Quo Vadis Blu-ray Review
Transferred with Warner's favoured VC-1 encode, the 1.33:1 image on this restored Blu-ray disc is often breathtaking. Artefacts aren't there, DNR hasn't robbed any detail and edge enhancement, though still occasionally in evidence, is no longer the problem it once was on SD editions. For a film that is now almost sixty years old, this looks remarkable. It is not perfect, however, and there are many issues that Warner's engineers, no matter how painstaking their efforts, have not been able to rectify. The flecks and pops of vintage are still in evidence, though I doubt that you will have ever seen the print looking as clean, sharp or as stable as this before - unless you caught the original release, that is. But all those original camera-wobbles, seen especially during some early tracking shots, and the blurred, or missed frames still plague the image. This, therefore, denies Quo Vadis a place amongst the pantheon of top Golden Age spruce-ups, such as Casablanca, The Searchers and The Adventures Of Robin Hood.
But, rest assured, LeRoy's sumptuous epic still looks mighty appealing. The Academy ratio is full of, hitherto, unseen depth and detail. You only have to look at the impressive large-scale crowd sequences - the Legions marching into Rome, the mob cramming the Coliseum to the gills, and the smaller number congregations seen in the Christian meetings or amidst the rather tame orgies taking place in Nero's chambers. The sheer extravagance of it all is very well captured and the depth of the image is nicely showcased with shots such as those of the lines of trumpeters receding from front frame-edges into the background with detail and dynamism.
Colour levels, along with contrast are prone to slight fluctuations, though nothing too serious. By and large, the palette is impressive with variety and saturation. Deep purples, reds and greens really bring the image to life. Costumes and tapestries, marble, gold and multi-hued mosaics have never looked quite so splendid. The gleam of armour and the rich reds of Marcus' cape and attire are tremendous examples of the spit and polish that this print has been bestowed. The spy-glass that Nero and Poppaea peer through delivers a terrific emerald cast, but detail and delineation within its scope are much more vivid than before. Blood on the sand and the many flaming torches or human pyres that light the arena also reveal a greater range of hues and tones. Just look at the raging inferno when Rome burns, there are some amazingly thick orange walls of flame. Skin now has a much more radiant appearance, a warm pinkish glow that is less realistic, of course, but beautifully painterly - which is exactly as was originally intended. Some shots of Lygia gazing up either into Marcus' eyes or at the divine inspiration she finds even “higher” up look positively captivating, almost as though the screen literally is a canvas that is being worked upon even as you watch. Subtleties in facial tones are also keen from character to character, the swarthy lustre of Marcus compared to the pampered glow of Nero, for instance. Black levels are also quite superb and the transfer boasts some excellent swathes of shadow. The scene of Marcus and Croton spying on the Christian gathering offers incredibly deep blacks that enhance the atmosphere considerably.
The matte-lines have always looked quite pronounced and obvious in Quo Vadis in scenes such as the shimmering divine light that appears around a tree, the distant hills and buildings around Rome and the figures on the balcony overlooking them, the charging chariot sequence and, perhaps even more overtly, the shots of the lions advancing upon their hapless victims in the arena or of Ursus standing before the bull and, if anything, the high-definition process probably increases their visibility. The seams in the extensive back-paintings can also appear a little more obvious, too - like the blood-red screens that depict the hellish glow of a burning Rome. But, once again, this is no hampering to the enjoyment of the movie and certainly no fault of the transfer.
Detail is inarguably better than on any home video version prior to this 1080p incarnation. Hair and costumes, armour and weaponry, carts, pots, masonry and statuary all show evidence of sharper delineation and clarity. Streets, straw-bales and foliage - from trees to potted plants - populate the image with much more integrity than before. The texture of the Circus walls and the sand of the arena, too. But look at the added clarity seen when poor Lygia is tied to the stake in front of the baying mob, Kerr's see-through gown providing some intriguing new visuals that certainly reward those who take the time to look.
You will notice, however, that background details - people, objects, buildings etc - lose definition and their edges become slightly blurry. On several occasions, I also saw a vague greenish tinge haloing the upper portion of outlines, almost as though I was watching a 3D movie without the specs on. Now, I know that that sounds quite alarming, but, again, this is a slight effect - obvious, but still slight - and doesn't harm the pleasure of viewing the film. Doubtlessly, the restorers have done the best they can with the material and I don't believe that this effect has been caused - or aggravated - by the transfer, itself. More likely it is a result of separation of the three-strip colour causing some vague distortion and mis-alignment. Quo Vadis is an old film and possibly not one that has been as lovingly protected as some others in the studio's back-catalogue.
To summarise, then, the Technicolor reproduction, for the most part, is excellent and the new levels of detail are highly rewarding. The film's vintage probably adds to its charm and, overall, Quo Vadis gets a very strong 8 out of 10 from me.
Warner release Quo Vadis with its original mono track, in Dolby Digital. Also restored and cleaned-up, this is, nevertheless, something of a disappointment, albeit only slightly. Immediately, it becomes clear that there is no weight to Rozsa's massive score, leaving it sounding enclosed and limited, the signal stretching to accommodate the vast array of instrumentation but not able to give the rousing orchestra appropriate room to breathe. Sweep and grandeur is, thus, severely restricted. Dialogue may never be drowned-out by effects or bombast and it may always sound relatively clear, but it is often tinny and strained. The typical barking enunciation of actors like Taylor is hardly affected by this, of course, and Ustinov's inimitably sliding, twisting vowels still, well, slide and twist.
The roar of the crowds and the massed singing of the doomed Christians actually don't sound too bad. The singing, especially, carries that high-pitched and closely-packed quality that practically all such choral passages from this era possessed. Certain scenes also exhibit an element of low background hiss, though this is something that goes with the territory and I'm sure sounds less intrusive than it has before. The noise of tumbling masonry during the fire and the thunder of the chariots tearing down the Appian Way have only limited clout and the occasional clash of steel doesn't exactly ring out, but there is still the impression of depth to the grand procession of Marcus' legion marching to the hippodrome.
To be honest, folks, I'm probably being a little over-critical about this. But I love these things to sound appropriately broad and epic and even a mono track can achieve some density and vigour with the right treatment. Quo Vadis doesn't necessarily make any encoding errors but I still wish that it had possessed more strength than is on display here.
Asides from the original Roadshow Overture and Exit Music rejoined to the movie for the first time in 56 years, Warner's BD release of Quo Vadis offers us a commentary track from film critic and historian F. X. Feeney and a comprehensive making-of documentary entitled In The Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic.
Feeney's chat-track is typical of the scholarly approach that many authorities adopt in respect to influential movies and their historical context to studio, performances and cultural impact, as well as their profound subject matter. Where I would have preferred to have heard from someone like Sir Christopher Frayling, there's no doubting the knowledge and opinion that Feeney has. Often scene-specific, always full of opinion, anecdote, quotation, trivia and fact, he supplies the movie and its production with real zest. On several occasions he compares the filmic plot points with the known historical facts, even quoting from preserved scripture, and he is also able to speak with great humour about such things as the best-fed lions in Rome or the flirtations witnessed on-screen at a time when the censors were eager to snip such things. Lulls are only slight and far-between and Feeney does well considering the running time. A fine track, folks.
The big documentary, In The Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic, runs for 44 minutes and is one of those participant-packed chronicles that offers a great deal of value for money. Many familiar faces crop up to discuss the elements that went into making the film. We hear from Feeney, again, as well other arts and cultural/historical authorities like Dr. Drew Casper, Dr Maria Wyke, Patricia King Hanson, critics Richard Schickel and Rudy Behlmer and, hurray, Sir Christopher Frayling. The original book as well as the early Italian versions are discussed and the genre, at large, eloquently dissected in terms of prevailing tastes and cinema-going trends. We hear how failed attempts to wrestle the saga onto the screen resulted in the loss of Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor and how shooting in the ruins of war-ravaged Rome and along a stretch of the real Appian Way gave the movie a visual authenticity that few films could ever hope to achieve. The production's major players, LeRoy and Sam Zimbalist are chronicled and we get to hear about those great matte-painted backdrops from their creator's son. There is even a nice feature about the merchandising that film brought in tow - gladiatorial shorts, anyone? - which proves that James Bond and Star Wars were hardly new to the game of licensed movie spin-off product ranges. That conceit about the film echoing Hollywood's sentiments of America fostering itself as a new incarnation of Rome is also probed, but the topic is much too big to be fully explored in this documentary. I find it amusing that Frayling actually compliments Taylor on his hair - which is surely because he, himself, is sporting the same ruffled style, albeit much greyer. However, this is a great look back at how these movie monoliths came into being and the power they still wield, with even Gladiator co-writer David Franzoni paying due homage to the old school style of saga-creation that Quo Vadis kick-started.
Theatrical and Teaser trailers for Quo Vadis are also on offer. Not a vast package, then, but one that it still well worth your attention and certainly provides lots of information.
Never as erudite or as crucial as the many epic kin that it helped spawn, Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis, nevertheless, is constantly entertaining and delightfully flamboyant. Its incredibly witty script and sheer opulence make this colourful celluloid tidal wave well worth the asking price. The performances, themselves, are the icing on the decadent cake, provided you are in the mood for scenery-chewing on the grandest scale imaginable. Over-the-top hamming from Ustinov, giggles aplenty from Taylor's brusque posturing and effortless sarcasm from Genn more than compensate for the bland adulation from Kerr and the sanctimoniously wordy sermonising from her fellow flock. And who could resist the nefarious, vamp-like charms of Patricia Laffan and the hot-blooded spirit of Marina Berti?
With spectacular imagery and a surprising level of swift brutality, Quo Vadis tells a mighty story with the kind of swagger that only Hollywood could muster. I have been guilty of bashing this filmic edifice many times before, but this spangling Blu-ray version has, literally, shown it to me in a brand new light. The transfer is a fine one, bringing the Technicolor to astonishing life and offering more detail than we have been treated to before, even if the damage is still highly prevalent. And even if there isn't a great deal of added material, the chat-track and documentary provide marvellous accompaniment to the mammoth production.
As Caesar, himself, would do, I can't help but give Quo Vadis a thumb's up.
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