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In the 1950s Hollywood began remaking the great silent Bible epics, possibly as a reaction to the return of popular revivalism. Quo Vadis is the fifth version of Henry Sienkiewicz's 1895 best-seller, and the first talking version. An expensive MGM production filmed in Rome's Cinecittá studio, Quo Vadis was the first monster Bible epic of the post-war era. It covers roughly the same historic subject matter as Cecil B. DeMille's scandalous Pre-code movie The Sign of the Cross. Producer Sam Zimbalist dropped the question mark from the Latin title, which translates as, Where are you going? Later filmgoers may recall Marlon Brando in Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris using the film's title as a sly pick-up line: "Quo vadis, baby?
Quo Vadis is certainly a pious picture, celebrating Christian ideas and symbols. It includes several miraculous visions, as when a heavenly light tells the Apostle Peter to turn back toward Rome. The historical facts of the rule of Nero (a young Peter Ustinov making his first splash in Hollywood) fit nicely into the imagined tale of a hedonistic Roman general converted to Christianity by the love of a beautiful maid. Sienkiewicz's story is politically sound: Nero ignores the Christians until he need a scapegoat for his foolhardy burning of Rome. Christian sympathizers like old General Plautius (Felix Aylmer) are sacrificed as well. Even the political expert Petronius (the great Leo Genn) runs afoul of Nero's spite, simply for not rubber-stamping his every whim. Petronius (the author of Satyricon, later to be filmed by Fellini) is smart enough to see Nero's wrath coming.
General Marcus Vinicius (a stern, dry Robert Taylor) stubbornly wastes two hours trying to win the beautiful hostage Lygia (Deborah Kerr) the loutish Roman way, by making her his legal property. Prevented from exercising his owner's rights by Lygia's muscleman bodyguard Ursus (wrestler Buddy Baer, taking on a kind of Maciste-protector role), Marcus backs off. He's tempted by Nero's reptilian consort Poppaea (the stunning Patricia Laffan of Devil-Girl from Mars). But when Nero sets Rome aflame, Marcus realizes that both Lygia and her faith present better alternatives. Although Deborah Kerr does well enough, her Lygia is yet another colorless and enervated MGM role, after her stunning parts in English pictures like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. Kerr instead found immortality lip-synching to another's voice in The King and I.
Ancient Rome with its parades and parties is presented with great solemnity, coming off as a respectful but unexceptional pageant. Nero's "orgy" stays a discreet distance from the revelers, whose most extreme behavior is to feed grapes to each other. Mervyn LeRoy's static direction adds very little, leaving the good actors to carry it all. Peter Ustinov and Leo Genn are head and shoulders above the other actors, with Ustinov marvelous as the insufferably infantile, murderously treacherous Nero. Since Nero has already had his own mother and wife killed, Genn's Petronius must walk a verbal tightrope, treading a diplomatic path around Nero's psychotic whims by inventing new forms of flattery.
Finlay Currie and Abraham Sofaer do the heavy Biblical lifting, in fairly lifeless flashbacks to the Jesus story. At prayer meetings Christians stand in noble poses, enlightenment beaming from their faces. Combined with Miklos Rozsa's inspirational music score, all the requirements for the Bible epic are fulfilled. The movie is sincere; it's certainly less melodramatic and manipulative than some of the 50s films that would follow.
Also making an impact are Marina Berti as Petronius' adoring Spanish slave, and Rosalie Crutchley (The Nun's Story) as Acte, the spurned lover who returns to Nero in his final moments. In the docu accompanying the film, Sir Christopher Frayling can't help but be amused that Mervyn LeRoy gives Caesar an exit line similar to his Little Caesar of twenty years before. Maybe the filmmakers didn't take the story all that seriously, all the time.
Filmed in Italy in lavish Technicolor, Quo Vadis is heavily laden with production values. A few scenes do have the thousands of extras promised in the outrageous publicity, that claimed that Quo Vadis will be the most impressive movie you will ever see. Although MGM's blue screen traveling mattes look terrible in daytime scenes, the chaos of the burning of Rome is beautifully directed and photographed. As it turns out, this sequence was directed by Anthony Mann, with a young Sergio Leone as one of his many assistant directors. The climax comes when Nero executes hundreds of Christians in the arena. The brief scenes of violence, with many thrown to the lions or burned alive, is probably as strong as could be depicted in the restrictive climate of 1951. The much more perverse horrors of DeMille's The Sign of the Cross had all been censored for a wartime reissue, so there was little in the public's recent memory to provide an immediate comparison.
Star watchers should keep an eye out: rumor has it that actresses Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor may be found at Nero's party, and among the cowering Christians awaiting their appointment with hungry lions.
Warner's 2-Disc Special Edition DVD of Quo Vadis is a fine rendering of the crowd-pleasing epic, said to be remastered from the original 3-strip elements. It's presented on two discs to afford a high bit rate and a lengthy new docu. Colors are warm but accurate; day exteriors are beautiful and night interiors moody. Day interiors vary in quality. Plautius' house uses a terrible painted backdrop, but a seaside retreat is created with a matte painting and still looks real. Although more than one expert in the docu talks about stereophonic sound, the track provided is a sturdy mono. Miklos Rozsa's impressive score comes complete with entrance and exit music. No intermission is present, if the film ever had one.
Film critic F.X. Feeney provides a lengthy audio commentary that establishes the literary and filmic context for Quo Vadis. He's joined on New Wave's long docu by many learned and qualified spokespeople, all of whom seem compelled to overstate the film's merit -- it's a fine effort that doesn't need hyperbole. Probably owing to Robert Taylor's stiff acting, Quo Vadis didn't attain the heights of box office glory promised by MGM's ad campaign. The docu is overlong but contains a number of interesting chapters, including one devoted to examples of Peter Ellenshaw's nearly flawless matte work.
Blur-ray owners take note: it is said that Quo Vadis will be released on that format this coming Easter. I hope to be back to evaluate the improved image and presentation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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