QUO VADIS —–friends, Romans, buffs: break out the white togas, green grapes and red vino. Submerge yourself in good old-fashioned 1st-century dictator decadence and colossal 20th-century MGM showmanship, offered up in this 1951 titan from the “they don’t make like that anymore” school. The ultra-lavish, cleverly sculpted mix of arrogant pomp and gentle promise, the tragedy of terror and the power of love was a titanic hit, as audiences eagerly flocked to see Christians fed to the lions and watch Rome burn—in Technicolor. A lot of fun, with many choice lines, one triumphantly campy job of theatrical thesping, several more restrained (and very good) performances, all the opulence you could shake a javelin at and a marvelous music score behind the belief-shifting, empire-rattling drama. Renowned Polish author Henryk Sienkievicz published the bestselling novel in 1896. The screenplay for this 171-minute epic was written by a trio of industry pros; John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien and directed by studio warhorse Mervyn LeRoy. *
The story, with ‘Marcus Vinicius’, a hardened Roman tribune (Robert Taylor) and ‘Lygia’, a beauteous Christian princess (Deborah Kerr), falling in love at a rather inopportune time, has shifted around some historical events chronologically, condensed and just plain invented others, but it’s all for the sake of drama and entertainment, splendor and star-gazing—and why not? Actually, that central plot element is the weakest link in the chain; the screenwriters cement the romantic pairing of Marcus and Lygia with some scenes of I-love-you-because mumbo jumbo that clunks dated.
Thus the two stars sincere work and emotional credibility is partially undercut, along with being upstaged by the supporting players and dwarfed by the razzle dazzle. Despite these binds, they still make their dues. Taylor, 39, duels his Americanism as best he can; visually the picture of a patrician Roman warrior, every inch a movie star, he was always better than he was credited. Kerr, 29 and exquisitely beautiful, is a vision; her graceful movements and line readings are faultless. Any centurion worth his breastplate would risk the arena to feed this fragile fire.
The script fares much better by the co-stars, repeatedly scoring with subtle morsels of wit and some wonderful gobs of shades-off megalomania. Perfectly underplaying, Leo Genn, as Petronius—Nero’s humane, dignified adviser, the only brake to his madness— takes sarcasm and turns it into something profound. Patricia Laffan purrs out a classic uber-bitch as Poppaea, the harlot Nero chose as Empress: insatiable, vengeful, radiating abuse from her predator eyes, Laffan is a wicked delight. The image of her lounging on floor cushions with two cheetahs leased to her wrist is museum prime stuff.
Overacting phalanxes around everyone and stealing the show is Peter Ustinov’s mad flamboyance as Nero. It’s one of the all-time ham jobs but done so brilliantly weird; precocious, malevolent, pouting, insufferable–remind you of anyone? “Dear Petronius, you must forgive me if I seem to have slighted you greatly, but I’ve been steeped in my genius.” It was the international break for the vastly gifted 29-year-old, who later mused that director LeRoy “gave me this gem of advice on how to play the Emperor Nero: ‘The way I see Nero, this is the kinda guy who plays with himself nights'” The murderous Nero reigned 54-68 A.D. and while he may have botched eradicating a particularly pesky sect, he certainly did a bang-up job on torching the Eternal City. Play berate your friends with “Attend me! Attend me, all!”
Breath-catching Marina Berti is affecting as Petronius’ smitten slave girl, and burly Finlay Currie is commanding as always, as Christ’s disciple Peter. Others in the cast include the massive Buddy Baer (who gets to wrestle a bull), Felix Aylmer, Rosalie Crutchley, Abraham Sofaer, Ralph Truman, Strelsa Brown (‘Rufia’, High Priestess of the Vestals, with some fab intonation of “the Gods“) and Norman Wooland. Among the throngs see if you can spot 17-year-old Sofia Lazzaro, a few years from conquering the world as Sophia Loren. **
The production—by the beard of Mars!—location filming in Italy was a marathon event, with tens of thousands of extras, 115 sets, 32,000 costumes and 63 lions. The first of three massive set-pieces is the Victory Parade with Marcus and his legion marching past outsized heroic statuary of Roman gods and a zillion cheering citizens, with stirring soundtrack music exhorting the seemingly unassailable might of Empire. Later on comes Nero’s solution to urban renewal: the burning of Rome makes Atlanta’s seem like a barbecue. LeRoy handed most of that exciting inferno melee to uncredited assistant director Anthony Mann, who had as his assistant an ambitious 21-year-old named Sergio Leone.
Needing someone to blame for the flame gives forth the final spectacle, the arena slaughter of the Christians, complete with those lean and famished panthera leos, roaring into lunch while the mob revels.
The superior cinematography was handled by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The transformative music score came from the mighty Miklós Rózsa. Little was known and nothing was extant about the music of the period; Rózsa’s copious research and instinctive genius for the dramatic power of lilting melody and thunderous fanfare essentially re-invented it. For keener insight than I can pretend to summon head to https://www.filmscoremonthly.com/notes/quo_vadis2.html and read his notes.
Wanting to poke that brat television gizmo in the tube, MGM brass and producer Sam Zimbalist threw calculated dice by pouring $7,623,000 into the tumult on the Tiber, vouching another $2,700,000 for prints and ads. It was the most moola ever bet on a movie until it was topped five years down the line by The Ten Commandments. With the road to
commerce Calvary smoothed by the crowd-pleasing smash of 1949s Samson And Delilah, the Bible was back in (show) business and Quo Vadis was by far the biggest hit of the year and one of the champs of the decade. Released in November of 1951 as a Roadshow presentation, it didn’t see general release until Christmas of ’53, finally grossing $26,100,000 domestically and another $28,000,000 abroad.
Oscar nominations went up for Best Picture, Supporting Actors (Ustinov and Genn), Cinematography, Music Score, Art Direction, Film Editing (Ralph Winters had to cut 580,000 feet of film) and Costume Design. It was shut out, with the most egregious overlooks the cinematography and Rózsa’s score.
Watching this first-class Old School spectacle is rewarding on multiple levels. For sheer opulence and crowd-wow sequences, for the razor-edged exchanges between Ustinov and Genn, for the listening pleasure of its magnificent soundtrack, and as an easy history lesson about the bad old days.
Ponder the depths of a rational citizens dilemma. Say you lived in the most powerful society on Earth, one that plundered resources, slavishly worshiped a behemoth military machine that had garrisons everywhere, waging endless wars against “barbarians” while the rest of society fractured and decayed? Suppose a handful of degenerate wastrels gorged in unimaginable luxury as the divided, fearful and depressed multitudes fought over scraps while being bombarded with lies and violent mass entertainment? What if the man at the top was a repulsive idiot with a monstrous ego addicted to flattery, a boorish lout whose avarice and cruelty was blatant and bottomless, someone whose suicidal denial of reality and off-the-cuff carelessness could actually destroy the Republic? What a drag that would be…
“People will believe any lie if it is fantastic enough.”
* It’s likely Sienkiewicz’ novel was inspired by the 1876 painting “Nero’s Torches” by his friend Henryk Siemiradzki and by their visit to Rome where they were moved seeing the title words in the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. Present in both the Acts of Peter and John 13:36, “Quo Vadis, Domine” is Latin for “Where are you marching?” or “Where are you going, Lord?” Translated into 48 languages, ultimately selling upwards of 50,000,000 copies, the 589-page book spawned three silent versions and dovetailed with a stage production “The Sign Of The Cross”, similarly concerning a fictitious romance facing Nero’s depravity.
The racy Pre-Code 1932 film of the The Sign Of The Cross was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, starred Fredric March, Claudette Colbert and Charles Laughton and was the biggest hit of that wild year. World War Two cancelled remake plots until 1949, when the idea was put to John Huston. Intrigued, he developed a script with classics scholar Hugh Gray. Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor enlisted. Huston was at odds with the Lord of MGM, L.B. Mayer, over the theme, then Peck fell ill and Liz left for A Place In The Sun. Huston opted out, LeRoy fell into line. Peck ended up making a different Bible story, David and Bathsheba, while Huston tackled the decidedly agnostic commandment breaker The Asphalt Jungle. Supposedly, Liz is in an unaccredited bit in Quo—good luck finding her.
** When fiddling in Rome, Taylor had a too-public fling with starlet Lia de Leo (who has a bit as a pedicurist) and that in-character crossing of the Rubicon ended his marriage to Barbara Stanwyck. Ms. de Leo’s subsequent output had titling irony that sly Petronius would envy: The Moment Of Truth, Sins of Casanova, Tower Of Lust and Wives and Obscurities (irate ‘ouch’ in Italian).
On a less-frivolous note: Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin read “Quo Vadis” at age 12 and was struck by the concept of mass persecution. He escaped Poland in 1940 and made it to the United States. A lawyer in 1944, he coined the word “genocide”, from the ancient Greek “genos” (tribe) and Latin’s “cide” (killing). Of his 53 family members, 49 perished in the Holocaust.