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A Roman general falls for a Christian woman against the backdrop of Nero's Rome. Period epic starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov, and directed by Mervyn LeRoy
"Is this the end of Nero?"
A film that ends with the infamous Emperor Nero paraphrasing Edward G Robinson's Capone-esque Little Caesar, the 1951 version of Quo Vadis is a fine example of cinema as over-the-top entertainment. Made at a time when film was keenly aware of the competition it faced from TV, Mervyn LeRoy's picture took the Roman epic - a staple since the silent days - and ladled on huge quantities of camp and excess. That the end product poached eight Oscar nominations might suggest this is a worthy affair along the lines of The Ten Commandments or The Robe. However, Quo Vadis is neither as respectable nor as boring as those movies. Rather this is what HBO's wonderful 'Rome' might have been like had it been made in the days before gore and graphic sex were considered fine for mass consumption.
Rome, 64AD: and after three years at war, General Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor, the biggest star of his day) is ready to find a wife and settle down. Unfortunately, the woman he falls for, Lygia (the immaculate Deborah Kerr), is a Christian who would rather sleep with the lions than a legionnaire. Not used to being denied, Marcus approaches the Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov, clearly having the time of his life) and asks that since Lygia was adopted by a fellow general, she be placed under his command. Needless to say, such a situation doesn't make for the most straightforward of relationships. The fact the couple slowly overcome their differences is eclipsed by the increasingly eccentric behaviour of the emperor. Not content with making his favourite horse a senator, Nero blames the Christians for trying to burn Rome to the ground. With Lygia and her creed on their way to the arena, it falls to Marcus to save the love of his life.
Available for the first time in an extras-packed two-disc set, it's now easier than ever to appreciate Quo Vadis' qualities and ignore its failings. Indeed, thanks to the fast-forward button it's a simple task to slice through the hour or more of wretched excess that the editors forgot to remove. As for the picture's high points, Robert Surtees' cinematography is now almost as radiant as Deborah Kerr. Even if you were to see the film on a scratchy old black-and-white portable, you'd quickly realise that the best thing about Quo Vadis is Peter Ustinov's lip-smacking Nero.
According to the new featurette and critic FX Feeney's commentary, Ustinov was down to play Nero the moment the project was conceived in the late 1940s. Back then Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor seemed to have a mortgage on Marcus and Lygia. That Taylor has a small role as a slave girl in the finished film leaves you wondering how good Quo Vadis might have been with two movie behemoths in the leading roles. Then again, a pairing like that might have drawn attention away from the real star of the show.
Told by Mervyn LeRoy to think of Nero as a man who "plays with himself at night", Peter Ustinov's prissy, preening emperor is so much fun you sometimes have to remind yourself Quo Vadis isn't a farce along Mel Brooks lines. As is explained on the commentary, the producers were fearful that, since it had taken two years to get the film greenlit, Ustinov had grown too old to play Nero. An educated man worried about losing the role of a lifetime, Our Peter took himself off to the local library where he discovered that he was in fact exactly the same age as the infamous Roman. After wiring the information to the studio, he received the following reply from the execs: "Thank you for your missive. Historical research has proved you correct."
Even with Ustinov turning it up to 11, there's no ignoring Quo Vadis' many failings. So flawed it's arguably not even the best big-screen adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel, LeRoy's picture provides all the proof you need that olde Hollywood, like the past, is another country: one where they do things very differently indeed. In glorious Technicolor!
Everyone should see Quo Vadis. Once.
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