you don’t need to embellish it.”
Eruption of Vesuvius
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii, Herculaneum and other surrounding cities in 13 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) of volcanic ash. Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption from across the Bay of Naples, and recorded the destruction in a letter.
The movie’s depiction of the eruption, loosely based on Pliny’s description and artifacts collected from the site, 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, according to Rosaly Lopes, a volcanologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Lopes was not a consultant on the film.)
The filmmakers captured the sequence of events — earthquakes, followed by explosions, and then ash flows — quite well, Lopes told Live Science. “It wasn’t like suddenly it went bang and then they died,” she said.
Although records suggest many people escaped before the city was destroyed, most of those who died were probably killed by heat shock from the pyroclastic flows, Lopes said. The flows entombed bodies, which later decomposed and left behind casts. When archaeologists excavated Pompeii, they filled these casts with plaster to produce the famous molds of people frozen in their dying poses.
The characters in the movie are based on some of these plaster casts. The lovers in the film are based on a cast of two people embracing (though in reality, the pair may have been embracing in terror rather than love), and the character of an African gladiator was based on a cast of a large man who may have been from North Africa.
But Anderson definitely took some artistic license. The film depicts lava bombs raining down on the city, but “that type of eruption didn’t have lava bombs,” Lopes said. If it had, the damage the bombs would have caused to the city would be evident.
The movie also depicts a giant tsunami surging into Pompeii’s harbor, carrying a ship through the streets on a torrent of water. Studies suggest there may have been a small tsunami, Lopes said, but there is no evidence it was powerful enough to bring ships into the city.
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