Up Pompeii (1971) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for sexual humor, nudity and language
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast: Frankie Howerd, Michael Hordern, Barbara Murray, Patrick Cargill, Lance Percival, Julie Ege, Bill Fraser, Rita Webb, Madeline Smith
Director: Bob Kellett
Screenplay: Sid Colin
Review published February 19, 2014
Set during the 1st Century AD, Frankie Howerd (The Ladykillers, Carry On Doctor) stars as Lurcio, slave to the bumbling senator Ludicrus Sextus (Hordern, Labyrinth), for whom he spends a good deal of his time in planning for a big orgy, perhaps the greatest pastime of ancient city, Pompeii. The doomed city is shown as a bastion of Ancient Roman decadence awaiting a fate akin to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Much of Lurcio's orgy preparation comes in the form of securing a bevy of beautiful women to appear. He also has to gather a great deal of food, and in so doing, he mistakenly mistakes a cucumber for an important scroll that contains the details of conspirators who are planning an assassination of Roman emperor Nero (Cargill, Father Dear Father) (who, in reality, had already been dead 11 years prior to the time of Pompeii's demise) when he comes to visit the city. Lurcio's possession of the scroll puts him in jeopardy from the Centurions who are trying to get it back before their plot is exposed. "Hilarity" ensues.
Up Pompeii is a ribald, Plautus-tinged costume farce, based on the 1969/70 BBC comedy show of the same name starring Howerd, who also headlined in the British stage version of the similarly premised "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", to which this premise owes a great deal of inspiration. As this is an R-rated film adaptation, this treatment explores racier dialogue and bits of nudity here and there, but nowhere near Caligula levels. Sid Colin (The Army Games, Carry On Spying), who had done work co-writing the TV show's second season, provides the screenplay, which is full of creaky sex jokes and mild sight gags that mostly land with a thud. This one is for the crowd who thinks "The Benny Hill Show" or the Carry On films (TV's "Up Pompeii" was initially written by Carry On's Talbot Rothwell) are especially hilarious. Most of the jokes are of the double entendre variety, with lots of phallic symbolism abounding. As if these risqué gags weren't already evident from the get-go, Lurcio will point out the blatantly obvious.
Other than the sex gags, the film is full of "funny" takes on the Roman names, with characters sporting Latin monikers such as Voluptua, Ammonia, Erotica, and Nausius. The rest is clearly designed to be an exploitative, lusty romp, though that's more in spirit than execution. Outdated humor abounds, and some viewers may find elements of it troubling, such as the menial slaves represented as "Nubian eunuchs", as if African's were the main constituents of the Roman slave population. This aspect devolves significantly when Howerd don's black-face in order to thwart a plan to sabotage his boss. Meanwhile, on the sexist side, there isn't a woman in the film who isn't bosomy and scantily-clad, not to mention always trying to lustily bed any man they see, no matter how old or decrepit.
Howerd, who is perhaps the best thing in the film (which, I realize, isn't saying much), spends the run time employing a narrative style that breaks the fourth wall, talking to us in the audience by looking into the camera and expounding on his thoughts, usually cheeky, before engaging normally in the conversations around him. Not only does he persistently break the narrative convention, but he also often speaks to us as if he's aware of all that we know in modern times, as anachronistic dialogue abounds. Lurcio is not only the main player, but a self-referential commenter, continuously spotlighting the ridiculousness (and the bawdiness) of each situation for our amusement. Unfortunately, he doesn't point out just what we're supposed to laugh at among all of the groan-inducing double entendres.
Up Pompeii was made in an era when such mildly suggestive innuendo and cornball sex puns might elicit chuckles from an audience not used to hearing such things. However, in this era of raunchy, Judd Apatow bromances and American Pie body fluid and bathroom humor, these kinds of jokes are just too mild to have any effect. At the time of the cataclysmic finale, which involves the use of cheap and cheesy miniatures, we can only think that the world is better off with the entire town getting buried under ash and lava. A better title would be, Nothing Funny Happened on the Way to the Volcanic Eruption. For nostalgia buffs only.
-- The "Up" series would continue with Up the Chastity Belt (1971) and Up the Front (1972)
©2014 Vince Leo