With a production history almost as protracted as the Roman Empire’s reign, Quo Vadis was at the time of its completion in 1951 one of the biggest movies ever made. The first major Biblical adaptation made after the Second World War, this was a chance for Hollywood to entertain the masses in glorious Technicolor while the world outside the cinema was still a little bit grey.
And entertain it did, and still does. Managing to retain its epic feel in 2009 is no mean feat, considering the amount of imitators it inspired in the years following its release.
While Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments would give the world a hero in the shape of Charlton Heston, Quo Vadis offered a slightly less heroic Robert Taylor as Marcus Vinicius alongside a glorious, scene stealing, Peter Ustinov as the terrifying-yet-childlike Emperor Nero.
The film begins as Vinicius returns to Rome after three years fighting abroad, his time in Britain a sly parallel to recent events in the war torn Europe of the 1940s.
As Christianity starts to permeate the daily lives of his city’s inhabitants, Vinicius finds attitudes changing towards him and his culture, while Nero starts to persecute the Christians, the lions getting particularly well fed at certain points of the film.
Love also plays a big part of the film, Vinicius falling for the beautiful Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a woman who doesn’t want to fall for him because of his warrior ways.
Standout here, apart from Ustinov, is his sidekick for the film, Petronius, played by British actor Leo Genn (he would go on to be Oscar nominated for the role). As Nero’s political adviser, Petronius is smart enough to be able to massage the Emperor’s ego while at the same time guiding him away from some of his more outrageous ideas.
Scenes between Nero and Petronius are highlights of the film, offering a lovely comic undertone to moments that are actually quite chilling in nature.
Casting is uniformly impressive throughout the film, even the smallest roles filled by character actors who have something unique to offer to the scene.
At the time of the films release the marketing men went all out to promote the “cast of thousands” who appear. The fact that most of the film is made up of two or three people talking to each other at a time clearly wouldn’t make quite as exciting a tagline, but the the dialogue remains smart and thoughtful throughout, full of lyrical passages that inspire re-watching, even if they are occasionally on the flowery side.
This new edition looks gorgeous thanks to a recent restoration project. Watching Rome burn has never been so beautiful while scenes set around the legendary Cinecitta studio exteriors are bright and lush.
The main extra on offer here is a feature length commentary by critic FX Feeney. Feeney has clearly watched the film in awe many times and offers an erudite discussion of the themes of the film. It’s lucky he’s a good companion as three hours of film, split over the two discs, could have been exhausting – Feeney makes it an entertaining way to learn about the history of the production.
This really is one of those times when writing the phrase “they don’t make them like this anymore” is entirely apt. Quo Vadis may be nearly 60 years old but it still packs some punch in its scale and clever storytelling.
And, if nothing else, it’s worth it for Peter Ustinov alone.
DVD Special Features
- Commentary by F. X. Feeney — Filmmaker/writer Feeney explores the genesis of one of MGM’s most glorious, grand-scale productions
- Theatrical trailer
- Teaser trailer
- Commentary by F. X. Feeney continued from Disc 1
- Documentary — In the Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic – This documentary walks the road as long and complex as the film itself, from its roots as a Nobel Peace Prize-winning bestseller to its various ground-breaking adaptations to its place as the most daring and lavish film that MGM, and Louis B. Mayer, dared to undertake.
- Release Date: 2 February 2009
- Catalogue No: 1000039880
- £15.99 RRP
- Run Time: 170 Minutes