In Hollywood the motto has always been ‘go big or go home’. From its earliest years, the film-making capital of the world was of the opinion mind-boggling spectacle could be generally substituted for good taste or even solid acting. This balance of power quickly shifted during WWII, with rationing and scaled down budgets forcing the dream factories to scrimp and save by reusing, and re-reusing their costumes and sets accrued during the halcyon era of the late 1920s and early thirties. At the end of the war, a newfound desire for spectacle emerged; perhaps, because like a starving bear awakening from hibernation, the lean years had made studio chief’s hungry for the good ole days before the war when profits soared and television had yet to make inroads to steal away their audiences. Reflecting on all that had gone before, and with remarkable clairvoyance for the deluge about to come, old-time mogul and independent, Samuel Goldwyn led the self-reflecting charge when he insisted in an interview to The Times, “Even the most backward-looking of topmost tycoons in our industry cannot now help seeing, just around the corner, a titanic struggle to retain audiences. The competition we feared in the past…will fade into insignificance by comparison with the fight we are going to have to keep people patronizing our theaters in preference to sitting home and watching a program of entertainment. It is a certainty people will be unwilling to pay to see poor pictures when they can stay home and see something which is, at least, no worse!”
Point to Mr. Goldwyn, who knew a little something of ‘struggle for survival’ too well; having been ousted from power at precisely the moment his modest company was being absorbed into the leviathan officially known as ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’ back in 1924. At a time when Hollywood could scarcely afford to go back to its’ spend-spend hedonism, responsible for the whimsical fidelity behind such spectacles as Intolerance (1916) and Noah’s Ark (1928), the studio heads put their backs into a renewed spirit of even more gaudy and glamorous antiquities in the 1950s. These promised audiences something they decidedly could not experience at home. But they also threatened to either make or break a studio. In some ways, the industry was going through the first phase of a very messy/very public nervous breakdown; its creative personnel scrutinized by HUAC, its chiefdoms brought to heel at the behest of the federal government and forced into unhealthy divestures of their theater chains and top-heavy star systems. At the same instance, Hollywood was faced with staggering inflation and an assault from TV. This technology had debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, but its official launch was delayed with the outbreak of WWII.
At the end of the war, America emerged as the ultimate superpower amongst recovering nations. And although hard pressed to find any American then willing to swear to the opinion of America as an empire, there is little to doubt its obvious parallels to ancient Rome; its supremacy on the world stage and an economic boom at home; the dissemination of America’s cultural artifacts in everything from automobiles, Hershey bars and Coca-Cola, to movies, movie stars and pop culture en masse, creating a touchstone and iconography all its own, casting a giant shadow over virtually every corner of the globe. In retrospect, it seems fitting that at the end of the war, MGM’s raja, Louis B. Mayer would endeavor to revive a project on the company’s slate of ‘things to do’ since 1938. Mayer was never a forward thinking individual in this regard. At least in Mayer’s eyes, there was no good reason to believe the end of war meant anything except a return to those heady days of super-colossal productions made before it.
Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis had been a sprawling novel about those sensualist final years of Roman dominion under the reign of a demigod, the ‘divine’ Emperor Nero. Unlike other novelists, most notably, Gen. Lew Wallace (the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ), who had largely imagined and fashioned a literary impression of Rome via his own artistic license with only a remedial understanding of its history, Sienkiewicz – a historian by trade – had actually walked the concourses and byways where Nero may very well have bought a piece of fruit or given the order to set the city ablaze. Moreover, Sienkiewicz had immersed himself in a fact-finding mission to unearth the real Rome, his discoveries yielding a rich and varied tapestry of decadence, sin and corruption that had made Quo Vadis a real page turner in its time. In 1913, a Roman production company transformed Quo Vadis into a mesmerizing silent screen epic; intoxicatingly extravagant and immensely detailed. The picture ran for nearly a year and was a huge money maker besides, prompting an early American version in 1917, not nearly as unrestrained or as popular with audiences. But then, the book and the idea of making yet another Quo Vadis with the advent of the talkies quietly fell out of fashion – arguably, for good reason. Because of its subject matter, and in light of the Roman spectacle, nothing modest would do. Even studios accustomed to spending profligately on single pictures were apt to pause and reconsider what it would mean to resurrect the novel yet again for the big screen. Undaunted, MGM evidently pursued and acquired the rights to do just that.
However, Mayer had some fairly unhappy recollections regarding the studio’s first attempt to achieve similar results on Ben-Hur in 1925. Shot primarily on location in Rome, the movie had been inherited by Mayer after the amalgamation of Metro Pictures into the fledgling company MGM; the footage scrapped, the star recast and elephantine sets rebuilt on the backlot at Culver City to satisfy Mayer’s need for absolute control. Ben-Hur was a hit. But Mayer differed in his creative philosophy with his then VP in charge of production, Irving Thalberg. Thalberg desired to make fewer pictures per annum, showering each with an embarrassment of riches. Mayer thought the studio’s profit margin could best be maximized by a greater assortment of more modestly budgeted and streamlined projects. After the youthful wunderkind died of an untimely heart attack in 1936, Mayer ultimately had his way throughout most of the 1940s. But at war’s end, even he could see something more was required to maintain the studio’s Teflon-coated reputation amongst audiences and critics for all-star quality, par excellence in the industry.
Alas, Mayer would not be around to see Quo Vadis take shape. In 1950, after several years of increasingly focusing his attentions on a new love interest, Lorena Danker, and his favorite pastime, horse-racing, arguably, at the expense of overseeing daily operations at the studio, Mayer was ordered by his New York boss, Nicholas Schenk, to appoint a new VP to manage the output of films. Dore Schary’s arrival sealed Mayer’s fate; the two clashing almost daily over the way things should be done. Schary saw Quo Vadis as a political piece to mirror more contemporary times. Mayer simply regarded it as big-time/old-time splashy entertainment. Mayer would eventually get his way, though not before picking up the telephone to propose an ultimatum to Schenk. “It’s either me or Schary!” Schenk, who had never preferred Mayer, even when the studio was at its zenith in terms of both creative output and profitability, now seized the opportunity to rid himself of a very uncomfortable stone in his shoe. Mayer was out and Schary in, set to preside over one of MGM’s costliest costume epics in at least a decade. Quo Vadis is decidedly not Dore Schary’s type of movie. A writer by trade, who had come from modest beginnings at RKO Studios, he much preferred modestly budgeted B-movie noir thrillers and edgy dramas almost entirely void of glamour – or even star-power for that matter, making him the perfect VP for a miserly boss like Nicholas Schenk and the absolute worst one imaginable for a studio like MGM – the home of glamorous superstars.
Viewing Quo Vadis today, it remains a breathtaking spectacle unscathed by Schary’s interventions; sumptuously sheathed in all the accoutrements Sienkiewicz has written about, many of them hand-crafted from scratch by Metro’s army of craftsman. With a cast of thousands and a mind-numbing budget of $7,623,000, Quo Vadis was gearing up to be one of the undisputed cinematic pageantries of all time. The remake had been the brainchild of producer/director, Mervyn LeRoy, who would eventually helm the project with an uncredited assist from Anthony Mann. No expense was spared as cast and crew assembled on gargantuan sets built at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’ was the way Time Magazine dubbed this influx of American talent descending upon the studio built by Benito Mussolini, earmarking the 1950s as a golden era for American runaway film production in Italy. When first proposed back in 1940, resident studio heartthrob, Robert Taylor had been the odds on favorite to play Roman military commander, Marcus Vinicius. Indeed, Taylor possessed the matinee idol good looks to carry it off then. Taylor eventually landed the part in 1951, after the studio briefly considered a loan out of Gregory Peck from 2oth Century-Fox. But by then, Taylor seemed just a tad long in the tooth to convincingly play this arrogant and studly beast who finds Christianity in the arms of Lygia (originally slated for Elizabeth Taylor but eventually given to Deborah Kerr); a slave girl liberated by her adopted father and retired general, Plautius (Felix Aylmer). In retrospect, the one unforgivable sin in Quo Vadis is its lack of on-screen chemistry between these two stars. Taylor is appropriately vain and Kerr, immensely attractive. Yet, her patrician beauty and his pawing attempts at lustful stoicism somehow translate into uninspired stiffness, thus completely rendering the emotional center of the piece a moot point. This stiltedness hinders not only the romance, but also the believability of the religious conversion Vinicius eventually experiences.
Far more engaging on every level is Peter Ustinov’s mesmerizing performance as the mad Emperor Nero; leering, plotting and luridly evolving in all his infantile demagoguery and insanity, so utterly disturbing, one can actually believe he could burn an entire city for the muse’s inspiration to compose yet another insipid melody on his lyre. When asked for guidance on how to approach his character, Peter Ustiov was reportedly told by Mervyn LeRoy he had envisioned Nero as a man who ‘plays with himself at night’. Years later, Ustinov would concur that this was the single best piece of acting advice he received. Quo Vadis has far greater success with its supporting roles; Findlay Currie as the benevolent prophet, Peter; Rosalie Crutchley as Nero’s unfulfilled love interest, Acte, who eventually helps him commit suicide; Patricia Laffan, a deliciously sinful Poppaea, cautiously goading her lord and master to his demise while scheming to romantically conquer Marcus; Marina Berti as the ever-devoted, Eunice, and, as Nero’s forthright arbitrator of good taste, Petronius, the superb Leo Genn. The ill-fated love story between Eunice and Petronius is perhaps the singularly most compelling in John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien’s screenplay; tenderly fleshed out and brought to its satisfactory – if bittersweet – and wholly tragic conclusion.
At 171 minutes, Quo Vadis has the luxury of time to unfold these narrative threads into an engrossing tapestry with oodles of spectacle to boot. To date, Quo Vadis holds the record for most costumes stitched by hand for a single movie: 32,000! Produced by Sam Zimbalist, Quo Vadis also benefits from a thunderous score by Miklós Rózsa, teeming with trumpet chords and solemn drum and fife beats marked by a miraculous underlay of disconcerting emotional power. The shared cinematographic challenges conquered of William V. Skall and Robert Surtees, lensing the resplendence in Edward C. Carfagno, Cedric Gibbons and William A. Horning’s immense production design, creates an earthy, vibrant and gaudy impression of this ancient world. To add yet another layer to its luxuriousness, Peter Ellenshaw’s visual matte effects extended the boundaries of Metro’s impressive sets with vast horizons of Rome, the palace enclosures glistening like white capped jewels against the sunset. If some of these names behind the scenes seem very familiar, it’s likely because most would return to MGM in 1959 to adorn the remake of Ben-Hur with their complimentary talents.
Quo Vadis opens with Rózsa’s monumental, if ominously reverent main title, gold embossed letters chiseled into a marble backdrop. This gives way to Rome’s valiant armies returning after an impressive victory over the Gauls, led by warrior supreme, Marcus Vinicius who also happens to be the legate of the XIV Gemina. Nearly three years abroad, Marcus and his second in command, Flavius (Roberto Ottaviano) race their chariots to the top of a hill where they can catch their first glimpse of the glories of Rome, shimmering like a mirage in the distance. However, the pair is ordered by Tigellinus (Ralph Truman), along with their armies, to stand down; the delay proving an insult to Marcus’ vanity. Meanwhile, in the court of Nero, the divine one is entertaining a small gathering of his most trusted advisors, including his arbitrator of good taste, Petronius. Marcus bursts into the chamber to make his inquiries as to why his men cannot return to their families immediately. Nero explains how ‘more and more the people require their diversions’. As such, he has planned a triumphant entrance for his armies the following afternoon to welcome Marcus and his forces back to Rome.
For the evening, Marcus and Flavius are invited to dine with the retired General Aulus Plautius, his wife, Miriam (Elspeth March) and their adopted daughter, Lygia. Marcus is at first unaware Lygia is not the General’s daughter by birth, the path to her bedchamber guarded by the giant, Ursus (Buddy Baer). Marcus is most impressed with Ursus’ size, offering him a choice opportunity to leave the general’s employ as a servant and enter the arena as a gladiator. Instead, Ursus points out “it is a sin to kill” – a comment causing Marcus to become mildly amused and suggest a colossal body is not necessarily accompanied by a very large brain. A short while later, Marcus and Flavius are introduced to Paul (Abraham Sofaer) who has just returned from Tarsis with news of the prophet, Simon – known to all as Peter. The family is overjoyed to hear of his news. But Marcus is repulsed by their bewitchment. The Messiah is dead, after all, and the only true god – at least for Marcus – is the Emperor. Rome is his heaven.
After dinner, Marcus attempts to seduce Lygia. She is proud and virtuous, however, resisting his charms and protected by Ursus. The next day, Marcus takes part in the processional through Rome, its thronging masses cheering loudly and tossing laurels at his feet. Amidst the spectacle, Lygia shrouds herself, lest Marcus realize she has come to watch his triumphant entrance into the city and thus give away her own lustful desires to belong to him. These deep emotions she repeatedly denies herself, recognizing Marcus’ heart is tainted by his false love for Nero. He is a conqueror, while she remains one of the vanquished. If not for the General’s love and compassion during his bloody campaign she might have died with the rest of her people many years before. Technically a hostage of Rome, Lygia’s life is disrupted when Marcus secures an order from Nero to have her forcibly brought to his palace as a concubine. Without ever meeting the girl, Nero makes a present of her to his returning war hero, though he momentarily contemplates seducing Lygia for himself; his lascivious attractions quelled by Petronius who suggests the girl is much too narrow in the hips to satisfy the divine one.
Nero trusts Petronius implicitly. But Lygia is appalled by the means with which she has been taken from the only parents she has ever known. She admonishes Marcus for his brutish and callous intensions to woo her without any understanding of love itself. Behind the scenes, Acte befriends Lygia, making the sign of the fish in a purposefully spilled heap of talc to suggest she too is following the word of God. Meanwhile, spurned and frustrated, Marcus returns to Petronius’ home to sulk. Petronius offers him sex with the slave girl, Eunice. But she resists. It doesn’t really matter, because Marcus has no interest in her either. Petronius is compassionate. Moreover, he suddenly comes to realize Eunice has not defied him out of spite, but rather because she is desperately in love with him instead. This revelation is humbling to Petronius who, in short order, will make Eunice his wife. Lygia escapes the confines of the palace with Ursus’ help. The two attend a midnight gathering near the aqueducts where Simon preaches the word of God to loyal Christians. Alas, Marcus has tailed Lygia and Ursus, and after the gathering has disbanded, he attempts to reclaim Lygia for his own. He is thwarted in his attempts by Ursus, who knocks him unconscious. The next morning, a more reserved Marcus, recovering from the bump on his head, attempts a more sincere proposal of love. But this too is rejected by Lygia, not – as she explains – because she does not love Marcus, but rather because he must first come to understand the strength of real love; love of one’s self and given in faith to the divine Jesus Christ. This, Marcus absolutely refuses to do, leaving a tearful Lygia to her lamentations with a sympathetic Paul.
In the meantime, Nero has composed yet another painful ode on his lyre, caterwauling about a ‘lambert flame’. When Petronius suggests the song is unworthy of his art, having not yet suffered the greatness to extol by virtue of his song, Nero latches on to a disastrous notion; to set afire Rome, burning everything except the palace enclosure to the ground to build a gleaming white metropolis, cleansed of all poverty and undesirables who dwell from within. The idea has merit, at least on the surface, though not even Petronius can believe Nero will follow through with such a hellish plan merely to satisfy his own severely flawed artistic vanity. Nero’s Empress, Poppaea is a devious viper. Since Marcus’ return to Rome she has been quietly pursuing him. So far, he has resisted her advances. But after his last bittersweet parting from Lygia, Marcus decides to momentarily throw caution to the wind. Nero has invited a select group to the summer palace beyond the city’s enclosure. There, he reveals his heinous plot to set Rome ablaze; showing off an intricate and gleaming white model of the ‘new’ Rome. (This was actually a model constructed at Benito Mussolini's behest for the 1937 exhibition of Roman architecture. In retrospect, it’s frightening to consider its ramifications if Mussolini’s Italy had won the war.)
Tigellinus returns with boastful news: Nero’s incendiary plans have been carried out by his Praetorian Guard. Remembering Lygia is living within the city walls, Marcus rushes to save her, inciting Poppaea’s jealous wrath. He finds the city ablaze and in chaos, its panicked inhabitants cluttering the narrow streets with impassible human traffic; most destined to perish in the flames. Marcus finds Lygia and Ursus amidst the rabble and manages to open a manhole cover, thus hurrying them to safety in the sewers beneath the city. In the smoldering rubble the next day, a boy, Nazarius (Peter Miles) discovers the remains of his mother. He is taken under Peter’s wing, the pair departing the city to preach the gospel elsewhere. However, once on the open road, Peter receives a sign from God instructing him to return to Rome at once. Upon their arrival, Peter is taken hostage by the Roman guard and imprisoned in the citadel. Poppaea has Marcus jailed under the guise he is a traitor to the state. Beneath the coliseum, Marcus is reunited with General Plautius, Miriam, Ursus and Lygia. It seems Nero has concocted a devilish plan to rid himself of the pall of these Christians and their God by putting virtually all of them to death.
As the pyres, crosses and lions are prepared for the mass slaughter to be staged inside the coliseum as entertainment for the citizens of Rome, Nero spreads the rumor it was the Christians who burned their beloved city to the ground. That evening, Petronius gives a grand party at his home, declaring for all to hear that he wishes Eunice to inherit his estate. He also instructs his most loyal friend, Seneca (Nicholas Hannen) to deliver a handwritten scroll to Nero upon his death. Without further delay, Petronius slashes his wrists in the forecourt of his dining hall, the shocked loyalists barely able to bear the thought of a Rome without him. Eunice refuses to comply with Petronius’ final request by slashing her own wrists also, that she may join him in heaven as husband and wife. The stunned congregation observes as the pair expire almost in unison. Seneca awakens Nero in the dead of night to inform him of the suicides. He gives Nero the scroll on which Petronius’ final words have been inscribed. However, far from a fond farewell, it is Petronius’ cruel – if truer – sentiments writ with sincere objectivity. He chastises Nero for his insufferable lack of good taste and his utter inability to grasp any genuine concept of art or music that would do anything but painfully strain the eardrum as it has thoroughly bastardized the arts.
Nero is incensed, redoubling his efforts to annihilate the Christians and ordering his guard to tear down Petronius’ home, slaughter his cattle and defile his women. The next afternoon, the commencement of Nero’s dastardly plan begins. The Christians are set afire and fed to the hungry lions. Gen. Plautius observes as his beloved Miriam being devoured by these wild cats. He is then led onto a pyre to be burned alive. However, before the torch is lit, Plautius publically declares it was Nero who set fire to Rome for a song. He is the incendiary – not the Christians. Having recaptured Peter, the Praetorian Guard crucifies him on an upside down cross; his body left on display as an ominous precursor of things to come. The next afternoon, Marcus is led to Nero’s throne area, chained to a pillar at Poppaea’s request and forced to observe as Lygia is bound to a post in the center of the coliseum, to be gored to death by a wild bull. As an added attraction, Ursus will be the first to die while attempting to protect his mistress from harm. Nero is overjoyed, as is the audience. However, no one anticipates Ursus’ strength. In this bloody life-or-death conflict, the giant manages to break the bull’s neck, thus saving Lygia’s life. Marcus frees himself from the chains and jumps into the coliseum to stand alongside Lygia and Ursus. He reinforces Plautius’ claim: Nero is the defiler of Rome’s greatness, exacting his revenge on the innocent Christians to mask the enormity of his sins. Nero murdering his own mother and first wife before our story even began are heinous acts well known to the populace.
The truth exposed, the coliseum erupts in conflict; the Praetorian Guard defending Marcus, Lygia and Ursus. The army overpowers Nero’s guard of honor, the inhabitants invading the palace enclosure as Nero flees to hide within its secret walls. He is confronted by Acte, who reveals the depths of her own discarded love for him. Realizing there is nowhere left to hide Nero is nevertheless unable to commit suicide. Mercifully, Acte helps him in this endeavor. The next day, Marcus and Flavius prepare to welcome Gen. Galba (Pietro Tordito) into Rome. Galba’s forthright nature, his integrity and honor on the fields of battle promise to restore part of Rome’s former glory. Marcus, however, has retired his commission from the army, choosing instead to depart the city with Lygia, Ursus and Nazarius in tow; their lives uncertain as they drive their chariots past the spot where Simon first heard the word of God; Simon’s staff grown into a symbolic cross with densely covered vines.
Without Quo Vadis it remains debatable whether or not Fox’s The Robe (1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Paramount’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and MGM’s remake of Ben-Hur (1959) would have ever come into being. Certainly, Quo Vadis kicked off a renewed cycle in ‘sword and sandal’ spectacles that would continue and dominate the cinema landscape throughout the decade, capped off by the disastrous implosion of Fox’s remake of Cleopatra (1963). Director, Mervyn LeRoy and producer, Sam Zimbalist spent money like water in Rome, but still managed to keep the budget hovering within check, recouping more than three times as much at the box office; the picture grossing a colossal $25 million on its initial release. Viewed today, Quo Vadis remains impressive film-making; the unparalleled pictorial result achieved by all the studio’s formidable assets corralled together and let loose on a single production. Six thousand extras are rumored to have been hired for the crowd scenes; the outdoor sets taking up virtually every inch of Cinecittà’s expansive back lot.
In hindsight, the action in Quo Vadis plays more like grand soap opera than cinema drama; albeit with a religious slant. The screenplay by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien and John Lee Mahin occasionally suffers from mild turgidity; the characters more templates and/or archetypes than people. Ultimately, audiences did not flock to see this colossus for its acting but rather for its spectacle; and this Quo Vadis has in spades. There’s enough here for two movies at least, leaving the onus of this picture to enthrall with some of the most jaw-dropping visuals ever conceived for the media or the genre for that matter.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-Ray is the beneficiary of the studio’s patented ‘Ultra-Resolution’ restoration. Predictably, this has yielded stellar – though not altogether flawless - results. The DVD exhibited several glaring examples of misaligned Technicolor, during whole portions of the orgy scene at Nero’s palace. These oversights have been corrected for the Blu-ray. But age-related artifacts are still present. Nicks, chips and scratches all make their presence known from time to time. And although none are egregiously distracting, they are nevertheless obvious. Color and fine detail are supremely satisfying, as is contrast and a light smattering of film grain looking quite indigenous to its source materials. The DTS mono exhibits all of the shortcomings one might expect from a mono track. But otherwise, everything here has been remastered with the utmost care; the results pleasing to the ear with minor built-in distortions. The icing on the cake is the extras: a comprehensive documentary featuring film historian, Christopher Frayling that covers the history of Quo Vadis in its entirety. We also get a fairly comprehensive audio commentary and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)