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Quo Vadis

Warner Bros. // Unrated // March 17, 2009
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 15, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Note: Portions of this review include non-format specific parts of my SD-DVD review.

The Movie:
Maybe the prayers of countless classic film aficianados, while probably not nearly as frantic as those of Christians being thrown to the lions, were heard after all, either by powers on high, or at the very least by Warner. I gave the SD-DVD of Quo Vadis a rather brusque tongue lashing for one of the worst Technicolor transfers I've experienced lately, something I found incredible in light of the DVD's highly touted "frame by frame photochemical restoration." Well there's good news and bad news with the new BD version. The good news is, there's significantly greater sharpness and detail, and, perhaps surprisingly (since I assume the same source elements were used) noticably better color as well. Whether or not that's due to the BD's increased resolution and saturation capabilities I can't definitively say, but there's less of the pasty brown that hampered the SD-DVD release. If the DVD tended toward brown, the BD has a purplish tendency, which actually plays to its favor, since its palette is made up largely of reds and violets. The bad news is, the BD's increased resolution makes the source element flaws I discussed in my SD-DVD review glaringly apparent at times. There are virtual nonstop flicks of white and other abrasion, as well as some badly out of focus moments throughout the film.

Now some people are going to angrily proclaim, "This is the best this film has ever looked on home video," and I guess maybe (maybe) I'd agree, certainly with regard to the BD (as opposed to the SD-DVD) especially since I sold my VHS copy years and years ago (and never owned the laserdisc) and haven't seen the film broadcast since.

Believe it or not 1951's Quo Vadis (the fourth film version of the venerable property) was actually MGM's most successful product after Gone With The Wind, though the intervening years have not lent it the patina that the Margaret Mitchell opus has attained. Dealing with the first generation of Christians post-Jesus, and their interaction with the morally bankrupt Roman Empire as personified by Emperor Nero, Quo Vadis, based on a bestselling 1895 novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, had been in development at MGM for years, and as commentary expert F.X. Feeney describes, had actually had John Huston attached as director, with Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor cast in the roles that ultimately went to Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr.

Under the stolid if run of the mill (or De Mille, as the case may be) direction of Mervyn LeRoy, Quo Vadis does a mostly admirable job of weaving a fictional personal story into the epic historical facts of Rome on the decline. Taylor portrays returning Roman warrior Marcus Vinicius, who quickly falls for devout Christian Lygia (Deborah Kerr), even while Nero (Peter Ustinov) is starting to fiddle in the next room, so to speak. There are some interesting historical facts tucked into this massive production, including the idea of Roman "hostages" (the legal status of those born in Roman-conquered lands, as Lygia, from what became Poland, is). There are also some very neat circumscriptions of actual historical characters, including Nero's adviser Petronius (Leo Genn), who manages to walk a very narrow tightrope as he attempts to give salient advice while not offending a patent madman. (Film buffs may want to compare Fellini Satyricon, based on fragments of a text by Petronius, to Quo Vadis. They're like night and day, literally, with Quo Vadis' American sunniness, despite the subject matter, distinctly at odds with Satyricon's almost nightmarish ambience at times). For added religious import, we get not one, but two, followers of Jesus, the apostles Peter and Paul.

I must admit I am largely immune to the supposed charms of Robert Taylor; I don't especially like him in his 1930s films, and I'm not particularly fond of him in Quo Vadis. While he brings a certain strength and bearing to Marcus, he's stiff and that broad-vowelled Midwestern accent of his is so completely foreign (no pun intended) to the elocution of the otherwise largely British cast that it makes for an at times unappealing contrast. Kerr is her usual lovely self, doing a slight variation on her patented uptight woman with tempestuous passions raging just underneath routine. She manages to pull off the devout Christian aspects of Lygia without seeming cloying, which is a testament to her understated brilliance in the role. But this film largely belongs to Ustinov as Nero and Genn as Petronius. Both have never been better, and they dance a rather bizarre at times pas de deux that is totally fascinating to watch (they were both nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year). Ustinov is furtive, vicious and lugubrious, all in equal measure, while Genn is moderated, refined and subtly sarcastic. It's two sides of the Roman coin, and these performances are worth their weight in gold.

From a physical production standpoint, Quo Vadis has rarely been equaled, with some shots featuring literally thousands of extras. The superior resolution of the BD does make the excellent matte work (by master Peter Ellenshaw) and painted backdrops completely apparent, probably for the first time (I can only imagine what the coming Blu-ray will do in this regard). Cinematographers Robert Surtees and William Skall do exceptional work, both on the Italian Cinecitta lot (where, interestingly, Satyricon would shoot decades later) as well as some nice location shots in the Roman countryside. Director LeRoy stages the set scenes, especially the climactic moments in the Arena where Lygia may or may not be killed by a bull (don't spend too much time worrying about it is my advice) and the overwhelming burning of Rome sequence, exceedingly well, with always well modulated use of long shots interspersed with telling close-ups of the various players. Le Roy does let a little of his native humor shine through, if only very subtly for the most ardent film fan, with a funny little tip of the crown to one of his first successes, Little Caesar, when larger than life Caesar Nero echoes Edward G. Robinson's dying words from that gangster epic as he himself shuffles off this mortal coil. If Quo Vadis is lumbering (and it most certainly is), there's usually enough happening, plot-wise and simply on the screen at any given moment, to keep the film from seeming overly slow.

Quo Vadis also contains one of the glories of the film scoring canon, the exquisite and heralded music of Miklos Rozsa, here working in the Biblical-historical idiom that would a few years later give him perhaps his greatest late-career renown with such scores as Ben Hur, King of Kings and El Cid. Rozsa's background as a musicologist came in quite handily as he assembled fragments of existing Roman music and adapted them to his own purposes. Some of Rozsa's tropes, such as lots of open fifths and fourths in the brass, became the clich├ęs of future Biblical epics. However, Rozsa, unlike some of his followers, brilliantly blended them into his unique orchestral and choral palette, weaving one of his most effortlessly evocative scores. This soundtrack has never had a really first-rate CD release (there's an acceptable out of print import on Artemis available if you can find it), and it seems like a perfect candidate for Film Score Monthly's always excellent releases.

While Quo Vadis may not have been the film to really start the 50s Biblical infatuation rolling (most scholars point to 1949's De Mille epic Samson and Delilah as the real progenitor), it set the stage for a string of films that captured the public's imagination as no other genre did during that era. It's not hard to fathom why a worldwide public sought the comfort of religious certainty after the horrible conflagration of World War II. Quo Vadis is especially notable for dealing with a somewhat later time period than a lot of films of this ilk, and that lends it a unique point of view that keeps it from seeming too old hat, despite its patently old-fashioned mounting. The film really should be seen by everyone at least once in their life; if the SD-DVD was mostly a disappointment, this BD makes up for that shortfall and actually augurs well for the format as a whole.

The DVD

Video:
The BD makes the most of Warner's "ultra-resolution" restoration. The image is very sharp indeed (to the detriment of matte and rear projection scenes, as noted above). Saturation is significantly better than on the SD-DVD, which may at least partially account for a better overall palette in this format. While the BD makes the white flecks and other abrasion much more apparent than the SD-DVD, I'm sure that in that regard this is still the best Quo Vadis we've ever had on home video. There are some density issues here as well, with noticable gradations in color values and saturation sometimes from moment to moment. The BD unfortunately points these out with greater acuity than the SD-DVD, so be forewarned.

Sound:
Though the extra featurette wrongly describes Quo Vadis as being in stereo (it would be a couple of more years before that became the norm), the remastered Dolby mono soundtrack actually sounds pretty darned good for its age, especially with regard to Rozsa's sometimes bombastic score, which I feared would be severely compressed and boxy sounding. That's decidedly not the case, something that's mirrored by the clear dialogue. The BD ups the ante in the soundtrack department from the SD-DVD by offering mono French, Spanish, German, and Italian tracks, as well as subtitles in all soundtrack languages, as well as (are you ready?) Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish.

Extras:
Though this set is a little light on extras, what is there is excellent. First up, spanning the feature is F.X. Feeney's informative commentary, which deals with everything from the film's long, long, long developmental stages to its filming and impact. There is also a 45 minute documentary called "In the Beginning, Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic," which, as these things go, is above average and features some great clips from the 1913 and 1925 silent versions of Quo Vadis. Even Dr. Drew Casper, someone I routinely despise in these outings, is relatively subdued and actually contributes some cogent analysis. Not necessarily an extra per se, but definitely a "bonus" is the fact that film and its extras are on only one disc in this set, as opposed to being spread across two in the SD-DVD version.

Final Thoughts:
Quo Vadis was proclaimed as the greatest spectacle of its era, but that was before widescreen and multi-channel stereo sound took over theaters. As the last big epic of the "real" Golden, helmed by Louis B. himself, era at MGM, it's a bit staid at times, but has some visceral action sequences and an interesting historical context, as well as a knockout performance by a young Peter Ustinov as Nero. If you've never seen Quo Vadis, or haven't revisited it recently, this release is Recommended.

____________________________________________
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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