I first saw this movie as a child in the 50's on TV and fell in love with it. My mother would let me cut school in order to see it on tv( and my family was not particularly religious), along with a number of others like Cyrano de Bergerac, Androcles and the Lion, Sign of the cross, and The High and the Mighty, and Captain Sirocco. I combed the tv guide once a week for classics like these. The redeeming quality of all of the movies I become attached to is "nobility". Aside from the awesome eruption of Vesuvius, and awesome it was for its day, and as thrilled as I am about the special effects and the disater movie perspective ....the story is simply ...Sublime.
Preston Foster, in typical post silent era acting style, plays Marcus - with dash and bravura. Marcus is a simple, humble man. He is completely contented with his life as a blacksmith and has a wife and son he cherishes, everything any man could hope for. He is quickly reminded of the foolishness of his take on life by a jaded slave dealer and a kindly but skeptical roman patrician who gives his son a gold coin. Marcus and his wife Julia close shop for the day and set out to celebrate the windfall by purchasing a ball too big for the tiny grasp of his small child. The fates intervine... the ball rolls into the street and Julia and the infant are over run by a speeding chariot. So the saga begins, brilliantly, with such irony, the gift and joy of a gold coin and a new toy leading to a tragedy as Marcus' wife and child both die. Marcus now impoverished, and a broken man.....having given up his ideals and sense of morality to fight in the gladitorial arena, as the only way to get the money he needed to try and get medical help for his family and with nothing left of his former life to live for embraces a new view of life and the Gods he once loved. A world weary and newly cynical Marcus becomes a Gladiator commenting "it's easy to get money. All you have to do...is Kill". Thru success after success in the gladitoral arena he becomes a famous man, a formerly detested slaver, and thru' clever manipulation of events and opportunities , ultimately head of the Arena itself. During one of his triumphs in the arena he meets the son of a fallen foe named The Wolf. Distraught at the appearance of the young boy waiting for his fathers victory he reluctantly asks if the boy knows what happens to people when they die. Marcus overwhelmed by guilt and reemorse asks the child if he would like to become his son. The child agrees and a new life centered around this child emerges as he lives his life now to make up for taking the life of the boys father and to give the boy every opportunity in life. While in Judea the young boy is struck down in an accident and he is healed by the Christ, a moment of passion in this film that foeshadows Christs own travails later in the movie, and the dilema put forth to Marcus to intervene. One of the hallmarks of this film is Pontius Pilate, played with sensitivity, grace, and remarkable understatement by the great Basil Rathbone. This one of the truly remarkable small parts in movie history. Totally unforgetable and worth the watch of the film, if for no other reason.This film goes on and on with jewels of philosophical wisdom from a kindly Greek tutor, plentious action, and an intelligent and intriguing perspective on the spiritual defeat and then reawakening of the magnificent and earnest Marcus. Who in the end makes the right decisions for the right reasons. I NEVER get tired of watching this movie! It is one of my top 20 all time favorites!