QUO VADIS - Blu-ray review

Thank heaven for Peter Ustinov as the Emperor Nero. He saves the day.... Any time the actor is on screen, the story lights up.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

It may seem surprising that Warner Bros. chose to release MGM's 1951 Biblical epic "Quo Vadis" in high definition, given that the studio has an extensive catalogue of other back titles and the fact that MGM made "Quo Vadis" before the prevailing use of stereo sound or the advent of widescreen presentations. But the film was quite popular in its day, and the color and image quality remain impressive. This is among the better-looking older films transferred to Blu-ray.

Anyway, viewing "Quo Vadis" is not so much like watching a motion picture with a plot and characters as it is looking at a series of elaborate tableaus, each depicting some massive scene in a glorious but detached spectacle. The movie was one of the biggest of its time, enormous in cast, in costumes, in settings, and in cost.

"Quo Vadis" was also one of the films that led to the reemergence of the so-called sword-and-sandals flicks from the late 1940s through the mid 1960s. Motion pictures hadn't seen Biblical epics on so grand a scale since the silent-movie days. Leading the charge were Cecil B. DeMille's "Samson and Delilah" in 1949, followed by this one, and then "The Robe," "Demetrius and the Gladiators," "The Silver Chalice," "Land of the Pharaohs," "The Egyptian," "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," "Spartacus," "El Cid," "Cleopatra," and "The Fall of the Roman Empire," to name but a few. If you're keeping score, "The Ten Commandments" probably headed the list in sheer spectacle, with "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus" the most intelligent. But there's no denying "Quo Vadis" as a contender.

Mervyn LeRoy ("Anthony Adverse," "Random Harvest," "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," "Mister Roberts," "Gypsy") directed "Quo Vadis," with uncredited help from Anthony Mann ("The Far Country," "God's Little Acre," "Cimarron," "El Cid"), the filmmakers basing their story on the best-selling novel by Nobel-prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, which the movies had made three times before (1902, 1912, and 1925). The tale gets its name from the Latin term meaning "Where are you going?," taken from the passage in John 13:36 where Peter says to Jesus, "Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards." Thus, the story's title sets the tone and premise of what will follow.

In fact, for a movie nearly three hours long, "Quo Vadis" has surprisingly little plot or characterization going for it. It's mostly an unabashed declaration of Christianity and the power of love. Certainly nothing wrong with that, except the film can become tiresome in long stretches.

Robert Taylor stars as General Marcus Vinicius, commander of the Roman 14th Legion around 64 A.D. He's just returning from the victorious suppression of a British revolt, and he's the toast of Rome. But it's not long after his return that he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Lygia (Deborah Kerr), the adopted daughter of a retired Roman general. The trouble for them is that he is a Roman, devoted to the many Roman gods carried over from the Greeks, and she is a secret member of a fledgling new religous sect, the Christians. He is not too keen on the idea of giving up his soldiering ways for this newfangled love-your-neighbor business. After all, the Romans built their empire on conquering every country they could find and enslaving many of their subjects. The Christians, though, believe that all people should be free. Not an easy concept to accept, but as everyone knows, love conquers all. It doesn't help, either, that Vinicious's idea of courtship is to buy the girl, literally, and force himself upon her, a plan that naturally backfires.

Well, you can see that the romance between the Roman commander and the Christian follower is really a representation of the conflict between the pagan empire and the new religion. The Romans figure they'll be around forever, the might of Rome being so extensive and all, and the upstart Christians will soon die out like so many other cults. Hint: Bet on the Christians in the long run.

Everything about the film is big. It begins with a three-minute overture from composer Miklos Rozsa's and ends with exit music newly rejoined to the picture. It's narrated by an uncredited Walter Pidgeon. The filmmakers shot much of the story on location in Italy, several of the scenes looking as though the filmmakers shot them on the actual Appian Way. The sets and matte paintings are glorious, and the cast is enormous, some 30,000 extras participating. Recreating a coliseum full of Roman citizens was a neat trick; today we'd use CGI, but in 1951 it took ingenuity, as explained in the disc's accompanying documentary.

You can also probably tell from what I've told you that the film is solemn to a fault, including Taylor and Kerr, whose sincerity in their roles makes them seem more wooden than they might normally be. Also, like most big epics, this one rather lumbers along, moving slowly in order to establish its credentials as a "serious" movie.

While stars Taylor and Kerr do their best with what the script hands them, we never care much about them; they're basically shallow people, and as an audience it's hard to relate much to them. They are without much charisma, limiting our personal involvement in their plight. What the story lacks is a strong central character like Moses or Ben-Hur or Spartacus for whom we can root. With Vinicious, we find almost a cipher.

Thank heaven, then, for Peter Ustinov as the Emperor Nero. He saves the day. Indeed, the movie is as much about him as it is about Vinicious or Lygia or the Christians. Ustinov is so over-the-top in the role, he easily steals the show. His Nero is pompous, vain, preening, peevish, petulant, childish, foolish, murderous (he orders the executions of his own mother and his wife, to say nothing of throwing thousands of Christians to the lions), and not a little nuts (according to the film, and based on popular rumor, he burned down the entire city of Rome in order to rebuild it to his own specifications). What's more, he insists that his subjects worship him as a god, the master of the world. It's no wonder Nero turned out the way he did; his uncle was the Emperor Caligula. Ustinov takes this colorful character of legend and runs with it. Any time the actor is on screen, the story lights up.

Likewise, we get a good performance from Leo Genn as Gaius Petronius, Nero's wise, suave counselor (and Vinicius's uncle). If it had been a few years later, James Mason might have played the role, since Mason and Genn have similar looks and speak in a similar manner. Interestingly, Genn's career slowly faded into obscurity just as Mason's began to ascend. Apart from that trivia, Genn is fine, inserting a note of reason, sanity, and security into the proceedings.

Despite my reservations, how could I not like a movie that shows us the spectacle of Rome burning (rivaling the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind"), Christians facing ravenous lions, and former heavyweight prizefighter Buddy Baer wrestling a bull? I just wish the movie wasn't so long.

The movie's original 1.37:1 aspect ratio shows up well in 1.33:1 high-definition Blu-ray, the newly restored picture elements looking reasonably good, and the Technicolor looking glorious. Delineation and detailing in this VC-1, BD50 affair are a little soft for high def, and one notices occasional age flecks and specks along the way, but any such issues are all quite minor.

The keep case says that WB engineers restored the audio as well as the picture, but it's still not quite as warm or natural as a modern sound recording would be. Instead, the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural is a bit coarse at times, with a touch of background noise, although, for reasons unknown, it sounded better to me this time around, a little smoother, than it did on regular DVD. Dialogue comes through fine, but Miklos Rozsa's musical score appears a trifle thin and lean.

It's a long film, so there aren't many bonus items on the disc. The main things are an audio commentary by film historian and critic F.X. Feeney that is quite informative and a 2008 documentary. "In the Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic," forty-four minutes, recounts the filming of "Quo Vadis" and the history of Biblical movies from silent days to the present, with comments from authors, historians, critics, and filmmakers. For instance, they say that MGM originally wanted to make "Quo Vadis" in the 1930s with Orson Welles, and later they tried to cast Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor in the leading roles, with John Houston directing. Those things fell through, yet they still managed to create a blockbuster.

In addition, the disc contains forty-five scene selections; the movie's original roadshow overture and exit music reinstated for the first time in fifty-six years; a theatrical and teaser trailer; English, French, Spanish, and Italian spoken languages; French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese; and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Sitting through "Quo Vadis" is a little like being in a Sunday School class, with the filmmakers presenting the story of early Christianity as a solemn procession of martyrdom and salvation. It's heavy-handed, to be sure, but much of it is fun to watch, thanks to the color, pageantry, and Ustinov, and, as I say, it all shows up quite nicely in high definition.


Film Value