Last Days of Pompeii (1913)
This probably wasn’t the “first disaster film” – I haven’t researched it, but I recall several 1890’s movies about the sinking of the battleship Maine that might deserve that title. However, it was an early example of a feature film in which a disaster plays a major role in the plot. Unlike a more modern disaster movie, you don’t get the disaster as means of heightening the tension early in the film, but rather in the form of a Deus ex Machina that resolves all the problems at the end. It also presages “Cabiria” somewhat, being an Italian feature-length movie, set in ancient times, which tries to show an epic sweep of life and death, victory and defeat, comedy and tragedy. It isn’t quite as successful, being mostly stuck in a simple love triangle (or quadrangle) involving the myopic but heroic Glaucus, his lady Jone, his blind slave Nidia, and an Egpytian Priest named Arbace. Arbace covets Jone, and Nidia secretly loves Glaucus, but ultimately sacrifices himself for his happiness. The movie is based on a novel, which has been remade many times, probably with more impressive special effects, though for the limitations of a hundred years ago, I thought the red-tinted destruction scenes at the end did a good job of conveying pandemonium.
Run Time: 1 hr, 27 Min.
You can watch it for free: here.