• 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


    Saturday, December 01, 2018

    Quo Vadis (1951)

    Revisiting Quo Vadis (1951) after all this time I feel I should somehow have more enthusiasm for it - it was nominated for eight Oscars™, after all. How many Bible movies can boast that? Yet for all it's fabulous colours and spectacular crowd scenes; despite Miklós Rózsa much lauded score; and despite, even, Peter Ustinov's memorable take on Nero, I find myself strangely unmoved by it. I don't want to spend too much time on that - as ever I'd rather dwell on the positives and the aspects of it that do catch my attention - but, I guess, the central love story seems to lack the necessary drama or gravitas to pull everything off. Robert Taylor's Marcus Vinicius is far from the first hero to start off a film as a jerk only to reform his ways, but somehow I can't buy into the idea that forcibly removing a woman from their home and throwing them into the middle of one of Nero's orgies would ever fan the flames of love in a fair maiden's heart. Perhaps it's just the lack of action scenes, but watching it again with the kids, I'm a little embarrassed at how, well, boring it is.

    Which isn't to say that there's not a few interesting things to discuss as well. For one thing, it wasn't until I re-watched this that it became apparent just how specifically the Coen Borthers parody this film in particular in Hail Caesar (2016). The opening shots of the Coens' film-within-the-film is practically a shot for shot homage to the opening of Quo Vadis. View these two short clips from the two films back to back and you will see what I mean. This is also film with the overly long trumpets which was parodied so mercilessly in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979).

    It's all too easy looking back on it almost seventy years later to only recall those films to affectionately mock it, but, of course it had huge impact at the time. Not only did it top the 1951 box with over $20M in worldwide income, it also inspired films like The Robe (1953) and a handful of other Roman-Christian epics that were to follow.

    Yet as much as later films have reused, recycled and reinvented aspects of it, the film itself drew on works that went before it. Firstly there are the earlier adaptations of Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1896 novel. There were three silent versions of the film made in 1901, 1912 and 1924. The 1912 film (available to view online) is arguably the most famous - some credit it with being the first true epic. If nothing else it's this one, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, I feel most guilty about for not having seen. That might be something I put right shortly.

    But as much as Mervyn Le Roy's 1951 retelling derives from both Sienkiewicz's novel and the various early adaptations, it also is influenced to some degree by another film. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932) clearly draws a great deal from "Quo Vadis", not least it's plot, though presumably changes just enough to avoid a lawsuit. There's Nero and Poppaea and a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian girl. Despite the furore caused by the film it performed reasonably well, but more significantly it provided a bit of a template for how a proper adaption of the novel could be handled. Replace Charles Laughton with Peter Ustinov to play a similarly self-obsessed camp Nero, tone down the orgy a bit and hope the spectacle grabs the audience's attention. DeMille's film forms the bridge between the novel, the 1912 film and LeRoy's remake.

    Having said that I'm not sure how to read the portrayal of Nero and, to a lesser extent Patricia Laffan's Poppaea. Ustinov plays Nero as a vain toddler without anyone to keep him in check. Leo Genn's Petronius peddles a fine line in providing sharp answers that cut both ways, only Nero cannot even conceive of the possibility that what sounds like praise might in fact be an insult. Ustinov was nominated for an Oscar™ (as was Genn) but lost out to Karl Malden's turn in A Streetcar Named Desire. His performance is memorably, but mainly for its over-the-topness. Of course, Nero was over the top, but Ustinov channels Laughton as much as anything. More to the point, despite his toned down sexuality, these days it just feels a little bit transphobic. Ultimately it also overshadow's Laffan's Poppaea a bit too much, at least to the extent that I would have liked to see a bit more of her character (who is, after all rather more instrumental in how events transpire between Deborah Kerr's Lygia and Marcus Vinicius). That said I also suspect that this would also have had it's problems.

    Having come this far and only just mentioned Deborah Kerr, I feel I owe her the last word. I don't really know where this ranks amongst her films, but in the orgy scene she is particularly outstanding. As Marcus makes his arrogantly ham-fisted attempts to seduce her she bristles at the very prospect. On the one hand she remains calm and prim and proper. On another level she is clearly appalled and horrified at what is happening to her. And on perhaps another, part of the disgust she feels is because she is attracted to Marcus despite her misgivings. The film doesn't really make as much of her as it could. Marcus's story arc consists of his conversion; Petronius' his rebellion; but for Lygia (and I suppose, Paul and Peter) there's little to no story arc. As Christian's their characters have already reached their goal and the film, unlike, say Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) gives little consideration to the possibily of regression (or even progression) following a conversion experience.

    Despite my intentions, I seem to have ended on a negative note. Undoubtedly, there are things to admire about Quo Vadis. If you havent already seen it, you really should, but, perhaps only once.



    • At 5:05 am, December 11, 2018, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      I've always liked it. Deborah Kerr is beautiful and the second half of the film is excellent (sans the Hollywood happy ending).

      About "Quo Vadis" being boring, my teenage nephew fell asleep during both "Seven" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", but he stayed wide awake during this entire film and loved it.

    • At 2:40 pm, December 13, 2018, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you and your nephew enjoyed it. I certainly felt I ought to enjoy it, I just didn't, this time, somehow. Perhaps another time I will?

      In any case, I'm not claiming my view is definitely right about it being boring - if anything I'm a bit embarrassed that this is how I found it, because I know it has its admirers.

      Thanks again for popping by,



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