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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.