Quo Vadis (1951)

For Easter, it seemed appropriate to rewatch (and, subsequently, review) a film with a biblical touch to it. I could’ve opted for The Robe or the superb Ben Hur, but decided instead on Quo Vadis—partly because it’s been a while since I saw the film. And also, perhaps, because it stars two people who are just such a feast for the eyes: Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. As if that wasn’t enough reason, Quo Vadis also boasts of a brilliant performance by Peter Ustinov.

Quo Vadis - Peter's memories

The film begins with a peek at Rome in 64 AD, with the tyrannical Emperor Nero using his legions to spread terror across the known world—bringing slaves and untold wealth back to the City of the Seven Hills. Also back after a three-year campaign is Commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), an arrogant and headstrong warrior, who, as soon as he receives imperial orders to camp outside Rome, goes charging off to Nero’s palace to confront the emperor.

Marcus Vinicius goes tearing off to Rome on learning he has to stay out

The deranged Nero (Peter Ustinov) is enjoying a typical day at work—getting a pedicure, trying to compose abysmal poetry (“O lambent flame,” he sings while those around cringe) and griping to his council about how nobody understands his genius. The only one, in Nero’s opinion, who appreciates his greatness is Gaius Petronius (Leo Genn), Marcus’s uncle and an important member of the council. Nero, completely wrapped up in himself, doesn’t realise that Petronius loathes Nero and his ex-harlot Empress, Poppaea (Patricia Laffan).

Nero at work - and play

Marcus Vinicius is greeted as a triumphant warrior returned. Nero explains why he made Marcus’s troops camp outside Rome: a huge ceremonial entry is planned, for as soon as other troops arrive—which will be within a few hours. Meanwhile, says Petronius as he chats with his nephew, arrangements have been made to accommodate Marcus and his second-in-command, Nerva (Norman Wooland) at the suburban villa of the retired general Plautius (Felix Aylmer).

Petronius and Marcus have a chat

Marcus and Nerva are soon convinced that Plautius’s household is a weird one. There are no slaves around. Plautius and his wife Pomponia (Nora Swinburne) have none of the fashionable airs of the Roman aristocracy. And there’s a huge man, a veritable giant called Ursus (Buddy Baer) in the house, who tells Marcus, in response to a query, that he will not be a gladiator because it is a sin to kill. As if that wasn’t all, just as dinner is ending, a man called Paul (Abraham Soffaer) turns up. Plautius tells his guests Paul’s a philosopher and teacher, but Marcus is inclined to be contemptuous.

Marcus meets Paul - and thinks he's a wimp

In this strange household, though, Marcus finds one attraction: the beautiful adopted daughter of Plautius, Lygia (Deborah Kerr, looking deliciously fragile and pretty). Marcus is quite taken with Lygia, and supremely self-confident of his ability to successfully woo her. Lygia admits she “likes what she sees” but her response to Marcus’s proposition to spend the rest of the night partying in Rome with him is turned down. To Lygia, Marcus is a bloodthirsty warrior, a killer. She doesn’t want anything to do with him; she even refuses to come the next day to see the triumph.

Marcus meets Lygia

Marcus is furious, but there’s little he can do about it. The next day, after a spectacular parade—in which Marcus comes to the notice of Poppaea—Marcus realises there is a way he can get Lygia. Pomponia and Plautius had told him that Lygia was a captured princess, a hostage of Rome. Marcus, right now in Nero’s good books, can have Lygia brought to the Emperor’s attention, and then have her transferred to him, Marcus, as a hostage. Petronius agrees it’s a good idea.

Marcus and Petronius have a chat

So a detail of soldiers turns up at Plautius’s villa, with an imperial order for Lygia to be escorted to the women’s quarters at Nero’s palace. Once there, a scared Lygia is quickly dressed up for the banquet being held in honour of the returned heroes. At the banquet, Lygia feels out of place and is shocked by the licentiousness around her. Things get worse when Marcus arrives, because he’s now even more forthright in his opinions. Lygia is going to be his, whether she likes it or not.

Marcus begins preying on Lygia

While Poppaea’s ogling Marcus, Nero comes by, escorted by Petronius, to have a look at Lygia. Though he’s obviously interested in her, Petronius manages to thwart Nero by pointing out that Lygia’s too `narrow in the hip’. Ah, well… Nero orders, to Lygia’s horror, that she be taken to Petronius’s villa, en route to Marcus’s estates in Sicily.

Petronius diverts Nero's attention from Lygia

But Lygia finds an unexpected ally: Acte (Rosalie Crutchley), the woman in charge of the women’s quarters. Acte has long loved Nero (which just proves that love can be completely illogical; Nero has nothing in him that is lovable, whereas Acte is a sensitive, seemingly sensible woman). Acte’s figured out that Lygia’s a Christian. She tells Lygia that though she isn’t a Christian herself, she sympathises with them—and so she’ll help Lygia escape.

Acte promises to help Lygia

Lygia, therefore, is kidnapped by Ursus on her way to Petronius’s house. Marcus, when he discovers she’s given him the slip, is advised by Petronius to seek the help of a wily Greek called Chilo. Chilo, when approached, soon manages to unearth the important fact: Lygia’s a Christian. He tells Marcus that the Christians hold regular nightly meetings down in the catacombs, and the best way to find Lygia is to attend one of these meetings: she’s sure to come. Marcus, along with Chilo and a gladiator, all of them wrapped in enveloping cloaks, sneak into the catacombs and join the Christians, who’re being addressed by the apostle Peter (Finlay Currie).

Peter preaches to the Christians - and Marcus, in disguise

Chilo—and bazaar gossip—has led Marcus to believe the Christians are a surreptitious, rebellious lot with the downfall of Rome on their agenda. Peter’s sermon on loving one another, on being peaceful and respecting the state, takes him by surprise. But the same sermon, with its message of turning the other cheek, appears to indicate a religion of high-flown words, of cowardliness and weakness. Marcus is contemptuous of the Christians.
Everybody else (including Lygia, who’s currently staying at the home of a friend, Miriam) is very moved, however, by Peter’s message.

The Christians - including Lygia - listen to Peter

When the congregation disperses, Marcus, Chilo and the gladiator move in behind Lygia, Ursus and Miriam. The three men follow the Christians down a narrow, deserted street—and run into Ursus, who’s on to them. Ursus kills the gladiator; Chilo runs off; and Marcus, who banged his head and sank into unconsciousness, is brought by Ursus to Miriam’s house, where they patch him up.

Miriam and her household attend to the wounded Marcus

The next morning, a groggy Marcus awakes to the truth: and realises, shamefacedly, that the very people he’d been tormenting are the ones who’ve looked after him. He promises Lygia that she’s free to go where she will; he won’t tell anyone. This is just the thing, though Marcus doesn’t know it yet, to encourage Lygia to speak up: and she does, by telling Marcus how much she loves him. There’s much happiness, with Marcus asking her to be his wife, and she agreeing.

Marcus asks Lygia to marry him

Just as everything’s beginning to look gloriously rosy, differences crop up. Marcus is ready to have Lygia worship her God; Romans, after all, have an army of gods; one more will make no difference. Lygia tries to explain her beliefs to Marcus, but he can’t, won’t, understand. Finally, in a fit of rage, he forces her to choose: Christianity, or marriage to him. Lygia, close to tears and temptation, chooses her faith. Paul, who’s just arrived, ends up having to comfort her after Marcus storms out.

Marcus and Lygia part ways, unhappily and angrily

While Marcus and Lygia part ways in sorrow and anger, other important developments are taking place. Petronius has fallen in love with his Spanish slave Eunice (Maria Berti), who has long loved him…

Petronius and Eunice fall in love

Poppaea has made overt advances towards Marcus, and he’s been too aware of her position to reject her. Frankly, the two cheetahs she keeps as pets are pretty discouraging. But Marcus, already frustrated and annoyed at Lygia’s refusal of his suit, now angers Poppaea by making it clear she doesn’t interest him. Oh, Marcus, Marcus: a woman scorned…?

Poppaea tries to entice Marcus

And Nero, disgusted by the squalor and filth of Rome, has decided he needs a new city. His architect prepares a model of the new Rome, but unless the old is destroyed, there will be no room for the new. Nero lights upon the perfect solution: it’ll also give him cause to exercise his poetic genius. Rome will be burnt, every last dirty, grubby square and street, its flames feeding Nero’s creativity. He will fiddle (well, play the lyre, actually) while Rome burns.

Nero displays his plan for a new Rome

The scene is set for disaster on a large scale, escalating from a minor spark into a conflagration that will have serious consequences for all the major players—and hundreds and thousands of others.

Quo Vadis isn’t strictly, I suppose, an Easter film: the action takes place 30 years after the crucifixion of Christ. What’s more, the focus of the story is the seemingly doomed romance between the gentle Christian Lygia and the hardened, Mars-worshipping warrior Marcus. Still, it is a singularly appropriate film for Holy Week: a film with a strongly Christian message, stemming from the ministry and crucifixion of Christ.

Even if none of that really interests you, see Quo Vadis because it’s spectacular (with 37,000 extras and 110 speaking parts). And because of Peter Ustinov.

What I liked about this film:
Peter Ustinov. This guy is really, really good as Nero: just the perfect blend of childishness, despotism, and pure and simple lunacy. He’s superb; the only character I have shuddered to see onscreen. He won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for the role, though he’d initially been told he was too young to play Nero. Ustinov’s reply—that since he was 31, and Nero died when he was 31—finally won him the argument.

Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis

Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor as Lygia and Marcus. They look wonderful together, and I loved their scenes—the chemistry is great, both when Marcus is being predatory, and when he finally realises what he actually feels for Lygia. Very romantic. And the “Nothing do I see that is not perfection,” dialogue—which appears twice in the film—is to die for!

Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr as Marcus and Lygia in Quo Vadis
The scale of the production. Today, this would all have been CGI, but back in 1951, it was actual sets (filmed in Rome), with thousands of extras—wearing up to 32,000 costumes—and a believable reproduction of ancient Rome. Epic proportions is the word for it.
The supporting cast. Ustinov, Kerr and Taylor are good, but there are plenty of lesser characters who’re played with equal—in some cases, greater—finesse by other actors. Among the best are Patricia Laffan as the supremely evil Poppaea; Leo Genn as Petronius: clever, cynical, romantic and witty; and Rosalie Crutchley, Acte, patient and cynical and prophetic.

What I didn’t like:
The message of Christianity is too wordy. From what I remember of Ben Hur (it’s been a long time since I saw that film), the love, gentleness and sacrifice of Christ—and his working of miracles—is shown more by way of actions than through words. Quo Vadis believes in long speeches by Peter, which I thought diluted the message somewhat. Remember what they say about actions speaking louder than words? Quo Vadis could’ve used that bit of advice.

Possible spoiler coming up:
Marcus Vinicius’s conversion from fire-breathing pagan Roman warrior to believing Christian isn’t somehow plausible: it’s just too abrupt a transition. True, Lygia’s deep faith in her God is probably partly responsible, but even then—despite Peter’s words, despite what Marcus sees and hears around him—I don’t quite believe he would have changed so suddenly and so dramatically.
Spoiler ends

Deborah Kerr. I adore this woman; she’s lovely, and a great actress to boot. But as Lygia, she’s just a little too tremulous and timid, too saccharine-sweet. I can understand that they wanted to depict her as a peaceful, gentle Christian; but the instances when she shows a bit of spine are just too few. I’d have liked Lygia more if she’d been a more pragmatic creature.

But. Wonderful film, romantic, historic, and with loads of eye candy.

And before I forget: Happy Easter, everyone.

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18 thoughts on “Quo Vadis (1951)

  1. I loooove biblical films. Ben Hur and Ten Commandments are the other two I’ve seen but since neither of the others had Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr this has to be my favorite too. I agree with your evaluation of Ustinov’s performance. He was sooooo evil! By the way, I remember hearing of a Peter Ustinov who was filming Indira Gandhi the day she was assassinated. Was it this one?

    One thing in this that did bother me a bit was Robert Taylor’s accent – in sharp contrast to the rest of the British accented cast, he was uncompromisingly American accented. I am not even sure why I find it perfectly proper for ancient Romans to speak in British accented English but not in American accented English! Perhaps its the influence of Shakespearean plays where every character, no matter what his/her nationality or place in history, speaks in British accented English. So any period piece should come complete with that accent!

  2. I didn’t know about Peter Ustinov filming Indira Gandhi – but if it was, it’s probably the same one (somehow, I don’t think Peter Ustinov is that common a name!)

    And I agree with you completely re: Robert Taylor’s accent. It was particularly irritating in Ivanhoe, but was also somewhat intrusive in Quo Vadis. Though the ancient Romans didn’t speak English, I’m more inclined to hear them speaking with a British accent than with Taylor’s very pronounced American drawl!

  3. I vaguely remember watching Ten Commandments and Ben Hur as a child. Back then, they bored me to tears :D

    The last biblical film that I saw was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The film set such a low aim for itself and goes about realising the aim in such a literal manner, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But it is The Last Temptation of Christ that I really like. You should watch it, if you haven’t.

    Re: Deborah Kerr. My favourite film of hers is The Innocents. It is based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Kerr is simply outstanding in the film.

  4. Well, I really don’t much care for The Ten Commandments either, but I do like Ben Hur a lot. Haven’t seen The Last Temptation of Christ, and I think The Passion of Christ is the sort of film you’re most likely to like if you actually were a Christian – it has a very religious feel to it that would appeal mainly to someone who believes very deeply in the faith.

    As far as I’m concerned, probably my favourite Deborah Kerr film is Heaven Knows, Mr Allison – it’s just so absolutely lovely. Will look out for The Innocents!

  5. “I think The Passion of Christ is the sort of film you’re most likely to like if you actually were a Christian – it has a very religious feel to it that would appeal mainly to someone who believes very deeply in the faith.”

    Yes, but purely as cinema the movie goes for your gut and hopes that the viewer will bring in the emotions. I was wincing throughout the film, and even though I was moved, I felt very manipulated as an audience.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I was somewhat amused by his decision to cast Monica Bellucci as Magdalen.

  6. “the movie goes for your gut”… true. I have a feeling that’s what Gibson was aiming for, not cinematic excellence. Every Christian I’ve met (including me!) who saw the film thought it was wonderful (though I wouldn’t see it again; it was too graphic); I think the level of emotion required to see all over again – in a very literal sense – the passion of the Christ is something few people who aren’t already Christians may not possess. Just my opinion.

    But yes, Belluci as Mary Magdalene was a surprise!

  7. I was flicking channels when I came across Quo Vadis on TV. I really enjoyed it, the 2nd half that I watched of it! Was wondering when the DVD will come out in Australia. Can’t find it anywhere!

  8. I enjoyed very much your page about Quo Vadis, (which I like, of course, and, yes, I think Robert Taylor is a great roman soldier, with a dazzling looks and a sense of danger and menace all around him. Do you believe, when I saw the film for the first time, I was 12, and I had long hair; I spent hours in front of the mirror trying to copy the hair style of Deborah Kerr! And I love Petronuis, but I always thought that Peter Ustinov was a bit too overacting in his portrait of Nero. Nevertheless, both actors are nominated for the Oscar of Supporting Actor – and neither one got it.
    I would love to know what you have to say about Ben-Hur, since I’ve seen it a lot of times, and as you say above, you have seen it too. Would you consider to write something about? I’ll be waiting for your replay!

  9. Teresa, thank you for stopping by, and for your comment!

    I do like Ben Hur a lot – one of the best `sword-and-sandals’ epics there is, in my opinion. In fact, it was one of the first of this sort of film that I ever saw, and have continued to like it a lot – much more, say, than David and Bathsheba or The Ten Commandments. Do watch this blog: I’ll try to watch and review Ben Hur sometime next week!

  10. Patricia Laffan is sensualy beautiful♥ I just saw her in that movie that had to do with the Roman/Nero. The last time that I saw this movie was back in the late sixties. I remember all these beautiful actresses I just did not know there names. Who owned or had access to a computer like today.
    I checked out the TCM.com website. For a while, I though that it was Agnes Moorehead in her young days. This movie brough back some memories. Is Patricia Lafan French or Italian? She also reminds me of Yvonne Romain a little Dahlia Lavi. Sensualy~looking brunettes♥♥♥♥

  11. I don’t find Patricia Laffan particularly beautiful, but I think she’s an amazing actress – for me, she brought Poppaea to life just the way I’d imagined her from the Quo Vadis novel. Superb!

  12. How nice to find this blog!

    Between us, Dusted, Claudette Colbert was a lot better Poppea in “Sign of the Cross” than Patricia Laffan. The Production Code in the ’50s, of course, kept Poppea and Nero from being as depraved as they should have been portrayed. Although Nero’s line about Rome taking the heroic Marcus Vinicius to its breast and Poppea’s smoldering gaze as she agrees is a kick.

    As for the poster who thought Ustinov overacted, I suggest reading the Annals of Tacitus and The Twelve Caesars. Nero was every bit of it. In comparison Ustinov was underplaying.

    By the way, you guys know that both Neros, Ustinov and Charles Laughton (Sign of the Cross) played together in Spartacus, right?

    I always thought it a hoot to see dear old Scottish Finlay Currie as dear old Jewish Simon Peter. Who would have guessed that Michael Rennie, who played a younger Peter in The Robe, would get so heavy-set and learn to speak with a burr.

    Oh, and save for the long hair, Abraham Sofaer very much resembles an ancient description of St Paul found in one of the patristic writings. Sorry I can’t recall the writer.

    Quo Vadis is rather slow-paced, especially when compared to DeMill’s Sign of the Cross (There’s an interesting story behind how these two films are related since their plots resemble each other sooooooo much). DeMille understood that you need to see REAL evil to be combatted by real goodness.

    You folks want to see a really DREADFUL bible movie, catch “Salome” on TCM sometime. Columbia tore the New Testament to pieces to make the daughter of Herodias dance to SAVE John the Baptist. The day they were to film the dance of the seven veils scene, before filming commenced, the great actor, Charles Laughton, tricked into playing Herod Antipas, gathered the cast and crew together and read the scene from the New Testament in his cultured, beautifully measured voice. He then swore that, because of the hackneyed script, he’d never again work for Harry Cohn!

    So long for now.

  13. Thank you for that very nice comment, Sean! It bucks me up a lot when someone takes the trouble to come by, read, and leave a long message from which I can learn something. I haven’t yet seen Sign of the Cross, but your references to it make me want to watch it! I’m going to try and get hold of it as soon as I possibly can…

    Goodness, I’d completely forgotten Michael Rennie played Peter in The Robe: just shows how long it’s been since I watched that film.

    Haha re: Salome. Yes, they did rip the Bible to shreds there, didn’t they? I reviewed it a while back on this blog; the general consensus (me and a bunch of other Stewart Granger fans) was that Granger looks great. Other than that, yes: not a film one would recommend as being strictly Biblical, even though the theme was that.

    Come to think of it, I don’t even much care for the Gregory Peck starrer David and Bathsheba. It has more depth, perhaps, but not much else.

  14. I’ve watched this film numerous times with my father. He loved Peter Ustinov too and kept lauding his portrayal of Nero, the loony king. Guess what? I’ve found this on Youtube and soon going to revisit those childhood days once more. Isn’t it awesome how through our love for these old films we pay our respects to the grand old masters, something that today’s generation hardly do! Sad…

    • Oh, do, do watch it. The only other sword-and-sandals I’ve seen in which there’s a ‘loony king’ role (and its enactment) that matches Ustinov’s Nero is Christopher Plummer as Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire. He’s fantastic, too.

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