• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, December 19, 2008

    DVD Review: Quo Vadis?

    Warner Home Video
    Run time: 174 mins
    Rating: Not Rated
    Aspect Ratio: 4:3
    Region: Region 1
    Audio: English-DD Mono
    French-DD Mono
    Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Japanese
    Number of discs: 2
    Extras: Commentary, Trailers, Featurette,
    ASIN: B00005JN8Z
    When the post-war film studios realised that their future lay in giving their audiences the kind of visual stunning experience that they couldn't get from their televisions, Warner Brothers' first major effort was Quo Vadis?. Henryk Sienkiewicz's Roman-Christian novel had already spawned two large scale silent epics - the first of which was said to inspire D.W. Griffith's ground-breaking Intolerance. The "new" version would be even more impressive. On-location filming and 30,000 extras offering up the kind of spectacle that would pull people away from their TVs and into the cinema.

    So it's kind of ironic to be reviewing a DVD release that seeks to bring that original spectacle and theatrical experience of watching Quo Vadis? into our living rooms. Warner Home Video's new 2-disc release promises a "new ultra-resolution digital transfer" and a restored soundtrack. And for anyone who is happy with their existing DVD or VHS release, there's a selection of extra features to make the new package a little more enticing. I'll start by reviewing the extras, before offering a few comments on the quality of the transfer at the end.
    Commentary by F.X. Feeney
    Film commentaries are something of a mixed bag. Whilst the best produce a far greater appreciation of a particular film's depth, the worst veer into extreme tedium, or worse still, ego-centric back slapping. Thankfully this is a very much an example of the former. I'm unfamiliar with Feeney's previous work, but his efforts here are far more interesting than his billing as a "film historian" suggests. Feeney has clearly done his homework and manages to pepper his commentary with an intriguing mix of tidbits regarding the movie's creation, through to fascinating interpretations of the film's use of cinematic language. It's this diversity that makes the commentary such a success. Often a lone commentator comes across as somewhat one-dimensional, but Feeney successfully changes gears from talking about the novel, to the issues surrounding the film's long pre-production to analysing the final product. At 174 minutes it hardly surprising that Feeney dries up a little in the second half, which may also be due to his love for the film's climax getting the better of him. I don't think I've ever listened to a DVD commentary twice, but, in this case I think it may well be a possibility.

    Both the theatrical trailer and the original teaser trailer are included. It's perhaps a testimony of the extent to which Ben Hur subsequently overshadowed Quo Vadis? that there are no later TV trailers as there are with other epic films from this era. The teaser trailer only shows one shot from the film - one of Marcus's army marching into the centre of Rome. As you'd expect there's a bit more in the longer theatrical trailer which shows a couple of long shots but mainly occupies its time by introducing all the main characters and boasting about the movie's "colossal" size. And, as if to force the point home, this version of the trailer runs for over five minutes.Featurette - In the Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic
    A lot of DVDs these days tend to break up their documentary content into a number of shorter featurettes, each covering a specific area. It makes it seems like potential purchasers are getting more for their money. So it's nice to see a longer documentary here which eschews such an approach. That said it does appear that this may have been on the cards at one point as in places the documentary feels a little segmented. It start with a look at the background to Sienkiewicz's novel and quickly moves on to look at the two silent film versions of the story from 1913 and 1925. There's some brief footage from both films which is nice to see, but also leaves you wanting more. Given the recent releases of Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments - both of which included their 1920s predecessors as extra features - it would have been nice to see these included as well.

    The documentary then looks at the pre-WWII plans for making the film. Whilst Robert Taylor was originally lined up to play Marcus Vinicius, it soon began to look like Gregory Peck would play the Roman commander. Peck was the preferred choice of the director who was originally meant to be making the film - John Huston. But when Peck was forced to drop out, Huston left the picture too. But despite all these setbacks, the project carried on. Mervyn Le Roy was drafted in to direct and Taylor was returned to the role 15 years after it had originally been discussed.

    We then move on to hear about various aspects of the production itself: the performance of the leads, the design of sets and costumes, Miklós Rózsa score and so on. This is perhaps the most interesting part if the featurette, and the interview with the son of matte artist Peter Ellenshaw was particularly fascinating.

    The final segment of the documentary looks at its marketing, audience reception, and its influence on later biblical epics, the claims here are perhaps a little too grand. Whilst Quo Vadis? was indeed a landmark epic, and certainly influential on the Jesus Cameo films that followed in its footsteps, it was DeMille who really kickstarted the epic craze of the fifties with his 1949 Samson and Delilah, and his second stab at The Ten Commandments. But that said, the tendency for the 50s epics to comment on (the then) modern day America does owe something of a debt to Quo Vadis?, which, the documentary points out, is made fairly explicit throughout the film, most notably at the end.Transfer Quality
    Having only previously seen Quo Vadis? on VHS, I personally was impressed by the picture quality, but then, I'm not an expert on such matters and was only watching it on a standard television set. But it appears not everyone shares my opinion and several of the experts (DVD Times, DVD Talk and DVD Review) are fairly critical. However, even having read their criticisms I'm not sure I can see what they see. Perhaps it's one of those half empty/half full things. The aspect ratio is 4:3 as the original film was (it would not be until The Robe two years later that widescreen was introduced) and there are no criticisms about the overly zealous cropping and so on.

    Whilst some have a few quibbles with the quality of the transfer, overall this seems to me to be a strong release. Feeney's commentary is excellent and the featurette is well paced and interesting. Whilst I've not been able to compare this release with the earlier one-disc version, I've been led to believe that the picture quality is a significant improvement, and it's certainly a major improvement to the VHS version. Having said all that, the Blu-Ray edition of this disc is due to come out next year, and, according to DVD Beaver it offers a significant improvement again in picture quality, and manages to fit the film and all of the same extras onto a single disc.

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