Quo Vadis (1951)

When it’s on: Friday, 24 August (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s sprawling novel about persecuted Christians and the mad Emperor Nero during the first century AD, may very well have been published initially in 1895 but it remains a stunning read. Make it past the first few pages of scene setting and the pace is strong, the description alive and the whole is suffused with a sense of bitter injustice. Sienkiewicz researched his tome by visiting many of the places featuring in the novel, soaking up historical details for use in the prose, and whilst it isn’t entirely factually accurate Quo Vadis emerges as a work rich in periodic authenticity.

There’s also an undercurrent of allegory at play. Sienkiewicz felt deeply for the state of his native Poland and ensured that, if readers wanted it, reflections of the people’s misery were on hand within the text. It’s an element entirely missing from the 1951 cinema adaptation, which was made chiefly to try and drag people off their sofas, the couches that more and more faced brand new television sets, and into their local theatres. Where the ‘box’ offered soft black and white images on a 12″ screen, Quo Vadis came in full colour and served up the dazzling sight of Imperial Rome, featuring thousands of extras and a rousing tale of the early Christians. Side reasons included a valid excuse to shoot women wearing diaphanous gowns (period detail, right?), not to mention evading any blacklisting worries by putting out a feature with strong Christian sympathies whilst allowing Americans to wallow in the grandeur of the Roman Empire at its height. No expense was spared. Robert Taylor was a suitably Latin looking American star, backed up with a cast of British actors to extend the link between Received Pronunciation and films set in the past.

To enjoy Quo Vadis, one really has to find some degree of empathy with cinema audiences in the post-War years. Imagine a drab world, one without modern luxuries and still very much recovering from conflict, and the rare treat that must have been the opportunity to watch something like this, with its incredible props, costumes, vast sets and those many, many extras all simulating the experience of a long lost time in history. Throw in a love story that crosses religious and cultural divides, involving two impossibly glamorous performers, and then give us a mad king who can annihilate cities and people at a whim, and how can you not have a winner? Make no mistake. There are things on the screen of Quo Vadis that viewers will never have seen before, the offering of spectacle on a dizzying scale. It must have been intoxicating.

Watched now, the film’s weaknesses become more glaring. Its main problem is a pace that oscillates between stately and glacial, all those lingering ‘money’ shots of the forum and long, long romantic interludes between Marcus Vinicius (Taylor) and Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in which endless talk replaces passion. Perhaps spectacle alone did for contemporary audiences, yet now it make Quo Vadis an endurance test of a watch. Both actors are fine in their parts. Taylor has been accused of putting in a stagey performance, but I don’t think that’s it and rather the issue is one of the actor being unable to fill such a wide screen. Few could. It’s no surprise that a force of charisma like Charlton Heston kept getting work in epic cinema, but his is a rare gift. Kerr is ravishing and whilst allowed to show little of the frustration that made her so charged in Black Narcissus, signs of the conflict she faces between her faith and Vinicius are clear enough.

Quo Vadis’s main draw is of course the turn by Peter Ustinov as Nero. It’s more a gift than a job of work, in fairness, but Ustinov has great fun in a role that bounces between comedy and evil, and is even capable of eliciting some sympathy for his terrible Emperor, shown in the moments when he seeks validation from his closest counsellors but all he gets is grovelling. Ustinov’s so good that he almost obliterates the impression made by Leo Genn, playing a ‘good’ Senator and the one man close to Nero who’ll tell him what he really thinks. It’s a game, of course, and Petronius is as toadying as the rest when he needs to be, only he knows how to play his cards better. Watching him tie the hapless Emperor in intellectual knots is great entertainment.

A bit of a flawed experience, all told, one directed by Mervyn LeRoy in an assignment that must at times have felt more like a task of crowd control. Quo Vadis was filmed at Rome’s massive Cinecitta Studios and employed 32,000 people to act as soldiers and Roman citizens. The crowd scenes are enormous in scale, largely because all those individuals are really there on the screen, fleeing Rome in flames and advancing on Nero’s Imperial Palace. LeRoy also gets in a few stylistic touches, such as the long shot of Rome ablaze, which was inspired by the director’s childhood memories of witnessing the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

Quo Vadis: ***

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