Back in 1951, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was on the verge of bankruptcy, and these days the film that was truly responsible for saving the studio and helping to usher in the sword and sandal epic. Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis resonated well with audiences in the fifties, but today it does feel somewhat lacking and old fashioned enough to the point where it doesn’t retain the levels of entertainment that the likes of The Ten Commandments, Spartacus and Ben-Hur have retained over the decades.
Roman military commander, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), returns to the capital from the wars and reunites with his senator uncle, Gaius Petronius (Leo Genn). He falls in love with a devout Christian, Lygia (Deborah Kerr), and slowly becomes intrigued by her religion. Their love story is told against the broader historical background of early Christianity and its persecution by Nero (Peter Ustinov). Though she grew up Roman as the adopted daughter of a retired general, Aulus Plautius (Felix Aylmer), Lygia is technically a hostage of Rome. Marcus persuades Nero to give her to him for services rendered. Lygia resents this, but still falls in love with Marcus, however he cannot fathom the depths or meaning of her faith. Meanwhile, Nero’s ambitions become increasingly insane. When he burns Rome to build a new one in its place, Empress Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) suggests throwing the blame on the Christians to placate the Roman mob. Marcus tries to save Lygia and her family, but Nero captures them and all the Christians, condemning them to be killed in the arena.
Taylor makes for a strong, good looking lead, but is rather wooden in comparison to the supporting cast. Kerr is charming and emotionally driven as Lygia but she does show a fitting level of resistance to Marcus’ boorish attitude. The romance is of the old fashioned, somewhat plodding variety that doesn’t hold the attention of modern tastes. Ustinov is fun and theatrical as the capricious, effeminate and self-absorbed emperor, which makes his acts of evil and insanity all he more shocking, and because he receives more screen time than our leads he keeps the film’s energy up. Genn is crafty and relatively likable as the wry senator Petronius, managing to garner a few scene stealing scenes. Finlay Currie conveys the calm defiance and hopefulness of Peter the Apostle, and Abraham Sofaer as Paul has a soothing quality to their voice and a dignified bearing. Buddy Baer acquits himself well as the strong, stoic Ursus, pulling off his feats of strength to great effect. Laffan is a despicable and sly as Empress Poppaea, and gets to be as theatrical as Nero does on occasion. Ralph Truman is intimidating and loathsome as Tigellinus. Marina Berti as the slave girl Eunice has a gentle innocence to her. Other supporting roles provided by Aylmer and Nicholas Hannen as Seneca play their parts well.
As one of the first films to feature a cast our thousands and an epic production design to match, Quo Vadis does a great job in framing the enormity of Rome and the opulence of its ruling class. Without the level of detail put into the design of 1st century Rome espoused by this film, thus inspiring many examples to follow, the sword and sandal genre wouldn’t have taken off as it did. The costumes, of which thirty thousand were commissioned for this film, are varied, colourful and appealing, and convey the social status of the characters well. However, the armour and weapons are rather fake-looking and anachronistic compared to later films in this genre. What little sword play there is isn’t very well shot or directed, but since its flawed presentation is fortunately brief.
As far as standout sequences go, the burning of Rome, both from a distance and on a ground level is a great achievement, and channels the hellish desperation and panic of that terrible disaster. The Roman arena is a well realized combination of sets and matte paintings, and lions beset upon the singing Christians is still an effective scene due to the build-up and callousness of their captors and onlookers, and the despair of their fellow prisoners. For the climax, the battle between the bull and the giant Ursus and its outcome is all done in camera and incredible to behold.
The cinematography, though somewhat hindered by the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, makes effective use of as much of the setting as possible. With the proliferation of technicolour, the whole film looks very pleasing to the eyes. The film is steeped in that sense of 1950s camp that also permeated The Ten Commandments. Being filmed in the Italian countryside itself with its cypresses, hills and fields offers for some lovely natural vistas and an extra level of attempted authenticity, but a sharp eye will probably notice the pylon lines in the distance.
While undoubtedly impressive for the time, modern eyes may spot lots of obvious blue-screening, particularly during the chariot battle as Marcus hastens back to Rome. The sequence is still fast paced and exciting, but the quality of the spliced footage is still what it is. Also the backdrop for the burning red sky is clearly a large painted curtain. This is one area where mate paintings could have benefitted it. I have praised many matte paintings over this series, and while this is an older film than most I’ve looked at this does have more evident matte paintings than others. Some of the better ones are within Rome itself, but they still appear the most dated out of all the films I’ve seen in this genre so far.
Miklós Rózsa turns out another top rate score, while this one is not as refined and touching as his score for Ben-Hur, the choir singing “Quo Vadis” and the triumph march are standout pieces. Some tracks do come across as melodramatic and out of place, however.
Its length and lingering over extensive set pieces such as the fire of Rome or monologue scenes such as those with Peter the Apostle do make the film drag. Much of the dialogue has that old fashioned style of diction and delivery, and while I expected this film to feel dated this was an area where the film felt too ponderous for me to enjoy fully.
While later films like Cleopatra would infuse humanity in power hungry warlords and despots, Quo Vadis is barefaced in the depiction of the higher ups, from the Emperor and Empress to their senators and captain of the Praetorian Guard are vile manipulators and worthy of the evil fate that ultimately seizes them. Singing is frequently contrasted by the lone tone-deaf caterwauling of Nero against the harmonious, unified singing of the Christians. Furthermore, Nero’s pride at his own singing abilities (or lack thereof) is contrasted by the condemned Christians who only sing as a final swansong before death. As such, the morality of this setting is of a black and white nature, which dilutes the character of Rome itself.
In terms of smaller, incidental flaws, it does strike me as odd that Petronius is uncle to Marcus, since Genn is only six years older than Taylor, and so it seems odd that they didn’t cast an older actor to play Marcus’ uncle. There are a number of brief but very melodramatic moments, such as the slave girl Eunice kissing a bust of her kind master and lover Petronius.
As far as themes go, the film tries to dig into the pagan and Christian conflicts and relations within Rome, and the possibility of unification by faith and virtue rather than conquest and subjugation. The film skirts the line of portraying Christians as virtuous and just and all Roman pagans as immoral men by granting Nero more scenes of pure villainy that make the people of Rome, of all faiths, the victims in his megalomania. Marcus starts off as arrogant and ruthless but showing a softer side to him that develops as he himself is changed by Lygia and the Christians, and does become more noble and self-sacrificing while still essentially Roman. The framing of Marcus as a boorish and sexist soldier, though expected of this character, puts him at a distance with the audience for much of the film. The transition of a man of action to becoming a man of thought and belief is a gradual one, and ultimately he doesn’t have as much influence on the progression of the plot as Nero does.
As a showcase for the Roman world in all its decadent glory in eye-popping technicolour, Quo Vadis is a triumph. But on the whole, it passes for a decent period drama held together by its ambitious technicolour visuals and standout performances from Ustinov, Genn and Laffan. I’d only really recommend this to film fans that have cut their teeth on more famous sword and sandal classics and purveyors of 50’s cinema, but this one doesn’t really hold up.