Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien, and John Lee Mahin (based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz)
MGM's Quo Vadis—stylized in the credits QVO VADIS, which is neat*—was the film that confirmed the Bible epic as an actual thing, and not just another instance of Cecil B. DeMille unaccountably making money regardless. The other big Bible movie of 1951, 20th Century Fox's David and Bathsheba, did respectably. But Quo Vadis did colossally, almost as well as Samson and Delilah in 1949 (and for only twice the budget!). To call it a "follower" isn't fair: unlike Bathsheba, it wasn't a more-or-less acknowledged knock-off, but a languishing megaproduction, and, indeed, pre-production had already started in 1948. Nevertheless, one expects Samson gave it a push, and arriving in 1951 as it did, it's fitting to treat Quo Vadis as the proper beginning of a trend—DeMille, after all, was only DeMilling, not aiming to start a movement—and Quo Vadis is at least as prototypical of the genre's future. Taken in tandem with Ben-Hur—which bookended the decade of the Bible's box office reign—there are pleasing symmetries to be had: both arose from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, though both were filmed predominantly at Cinecitta in Rome, earning the complex its "Hollywood on the Tiber" nickname; both involved enormous costs, threatening the already-beleaguered studio, then turned around and produced enormous profits, staving off MGM's eventual insolvency for another decade; both were scored by Miklos Rosza and shot by Robert Surtees; both earned a slew of Oscar nominations (though only Ben-Hur won them); and both were New Testament movies helmed by Jewish directors.
Which is where Quo Vadis frustrates me (it is not the only place Quo Vadis frustrates me), because it does not entirely fit with my grander hypotheses about the mid-century Bible film, which I'd best lay out here since this is the end of our little journey through Hollywood's passionate affair with the religions of Abraham. So: the conventional wisdom, I gather, is that films based on the Tanakh are better than those based on the New Testament. After all, the Tanakh has the war, the sex, the intrigue, and even most of the miracles. Yet, to my mind, the conventional wisdom turns out to be surprisingly wrong: going by the fourteen films we've looked at (plus I did Ben-Hur ages ago), the New Testament's movies win. That could be because the New Testament pictures, with their tendency to just invent stories out of whole cloth, simply have more freedom. There's something to that, but it assumes that the Tanakh movies hew faithfully to every word, and they usually don't, The Ten Commandments, Solomon and Sheba, and The Story of Ruth being as much the product of writerly invention as The Robe, Salome, or Demetrius and the Gladiators. (Meanwhile, the New Testament's most-unbound adaptation, The Prodigal, is lousy.) So we look instead at the filmmakers behind them, and here we find a curious accidental switcheroo: most of the Tanakh films we've looked at were directed by Christians (or ex-Christians), but half of the New Testament films were directed by Jews.
Data is data (even if the data is just my opinion), and, going by the numbers, the Jewish directors of these films simply have a stronger track record. (Overwhelmingly so, if you count DeMille, though I am not, and would not, and I should be clear I'm not talking Jewish descent but Jewish religion—or just Jewish culture, because some of these "Jewish" directors might not have been all that religious.) Still, I'd rather not leave it at that. I prefer to think there was something productive about the mismatch itself, that could, when things went well, generate a tension that actually had something to say about the religious traditions in question.
But usually the mismatch seemed to have helped, leading to a certain approach for the better Bible flicks: one that was conspicuously respectful yet, when they needed to be, critical. Less obviously, but maybe more importantly, it also permitted their makers to be just plain spiritually indifferent—because these are movies, after all, and their first duty is to entertain. And if that's not convincing, how about this: when Hollywood tasked Jewish filmmakers with the Christian Bible (and for the most part, these folks were literally "tasked," as part of their contractual obligations), they found in these stories of brutal Rome a ready-made allegory for their own thoughts on a more recent European empire. There's not much authentically "First Century" about The Robe, but it was made by a man who knew persecution. (The same man made The Story of Ruth: he also knew immigration to a strange land, and the uncertain status of a foreigner. It also occurs to me much later than is useful that Mahlon's job in that film, a maker of idols for pagans, maybe wasn't too far off from Koster's own profession.) Meanwhile, maybe Christian filmmakers could identify more readily with the Tanakh's early tales of national triumph, but also the Tanakh's notion of the powerful beset by moral uncertainty. Ultimately, both these impulses find purchase in the Christian-directed, predominantly-Jewish-produced Ten Commandments, more or less an explicit Holocaust allegory underneath its even-more-explicit anti-communist tirade. I've always said that these movies are downright fascinating in their political dimensions, and unjustly ignored as square (or worse), when in truth they're often blatant documents of mid-century anti-colonialism and anti-fascism, even if their associations with Zionism (and the endemic isms of American life) always complicate them. But the theological discomfort that often comes out should not be dismissed, either—for it probably makes them more interesting as films.
We begin—well, we begin with an extended overture, a sign of things to come (with its overture and exit sequences, Quo Vadis runs 171 minutes)—but our story begins with a narrator (Walter Pidgeon) who sets the scene: Rome, in or around A.D. 68, in the time of the antichrist alluded to by John the Seer in his Revelation, that is, the Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov). He's already making his malign whimsy known by having his Praetorians stop the legion of Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), instructing the general to set up camp before his men can reach the city. Marcus obeys, but rides on ahead to personally ask the emperor why, and finds himself taken aback by Nero's decadent court, which mostly involves praising the emperor for whatever stupid thing he's just done, in this case a poorly-sung song. The most backhanded yet somehow most successful of Nero's sycophants is the wickedly-clever but inwardly-despairing Petronius (Leo Genn), Marcus's uncle, who sends his nephew to stay at the house of the retired hero Plautius (Felix Alymer). It's here that the plot truly begins, for here Marcus makes the acquaintance of Lygia (Deborah Kerr), Plautius's "adopted daughter," whom he first mistakes for a slave. The truth lies somewhere in-between, as, legally-speaking, she is neither slave nor free, but a hostage of the state (presumably from the tiny Greek town of Lygia, which may not have existed in antiquity, and, no, I have no idea why a place conquered by Rome two centuries earlier would be sending hostages).
Formalities aside, Marcus wants to fuck Lygia, like, so bad, starting with some mid-level sexual harassment, and escalating rapidly to state-sponsored sex slavery, as he prevails upon Nero to reassign Lygia to his household instead. Lygia, however, has one advantage: she's a Christian—something we figure out early when Paul shows up for dinner—and she disappears into the Christian underground rather than accept Marcus's, ahem, hospitality. He remains on the case, however, even tracking her down, but when his pursuit turns against him, and she and her faithful manservant Ursus (Buddy Baer) could've just killed him, and instead nurse him back to health, he pledges not to try to rape her anymore, which is all she needed to confess she loves him too.
This isn't even dysfunctional: it's completely non-functional. The Bible films get a (justified) bad rap for bad romance, but, then, the 1950s weren't always great at credible romance in general, tending to just skip the "burgeoning attraction" part (even something as celebrated as Roman Holiday does this) and leaping straight to "trust us, they want to bang," without really laying the groundwork for their laying of pipe. Yet not many 50s films nor even many 50s Bible films were as bad at it as Quo Vadis, and not many leads were as bad at it as Taylor and Kerr. As with the similarly-hobbled Black Narcissus but worse, Kerr's performance finds no greater motivation for Lygia's attraction than "because the script," winding up acting past Taylor, who unimaginatively plays Marcus's lustful obsession more along the lines of a snippy fratboy. The best thing you can say about Quo Vadis's prodigious length, then, is that by the end you've at least had the opportunity to forget that its central romantic coupling was founded in grotesque sexual mores—not even Roman ones—and that it's easily 90 minutes in before Marcus can even manage to be grudgingly polite to Lygia, and when he is it's by leaving her alone to have sex with Nero's voracious wife Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) instead. Somehow, even the relationship between Petronius and his slave Eunice (Marina Berti) is more believable and affectionate, and their relationship is introduced by Petronius trying to give her to Marcus as a fucktoy, then having her beaten because she wants to stay with the master she secretly loves.
But that sums up this epic: it's more like two separate films mixed together, and while the first one might be about Marcus's implacable efforts to keep ruining Lygia's life until finally Christianity happens, the other one is about Petronius's vain attempts to serve as a restraining influence upon his emperor's legendary villainy, only to fail so utterly that he winds up accidentally giving Nero the idea of starting the Great Fire of Rome. So if that first film sucks—and it does, never rehabilitating itself till it finds its hapless way into the conflagration of the second—the film that revolves around the interplay of Petronius with Nero, and, moreover, the playing of Nero with himself, this represents sword-and-sandalry at its very finest. Barbed and witty and abrasively charming, Genn's subverted Roman nobleman is pretty fantastic already, making it clear Petronius even enjoys his game of seeing how obviously he can insult Nero to his face without losing his head—while also making it clear that he's horrified to belatedly realize that there were stakes higher than his own life, and that he despises himself almost as much as Nero for making their game so fun, using his very last breaths to shatter Nero's delusions in a bravura display of Roman dignitas.
But in movies where the best part is not-infrequently the villain, Ustinov's Nero still stands out as one of the greats. His raving emperor is just so specific, combining a spoiled child who cries when he doesn't get what he wants and a fearsome god-king who knows he can have somebody killed if he doesn't get it soon—sometimes combining these two things in the very same shot—and combining that with a deceptively mellow dreamer, a portrait of the artist as a most psychopathic young man. Ustinov plays Nero for matinee villainy for so long that you even get accustomed to that amusing mix of clownish tyranny and Byronic parody. But then the very same traits that drew laughs transform into something superhumanly terrifying when they're arrayed against a vista of Rome as a roiling apocalypse, to which Nero plays his ode to the metaphorical and literal fires of his ambition. He has burned his city partly to get rid of its inhabitants, and build a new Rome on their graves. But mostly, mostly it's because he desires to surpass the achievements of Homer and Virgil, who could only imagine what a city drowning in fire must have looked and felt like. Ustinov's performance barely even changes afterwards, but the way we perceive it does: when he calls for his "weeping vase," in order to preserve his tears for posterity, it's funny, but now we know just how sincerely he believes they would want proof of his passion.
This brings us, then, to the scapegoating of the Christians, and for the first time Quo Vadis finds a use for them, albeit mostly as bodies upon which further crimes can be enacted, and while we miss out on some of Nero's more creative tortures (using burning Christians as torches for garden parties, for example), it manages a solid rendition of Christians being eaten by lions, a shockingly abrupt vision of Peter's (Finlay Currie's) crucifixion, and, eventually, some Christians on fire after all. It's about as harrowing as you'd expect something made in 1951 to be (even "somewhat" being an achievement). For the first time Taylor actually expresses some emotion beyond sexual entitlement, though our Christian heroes pale in comparison to their Roman counterparts. Perhaps this is because the Christian mythology presented here is just so lame: Currie effectively plays Peter as Santa Claus, and that's inviting enough to be hard to actively dislike, but besides the absence of anything remotely interesting about his early Christian flock, Peter's reminiscences of Jesus are played out in flashbacks that look like something a small church could have thrown together over a weekend. They're a small part of Quo Vadis, but a damaging part, and the final shot of the film, narrated by the electronically-distorted voice of a glowy emanation of Christ, is dorky beyond belief. (By now, I oughtn't have any disbelief left!) Fundamentally, however, the problem is that Quo Vadis's uplift feels hollow. It has many Christian characters marked for death, yes, but it also has ones even more clearly marked for life; and since we're only invited to care about the latter (even if we don't), there's not as much heft to its overdetermined martyrdom as it would've liked. Its climactic conversion fares even worse: when Marcus gets everything he asked for in the first place, his film's entire pitch for Christianity boils down to it being worth joining a cult if you get to sleep with Deborah Kerr. Which is very reasonable! But not very spiritually compelling.
Inevitably, Quo Vadis gets so much more out of its pagan spectacle. It's the first Bible film of the mid-century wave to really show off the genre's trademarked brand of expensive bigness, at least for more than a scene at a time. The Domus Augusti exteriors are almost implausibly large—but seamless in their transition from physical sets to movie magic. (There's also an interesting thing going on with Roman religion, presented with roughly zero accuracy, with the suggestion that the Vestal priestesses are Rome's only priests at all; the overall effect, especially with Ustinov's vamping despot, seems to be to feminize Nero's Rome in favor of a synthesis between a muscular Roman republicanism tempered by the gentler influences of Christ. But we do get some cool "pagan" dancing!) Ah well, at least the fire that consumes Rome is omnipresent and encircling, LeRoy filling the screen with deliberate evocations of Cole's Course of Empire—no mean feat for an epic made two years before CinemaScope. I'm not sure LeRoy marshals his resources as well he possibly could: Rosza complained his score was buried under dialogue, and he's absolutely right, with his contribution remaining notable mainly for his attempt to reconstruct Roman and Early Christian hymns out of Greek and Jewish parts; Surtees, meanwhile, offers a handsome vision of Rome, but not a feast, outdoing himself only with a few religiously-minded shots that depend on firelight, which he supplements with some fittingly otherworldly artificial light, and with a "night" shot of Nero's courtyard that turns a thousand silhouetted extras into a vision of swarming, furious ants. But handsome's certainly sufficient, and LeRoy knows what's important here, like making sure the camera is close enough to Ustinov and Genn to read their performances in fine detail, and, I suppose, making sure Kerr and Taylor are in the frame. Not a bad film to end this retrospective on, by any means. Yet one remains painfully aware how much better it is as a heavily-fictionalized tale of the Romans and their emperors than it ever is a tale of the Christ and his Christians.
*I cannot say whether "QVO VADIS" pre- or post-dates the marquee above MGM's Culver City office, which at one point read "METRO-GOLDYWN-MAYER STVDIOS."
Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)
...plus! Ben-Hur (1959)