Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Robert Taylor,
Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 174 Minutes
Release Date: March 17, 2009
“It is not enough to live well…one must die well.”
Quo Vadis was released in 1951, and it changed everything. It wasn’t the first time Henryk Sienkiewicz’ popular novel had been translated to the big screen, but it would be the biggest and most expansive telling, ushering in a new era of Biblical epics where the movies got so big, the screen had to widen to contain it all.
For MGM, heading into the 50s, times were troubled. The studio was even facing bankruptcy as the old Hollywood was giving way to the new. Yet for many years, Quo Vadis had been on the burner. Stars like Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor came and went. Others, like Clark Gable, passed altogether. The idea for the film was bold, and would be expensive…it would either nail down the coffin lid on Tinseltown’s most heralded motion picture studio, or it would pave the way for a new age of unprecedented success.
Even at three hours, Quo Vadis is never boring, because despite the size and scope, the focus remains fairly narrow on a group of people living in the time of the Roman emperor Nero (Ustinov, in a perfect performance). It was some thirty years after the crucifixion of a carpenter from Nazareth called Jesus, but only the beginning of a movement that would bring down an empire and change the world.
As the film opens, we meet commander Marcus Vinicius (Taylor), returned from battlefield success and waiting to be welcomed into Rome. He’ll have to wait a little longer…the whims of a mad dictator like Nero can’t easily be explained. But while he relaxes in the home of an elderly retired general, he meets Lygia (the luminescent Kerr), a hostage that the general and his wife had since adopted as their daughter.
Marcus has designs on the beautiful girl, and Roman law is on his side, but Lygia won’t be easily turned. She is a Christian, and she lives in the time when disciples like Peter and Paul are spreading the message of Christ to every corner of the empire and beyond. It is Marcus’ uncle Petronius (the amusing Genn) who informs him of what Christianity is. Petronious also has the task of being a skillful flatterer to Nero, and using his smooth speech to try and keep Nero from doing crazier and crazier things.
It only works so far. When the insane Nero decides it’s time to burn down Rome and remake it in his own image, the night of terror turns his people against him, and discarding the advice of Petronius, the emperor chooses to make the harmless Christians the scapegoat for the disaster.
They are rounded up and prepared to be dispatched in horrible ways for the bloodthirsty Roman crowd. But in one of the most moving sequences I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, it plays out in a most inspiring and unusual way. Peter, having left Rome, gets a message from the Lord that he must return at once. And while the fearful Christians are in the arena preparing to meet the lions, there suddenly stands Peter amongst the crowd. He calls them blessed martyrs and assures them of their eternal reward. To the amazement of Nero and everyone else, the Christians begin to break into joyful song. And even when the lions and the burning pillars are at their worst, the music never stops. For Nero’s ravaged mind, it’s almost too much to comprehend that these people could actually die in such terrible ways with smiles on their faces.
This is a movie with a large canvas but filled with human and spiritual intimacy. The focus is on the blossoming love story between Marcus, who is willing to accept the idea of another ‘god’ in the Roman mix, but wants nothing more to do with Him than that, and Lygia, who prays for Marcus to find Christ in his heart. And when things are at their darkest, that’s when God can work His greatest and most personal miracles.
I’ve seen just about every Biblical epic from the 1950s, but Quo Vadis, the one that started it all, remains one of the best. Audiences who had begun to forgo the theatre for their new television sets were suddenly compelled to come back and witness a spectacle that would never be possible on some little 13 inch black and white screen. Critics and film lovers rejoiced…such an undertaking, with gigantic sets and costumes and thousands of extras was an almost overwhelming sight.
And yet director Mervyn LeRoy never lost sight of what the film was truly about. Everything technical was just to make the movie authentic, but it was the human drama that made the history come to life. The terrific cast bring these wonderful characters to life with all their tragedies and triumphs, and the story of how the message of Jesus Christ would not be silenced even by a man who had the power to turn the greatest empire in the history of the world to ashes.
This is simply inspired, moving and spectacular filmmaking at its very best, and it began a new era of cinema that would shape and define a decade of movie going. Sadly, it was an era that couldn’t last because of the expense, and many would say it came to an end with, ironically enough, The Fall of the Roman Empire.
BONUS TRIVIA: The Latin title roughly translates “Where Are You Going?”
Quo Vadis was truly ahead of its time in that, had it come out a couple of years later, it could have enjoyed one of the revolutionary new widescreen processes to accommodate the scope of its vision. Or maybe, it was the scope of Quo Vadis that made studios realize the canvas needed to be expanded and brought about the newer widescreen technologies.
In either case, the movie is presented here in high definition and its original full framing. It’s mostly impressive, but not quite perfect. The print shows its age here and there with some spots and scratches, and the Technicolor visuals seem just a slight shade muted throughout. Detail level is mostly good, with a touch of softness here and there. A solid effort, but not quite up to what we’ve come to expect from Blu-ray.
The original mono track is intact, and it sounds good, with a little more dynamic range than you’d normally find with a single channel offering. Some of the bigger scenes, with the music score and action, sound a tad thin, but about what you’d expect for a movie that’s more than half a century old.
The disc boasts a terrific commentary track from film historian F. X. Feeney and a solid documentary on Quo Vadis and the beginnings of the Biblical epic. There are also the original theatrical and teaser trailers.
Quo Vadis started it all, and it remains one of the best. This amazing film is filled with spectacle, drama, and powerful messages that are still ringing out after two thousand years. Highly recommended.