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Quo Vadis Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 22, 2009

    Quo Vadis Review

    Sunday afternoons are certainly the province of spectacles such as this - Mervyn LeRoy's spacious, extravagant and exceedingly indulgent 1951 blockbuster, Quo Vadis, the film that opened the gates for Hollywood's second foray into the Biblical epic after the wild and inventive days of the silent greats from Cecil B. De Mille and D. W. Griffiths. And lo, it came to pass that I did, indeed, take in this lavish, multitudinous leviathan upon a Sunday afternoon. And let it be known that the film did, indeed, swallow up that afternoon in almost its entirety.

    It is around 64 A.D. and, returning victorious from a campaign to suppress a British revolt, General Marcus Vinicius (a well-groomed, granite-chinned and devoutly American Robert Taylor), commander of the Roman 14th Legion is the celebrated hero of the Empire and the man of the moment. But whilst his courage and fortitude on the battlefield are unbreakable, his spiritual strength and his faith are about to be shaken to their very foundations. For Marcus, falling inextricably in love with red-haired Christian slave-girl Lygia (played by English rose, Deborah Kerr) is going to cost him more than just his heart. With the excessive, child-like fool, Emperor Nero (an immaculately broad and meticulously nuanced Peter Ustinov in the role that had once been earmarked for Charles Laughton) letting the Empire fall into anarchy amid his own twisted designs for self-idolatry, an epic drama of love, betrayal, deceit and mass murder plays out across a canvas that is as vivid and detailed as it is colourful. Nefarious doings and treacherous motives all conspire against a radiant core of indomitable faith as Saint Peter spreads the Gospel and the tide begins to turn in Rome, Nero's madness threatening to do more harm than this upstart Jewish God. Marcus must battle his own conscience as well as the traditional Roman customs that he has lived by, and Lygia has to find a way to reconcile her love for this brutish soldier with her beliefs. As their feelings grow stronger, a storm grows that could well bring Rome to her knees.

    I love big movies such as this. But, even as a devout fan of gargantuan sword and sandal pageants, I have always sort of sidelined Quo Vadis for being far too talky to be thoroughly ripe historical melodrama, falsely condemning LeRoy's costumed extravagance as being stifled and bogged-down by a lack of full-blooded vigour. I always found it too easy to denounce for having its cast of several thousand extras not become embroiled in vast combat - something that, for a bloodthirsty warmonger like me, is, naturally, a disappointment. Of course the film doesn't need colossal battles to entertain us, but with so much alluded to and such size and sword-fodder at his disposal, you would have thought that LeRoy, himself, would have fought to send his legions into some contrived conflict or other. As it stands, Quo Vadis could so easily be whittled down to a stage-play, which was always a sobering revelation after watching all those hordes of extras milling about and stretching, in their swathes, as far back as the eye can see. And, of course, I was wrong in this selfish and blinkered outlook. For to waste time wishing that the plains would redden with the blood of the fallen is to completely overlook the wonderful war of words and covert character assassination that lies at the heart of this intensely dramatic pot-boiler. Cleverly combining the intimate with the immense, the screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S. N. Behrman and Sonya Levien (from the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz) voyages through the gentle invasion that Christianity made into the heart of a Rome gone mad with aimless power and mass moral bankruptcy. It is easy to see modern metaphor running through the conundrum of state versus doctrine, dictatorship in opposition to free-thinking, so that although Quo Vadis is unmistakeably a movie very much of the era in which it was produced, its issues are certainly still relevant to us today. In fact, as daring as it may be to suggest, the gradual assimilation of Romans into a new faith, and one that their rulers detest and fight against with false imprisonment, barbarity and execution, has some uncomfortable parallels to our own knee-jerk reactions to the War on Terror. Do we not, when confronted with a new outrage, suffer terrible desires for wholesale vengeance that would make Nero's persecution of countless early Christians pale in comparison? Mind you, anything that deals in faith and the chasm it opens between race, creed and religion is going to be immediately contemporary whenever it comes out. These are timeless and eternal issues that are fundamental to our existence. So, if you'll pardon the pun, thank God that Mervyn LeRoy's picture marries its subject matter to vibrant visuals and a script that has fun with its characters at the same time as it questions our values.

    “Adhere to your special gifts, Nero - murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you - do not mutilate the arts. Fare well but compose no more music. Brutalise the people but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius.”

    I'll come to the leading lights of the production in a minute but, for now, let's concentrate on possibly the very person who was born to portray such larger-than-life ogres as Nero and, in one fell swoop, symbolises the excessive nature of a production such as this. Peter Ustinov, young and sprightly here as the debauched and egocentric emperor, excels in the role. He is pompous, idiotic, wicked, conniving, paranoid, self-delusional and perpetually frustrated. He is not, however, delivering a realistic depiction of Nero. But then, nor should he be. LeRoy's film is, without a doubt, a grand pantomime and Ustinov is its Widow Twanky. He knows this full well and performs accordingly. Haloed by ringlets and curls and lounging spectacularly in his finery, he would be the ultimate sloth if his mind wasn't performing cartwheels of demented self-aggrandisement twenty-four hours a day. His musical compositions and wretched singing sessions are moments that Ustinov would have relished in rare breaks from his never-ending cycle of wary glances around an entourage he instinctively knows he cannot trust, and continual pontificating upon his own shining brilliance. Echoes of the obscene figure of vile fun that he created here have reverberated down the ages, with most overboard madmen of comical excess borrowing from his pick 'n' mix combination of persecution complex and power-lusting. Without Ustinov's narcissistic, self proclaimed demigod, it is debatable how memorable the likes of Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz, numerous Bond villians, George C. Scott's over-ripe depiction of Patton, or even Jabba The Hut would have been.

    Robert Taylor can never be accused of being a great actor. A good one, yes, and highly reliable, but definitely second-tier material when it all comes down to it. But the thing about his performance here is that, for at least the first third of the movie he is absolutely hilarious. Strutting about in shiny armour and cocking his conquering eyebrow with lecherous aplomb, he drops innuendo like there's no tomorrow. Looking a little like a young Martin Landau (even though he was around forty when he made this and already being considered something of a mature leading man) and whittling his lines out of the wood that his acting style seems hell-bent on stuffing his mouth with, he cavorts like a peacock, sneers like a caddish cavalier and emotes as though he is the guest star in a Morecombe And Wise Christmas Special. However, all this works quite well for the roguish character of Marcus. He is meant to be un-likeable - at least at first - and Taylor makes this distasteful arrogance come easily. The problems begin when he turns the corner and becomes smitten with not only Lygia but her religion, too. All of a sudden he has to be courteous, sincere and loving. He has to make us believe that he believes. But this sort of thing does not come easily to Taylor. Mind you, there is a great scene when, their true feelings exposed and an understanding almost reached between them, Marcus gladly informs Lygia that he will erect a huge cross in their garden, with a figure of Christ upon it, if it will make her happy. After all, he dumbly announces, they've got so many gods, one more won't make any difference. This utter buffoonery is often laugh-out loud funny, but it does hamper the bigger meaning of it all, mocking the enormity of the crusade that the Christians must undertake. The Romans are meant to appear cynical and aggrieved by this usurping religion, yet their flagrant belittling of Christianity is of pure school-yard taunting and, as such, we can't help but side with the “mob” which is incredibly ironic, isn't it? At least they appear to be having fun as opposed to the really rather boring congregations of Christians, who sing themselves to extermination and die with smiles on their faces to the utter horror of Nero, who cannot fathom such “inhuman” blasphemies. Hidden beneath hooded robes, Taylor does a make a concerted effort to appear almost swayed by Peter's sermon down in the caves, but cleverly, the light shining on his upturned face actually reveals the glint in his eyes when he spies Lygia amongst the secret gathering, his passions quite clearly driven by something other than the divine.

    Then we have Deborah Kerr. I've discussed this celebrated actress a few times now in reviews - notably for her wonderful performances in The Innocents and Black Narcissus - and I've usually remarked upon her cold defensive nature on-camera, something that, undoubtedly, helps her to make such repressed characters so believable. A lot younger here and exhibiting an allure that seems more natural than in her later movies, that repressed sensibility is still very much in evidence. Torn between her faith and her love for this brash commander, she has the difficult task of maintaining purity and glamour whilst not sacrificing any of her spirituality. Sadly, it all makes for a rather bland heroine, in my opinion. She often appears far too goodly to be true and, as Nero spitefully claims, too “narrow at the hip”.

    “It is foolish to kill those you hate because, once dead, they are beyond pain.”

    Unexpectedly urbane and witty is Leo Genn's long-suffering Gaius Petronius, Nero's aide and the whispering voice in the Emperor's ear that tells him the things he thinks he wants to hear yet, all the while, pokes enormous fun at him and, at least, delivers us an ally in the regal chambers. With supreme sarcasm and a wonderfully conniving sense of patronisation that stretches, quite literally, to Biblical proportions, his withering put-downs and double-edged platitudes become legendary. Genn is amazingly at-home with the character, encapsulating the arts, the politics and the societal scruples of Gaius in one fully-rounded performance. His arc is as pivotal and allegorical as Marcus', but Genn is able to convey far more dignity and dimensionality. He may not have the need to emote, scream and fight like Marcus, but his honour is just as hard-won via his tactical chess-game-style of discourse, his understanding of the bigger picture and his somewhat precarious place within it. But scattered about the movie are other wonderful roles brought to the screen with often unexpected power. Nero's evil vixen of a wife, ex-harlot Poppaea, is stunningly played by the exquisite Patricia Laffan. Glowering with wicked intent and bedecked in figure-hugging silks, she has the air of one of Disney's witch-queens. Dark and desirable, cruel and vivacious, she is the polar opposite of Lygia. A femme fatale in another genre, Poppaea is the snake in this decadent Eden and Laffan brings a simmering temptation to the film that is impossible to ignore. Is it just me, though, or does she actually look like a slutty version of Marion Cunningham, Ritchie's mum, from Happy Days?

    Marina Berti's delectable Eunice, slave-girl to Gaius, is another awesome supporting role to which the film owes a lot. Although scarcely in the movie, her scenes are tragic, highly charged and thoroughly sympathetic. Her adulation of her own master - fawning over his marble bust and begging not to be sold or given away from him to Marcus, who is the toast of the town - is sensationally wrought and Berti brings so much feeling into those mesmerising green eyes. Rosalie Crutchley makes a couple of enigmatic appearances as the bad-boy-loving Acti, hoving into view from the sidelines like a raven-haired personification of fate, itself. Her moments during the classic final act, as Nero realises just how far he has gone, are extremely well-measured, her emotions rearing desperately in the face of destiny. Just look at Ustinov overacting - nice homage to Edward G. Robinson's parting line from LeRoy's previous hit, the ironically titled Little Caesar, by the way - whilst she plays the whole thing with deadly, heartfelt seriousness. Coupled with Taylor 's rage-filled horror as he tries to twist himself loose from his binding above the arena, scenes such as this deliver a finale that really puts you through the wringer, elevating the overall drama by concentrating on the locked-in predicaments of individuals who cannot stem the tide of circumstance.

    “To die in the same manner as Our Lord ... oh, that is more than I deserve.”

    “Well, we can do something about that ...”

    Even more colour is to be found with Finlay Currie's Peter, disciple of Christ, as he moves through Rome to spread the Word, although it is easy to snigger as much as the Romans do when he launches into his rhetoric. Balancing out this innate “goodness” is a terrifically nasty turn from Ralph Truman as Nero's most slimy yes-man, Tigellinus, who struts and barks like a better costumed Ming The Merciless. A great scene sees him having to duck and dive as Nero seeks to find someone, anyone to use as a scapegoat to appease the mob, his own verbal back-tracking just as entertaining as the goading from Gaius Petronius. And the gentle giant of Ursus, played by Buddy Baer, brother to heavyweight champion Max Baer and something of a renowned prize-fighter, himself, is extremely good in the role of Lygia's Herculean protector. Considerably more than just a man-mountain to aid in hair's breadth escapes, he exudes a humanity and a grace that is actually far more convincing than anything that Kerr or Taylor can deliver without it seeming forced and wooden. There is a wonderful sensitivity in his eyes and a true sense of regret at being compelled to kill by the evil of his Roman oppressors. Thus, Quo Vadis becomes a truly multi-layered narrative with virtually every scene offering something to excite, enthral or amuse. These were the days when everyone contributed to the finished film, not just the stars.

    LeRoy does not forget that his opus needs more than character, rich dialogue and an enormous setting to keep his audiences contented. He needs testosterone, as well. Action such as the chaotic chariot chase along the Appian Way - Tayor whipping each successive pursuer into the dust as he races to save his loved ones from the inferno that is engulfing Rome - and the bruising battle of choke-holds and neck-breaks between Ursus and the blood-hungry gladiator/henchman Croton (Arthur Walge) ensure that Quo Vadis actually does fulfil its required visceral quota, its long and winding road of political and religious skulduggery punctuated with moments that amaze with their unexpected violence. The fire that sweeps through the city and the heaving mass of hundreds of panicking citizens that Marcus must fight his way through make for a truly breathtaking set-piece. Yet, it is all the more pleasing that the director captures the dark dementia of those who started it all and watch, aloof, from high above the conflagration. Nero infamously playing his lyre as he contemplates the vision of his own wrath. He may believe himself to be a god, but his scorched-earth policy reduces his city to something more akin to Hell. Though completely obvious to us now, the matte-painted backdrops from Peter Ellenshaw, and the superimposed FX shots were revolutionary in their day. During the burning Rome sequence, the skies are a frighteningly surreal cloud of blood-red, an awesome Dante-esque canopy. The sensational crowds around the arena were actually achieved by casting a light behind painted glass panels to give the impression of movement and the results are certainly on a par with Ridley Scott's CG-added spectators in Gladiator and George Lucas' Q-tip Pod-Race onlookers in The Phantom Menace. In fact, it took the making-of documentary that accompanies the film to make me realise that there are even buildings which were only half-built on the set that were then enhanced via Ellenshaw's paints to full glory. Honestly, on some of them you simply cannot see the seams.

    “What does the mob want?”


    “A mob doesn't want justice - they want revenge!”

    Miklos Rosza's score hits the high notes often and with vigour, swelling with appropriately spiritual voice when called for and providing a rich and full-blooded evocation of pomp and spectacle throughout. The inclusion of the original Roadshow Overture and Exit Music also add enormous flavour to the mix. I love his psychologically strenuous music for Nero's final act, the sudden drama and terror of the situation the sick Caesar finds himself in allowing the composer to recall his marvellous work for Hitchcock's Spellbound, the Emperor lost in a morass of defeat, the city in revolt around him and the enormity of such a turning-point treated in a startlingly intimate and nerve-shredding manner. I think I probably prefer his score for Ben-Hur, but this is still a grand tour de force that completely embraces all the emotions and revelations that Quo Vadis hurls at it.

    “These people know how to die, Nero. In death you will squeal like a hog!”

    Ridley Scott wimped-out when it came to showing us the lions feeding on the Christians in Gladiator (okay, he did film the scene but you could see how half-hearted he was about the whole idea when he ended-up cutting it out again), but LeRoy has no such concerns and the great smorgasbord in the arena (actually the Circus Maximus and not the Coliseum, judging by the central structures) is shown to us with surprising vigour. Lions pour out into an arena thronged by a gazillion extras and lunge at, and gouge, meat-filled dummies with relish. Indeed, the comedic elements of the first half - all those innuendos and character snipes - are swiftly vanquished as the movie monolith becomes exceptionally brutal in its pivotal grandstand exuberance. Singing Christians defy Nero's tyranny; mighty Ursus does battle against a raging bull in a famous scene that Buddy Baer totally owns; the might of Rome comes crashing down in appalling infamy, LeRoy's stars doing exactly the same thing to the corrupt establishment that Russell Crowe's Maximus would do at the turn of another millennium - and suddenly Quo Vadis truly claims its rightful place as the herald of the religious epic. For this staggering final act, alone, the film wins its classic status and laurel leaf crown.

    Its size unquestionable, its passion somewhat heavy-handed, Quo Vadis needs its little moments to make the big statements work. Inherently theatrical in terms of scripting, LeRoy and MGM realise that audiences have to have a visual feast in order for them to go the distance and fully appreciate such a colossus. In producing Quo Vadis they created an Event Movie easily on a par with Gone With The Wind and one that made tales from a far more bygone age fashionable once again. Without LeRoy's lavish depiction of Ancient Rome, the stars, the studios and the budgets would never have been found to bring such costumed escapism as The Robe, Land of the Pharaohs, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, El Cid, or the cycle's ultimate Achilles heel, Cleopatra, to the 20th Century's equivalent of the thrill-seeking mob.

    As a child I shunned this picture because it lacked battles, but now I can fully appreciate the wondrous splendour of its colourful transportation to another time and another realm. The allegories are written large and, without a doubt, were designed to pave the way for the world to receive the United States as its next Roman Empire, one that was touted as being tolerant, God-fearing and pious. In the wake of the Second World War, plenty of Nero-like monsters had been destroyed and a new prosperity had been achieved. Solidifying faith in American policy and power was at the crux of this new-found desire to spread the (Western and devoutly anti-communist, anti-fascist) Word and Hollywood's potent, torch-bearing procession was determinedly leading the way to this brave new world.

    Full of pomp and ceremony, full of ribald commentary, full of whisker-twirling villainy, Quo Vadis attempts to satisfy everybody at once. And, despite that scarcity of battles that once damned it in my eyes, it almost succeeds. What surprises and rewards most of all, is its ability to even out the religious with the blasphemous - for every act of charity there is one of depravity. For every face bathed in a heavenly glow, there is another about to be consumed by Nero's flames. Biblical movies - and the term definitely makes me shudder as well, folks - are precisely the domain in which wild characters and the extremes of human behaviour are to be found. What helps make this one so special is witty banter and the quite brazen approach it takes to sexual matters. Honestly, some of the insinuations in the first half are priceless - such as Poppaea's literal understanding of Nero's comment about how they should take his people to their breast, Poppaea looking lustfully over at Marcus at the time and seductively licking her lips. It may take the whole concept of Rome's ignoble collapse and the guerilla-style, subversive hearts and minds campaign of a determined Christianity with po-faced sincerity, but, Quo Vadis goes beyond just using its cast as ciphers and never loses sight of the fact that good storytelling comes first.

    An afternoon well spent, then.