Fight club: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus in Pompeii.
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All you need is lava: Sparks fly in Paul W S Anderson's Pompeii

The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is clearly influenced by Titanic, but better described as Gladiator with a topping of molten lava.

Tragedy plus time equals disaster movie, as the saying almost goes. The more time, the better, if you’re going to transplant fictional characters into real situations. James Cameron’s Titanic may look like passable entertainment in 200 years but, for now, that film’s implicit suggestion that the ship went down because two young lovers dared to cross the class divide seems tasteless at best. Pompeii, shot in 3D, has the balance right. As it is set in a-long-time-ago AD, it doesn’t breach propriety when imagining the doomed souls who perished as the city was transformed into the world’s largest ashtray. The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is influenced by Titanic but the film could also be described as Gladiator served with a topping of molten lava.

As a child in Britannia, Milo (played as an adult by Kit Harington) sees his mother slain by a vicious Roman leader. No sword-and-sandals hero ever got anywhere without first witnessing the death of a parent and vowing revenge – just ask Conan. Milo is put into slavery and becomes a gladiator with a formidable fighting style and an even more formidable bounce to his ringlets. (I’m betting he uses Miss Jessie’s Pillow Soft Curls.) His owners recognise his special aptitudes for combat and for keeping his stubble the same length at all times. He is transported from Londinium, also known as the Land of Too Few Extras, to the arenas of Pompeii, where vast and unconvincing CGI vistas extend in every direction. His black suede jerkin and the leather bootlaces he wears around his neck suggest that he came to Italy via Camden Market.

In Pompeii, Milo is pitted against the towering African slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who has the uncanny ability to sound like he is being dubbed at all times. The two adversaries defy their masters and become allies, clapping each other on the back and swapping tips.

“Your right arm is stronger than your left,” says Atticus.

“You should learn to thrust when you shift your weight,” replies Milo. Boys, please. Get a cubiculum.

Milo also comes to the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the city’s ruler, Severus (Jared Harris), and for a few scenes they engage in some light flirtatious simpering: catch one another’s eye, look down coyly, look up again, bite lip. It seems as if it’ll be a fine romance, or at least a contest to see which of them can show the greatest amount of thigh. Unfortunately, Cassia is desired by the tyrant Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who was a total A-hole to her during her gap year in Rome. More pressingly, Corvus turns out to be the brute who killed Milo’s mother. Hell’s bells! Or, as Severus would say: “Juno’s tit!”

Corvus doesn’t take kindly to Cassia galloping across the countryside bareback with a slave and concocts various punishments, stripping Milo to the waist and doling out 15 of the finest homoerotic lashes.

“I could have prevented that,” gasps Cassia. “What was I thinking?”

“He made you feel alive,” whispers her handmaiden Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), angling shamelessly to write an advice column in one of the Sunday supplements.

Every now and then, there are some violent tremors and an urn falls off a shelf. “It is the mountain,” observes Atticus. “It rumbles from time to time.” Finally, Mount Vesuvius erupts in a fury, possibly in response to the dialogue it has been forced to hear, and all of Pompeii resembles an explosion in a crematorium. A tsunami hits the city, the streets are flooded and, in one of the most unexpected causes of death in history, hundreds of pedestrians are killed by a longship whooshing down Main Street.

It would be hard to begrudge a movie in which Atticus invents the Black Power salute moments before being pelted fatally with magma, while Corvus’s response to being double-crossed by Cassia is to yell: “You bitch!” With scenes such as those, Pompeii has some claim on being the greatest lava story of the year.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times