Quo Vadis?

neromy latest Classic is 5 things that make QUO VADIS? interesting and important in movie-dom, including but not limited to: the acting, the sheer sprawling spectacular spectacle of it, a primer on the plot and meaning, how it got to be made and the effect it had on careers and on the movie industry on both sides of the Atlantic. Please mind the lions, grab your weeping vial, and proceed to read…

5 things about Quo Vadis? the giant and campy but highly entertaining spectacle that was On TCM Tuesday and is available on a special 2-disc DVD or Blu-ray

Epic story. This mashup of historical and fictitious characters and condensed timeline focuses on Nero’s persecution of the Christians against the backdrop of the decadence and decay of the Roman Empire, in another adaptation of the previously filmed book by Nobel Prize winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. The peasants revolt against Nero’s tyranny and corruption and his plans to raze Rome for his idea of a transformation; the scale model he uses was the very same one produced to visualize Mussolini’s plans to rebuild the city. Postwar audiences were sure to pick up on the obvious parallels between the leader bent on exterminating a people, defeated by righteous soldiers and those who convert to their side. In case you’re curious and/or unaware and want to impress your friends, Quo Vadis? is the question Peter asked of Jesus when they met outside Rome; Peter was fleeing and asked “where are you going, Lord?” to which Jesus answers that he is returning to Rome to be crucified.

Epic acting. The emperor in this department is Peter Ustinov as Nero, delightfully and outlandishly childish, weird and egotistical—“my weeping vase!” Ustinov’s so good the movie’s worth watching for his performance alone, but there’s more quality work from the rest of the huge cast, with another highlight being sharp and sarcastic Leo Genn as the satirist Petronius. Robert Taylor’s screen persona developed from pretty heartthrob to noir “wronged man” to gritty western hero, and here he got one of his most solid roles as the Roman soldier whose sympathy for the closeted religious group grows as he falls in love with the Christian slave girl Deborah Kerr. Elizabeth Taylor, who you can spot in a tiny part in the arena, was originally considered for the lead role, and you can also spot Sophia Loren in one of her first roles.

Colossal moviemaking. Lest I undersell it, I mean massively, spectacularly colossaaaaal! Director Mervyn LeRoy headed what must have seemed an impossible project more than a decade in the planning, with effects, scope and scale epic in every sense of the word; over 30,000 costumes, battle scenes, Christians being thrown to the lions, an empress flanked by panthers, the Great Fire of Rome, a veritable army of extras and crew so large and potentially unwieldy it actually had to be organized military-style, and split into divisions with captains in order to keep it together. Size alone would mean little without the stunning color cinematography (best seen on the Blu-ray); Quo Vadis? is one of the most beautiful films ever made. MGM spent, and was in danger of gambling away, an obscene amount of money on the film and ad campaign, nearly doubling what had been laid out for Gone with the Wind.

Colossal impact. Made to draw people away from the novelty and convenience of their TV sets and back into cinemas,Quo Vadis? was an epic box office success, giving MGM its biggest moneymaker since the aforementioned Gone with the Wind. The blockbuster gave Robert Taylor his biggest hit in years and his biggest overall (followed soon after by his divorce from Barbara Stanwyck), elevated Kerr, who had only recently come across the Atlantic to build on her UK success, and launched Ustinov into stardom and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor (one of eight Oscar nods for the film—didn’t win any). It was a pivot point for MGM, with its perennial head Louis B. Mayer proven right on his instincts but no longer in charge when the film came out, and it was a gamechanger for the industry which latched on to the trend of big widescreen historical and biblical storytelling for the next decade.

Italian film industry revival. Quo Vadis? was the first color film shot in Italy, at Rome’s Cinecitta  studios, built in 1937 when Mussolini envisioned it as the future filmmaking capital of the world in his little scale model. After being bombed in World War 2 Cinecitta was still in shambles, but after the scenery and hype seen during the 1949 Italian wedding of Linda Christian and Tyrone Power, MGM got the idea to shoot Quo Vadis? there. That decision and the movie’s success helped kick off Italian films’ golden age, and made the facility a much desired site for low cost and high value. Thousands of films were shot there in the years that followed, including Roman Holiday, Ben Hur, For a Few Dollars More, all the way up to Gangs of New York and HBO’s Rome series.

9 thoughts on “Quo Vadis?”

  1. It’s hard to believe that Peter Ustinov was ever young. He’s one of those guys who looked the same for so long that it almost seems that he always looked like that. I will personally always remember him from Death On the Nile.

  2. Thanks Andrew– yes that and SPARTACUS, and one of my favorites of his younger days is a really fun movie WE’RE NO ANGELS with Bogart and Aldo Ray.

  3. Enjoyed all the insightful info on this film in your post, particularly that bit about Liz Taylor glimpsed amongst the teeming throngs of extras. I just LOVE “Quo Vadis,” and it’s as spectacular and involving as you note in your review. My own favorite scene is when Leo Genn dictates his last letter to the Emperor while committing slow suicide at a fabulous banquet (and Ustinov’s reaction when he later reads the missive is priceless). It’s interesting to compare this film to Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Sign of the Cross,” which apparently borrowed heavily from the original novel (and had a similar plot and characters). The one great advantage that DeMille had was that he made his movie during the pre-Code era — that definitely had an impact on the content of his film.

  4. G.O.M. Thanks & welcome! re SIGN OF THE CROSS yes they make for great comparison, and a double feature. I love to compare adaptations of the same historical event/story… main difference being (spoiler!) the Christians win in QUO. You’re right that Leo Genn is fantastic, and I neglected to mention that he was also deservedly Oscar Nominated, he makes a great foil to Ustinov.

  5. Love Ustinov… for those who haven’t seen Billy Budd (Ustinov is Capt. Vere and Terence Stamp is Budd) he is fantastic in it… and he directed it — double genius.

  6. I love these ancient Rome/Egypt type films just for the costumes.

    Claudette Colbert is just amazing in Cleopatra and Sign Of The Cross.


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