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The story, set in ancient Rome during the final years of Emperor Nero's reign, AD 64-68, combines both historical and fictional events and characters, and compresses the key events of that period into the space of only a few weeks. Its main theme is the Roman Empire's conflict with Christianity and persecution of Christians in the final years of the Julio-Claudian line. Unlike his illustrious and powerful predecessor, Emperor Claudius, Nero proved corrupt and destructive, and his actions eventually threatened to destroy Rome's previously peaceful social order.
Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is a Roman military commander and the legate of the XIV Gemina. Returning from wars in Britain and Gaul, he falls in love with Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a devout Christian - in spite of this, he continually tries to win her affections. Though she grew up as the foster daughter of Aulus Plautius (Felix Aylmer), a retired Roman general, Lygia is legally a Lygian hostage of Rome in the old general's care. Petronius (Leo Genn), Marcus' uncle, persuades Nero (Peter Ustinov) to give her to his nephew as a reward for his services. Lygia resents this arrangement, but eventually falls in love with Marcus.
Screenshot of Deborah Kerr from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis
Meanwhile, Nero's atrocities become increasingly outrageous and his behavior more irrational. After Nero burns Rome and blames the Christians, Marcus sets out to rescue Lygia and her family. Nero arrests them, along with all the other Christians, and condemns them to be slaughtered in his Circus: some are killed by lions. Petronius, Nero's most trusted advisor, warns him that the Christians will be celebrated as martyrs, but he cannot change the emperor's mind. Then, tired of Nero's insanity and suspecting that he may be about to turn on him too, Petronius composes a letter to Nero expressing his derision for the emperor (which he previously had concealed to avoid being murdered by him) and commits suicide by severing an artery in his wrist - his slavegirl Eunice (Marina Berti) elects to die with him, despite being freed. The Christian apostle Peter (Finlay Currie) has also been arrested after returning to Rome in response to a sign from the Lord, and he marries Marcus and Lygia in the Circus prisons. Peter is later crucified upside-down, a form of execution conceived by Nero's Praetorian Guard as an expression of mockery.
Screenshot of Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis
Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), Nero's wife, who lusts after Marcus, devises a diabolical revenge for his rejection of her. Lygia is tied to a stake in the Circus and a wild bull is released into the arena. Lygia's bodyguard Ursus (Buddy Baer) must attempt to kill the bull with his bare hands to save Lygia from being gored to death. Marcus is taken to the emperor's box and forced to watch, to the outrage of his officers, who are among the spectators. But Ursus is able to topple the bull and break its neck. Massively impressed by Ursus's victory, the crowd exhorts Nero to spare the couple. He refuses to do so, even after four of his courtiers, Seneca (Nicholas Hannen), architect Phaon (D.A. Clarke-Smith), poet Lucan (Alfredo Varelli), and musician Terpnos (Geoffrey Dunn) add their endorsement of the mob's demands by putting their thumbs up as well. Marcus then breaks free of his bonds, leaps into the arena, and frees Lygia with the help of the loyal troops from his own legion. Marcus accuses Nero of burning Rome and announces that General Galba is at that moment marching on the city, intent on replacing Nero, and hails him as new Emperor of Rome.
Ringling Museum Sarasota, Florida. Bronze statue of Lygea tied to the bull by Giuseppe Moretti
The crowd revolts, now firmly believing that Nero, not the Christians, is responsible for the burning of Rome. Nero flees to his palace, where he strangles Poppaea, blaming her for inciting him to scapegoat the Christians. Then Acte (Rosalie Crutchley), Nero's discarded mistress who is still in love with him, appears and offers him a dagger to end his own life before the mob storming the palace kills him. Nero cannot do it, so Acte helps him to push the dagger into his chest, and he dies.
Marcus, Lygia and Ursus are now free, and they leave Rome for Marcus' estate in Sicily. By the roadside, Peter's crook, which he had left behind when he returned to Rome, has sprouted blossoms. A radiant light appears and a chorus intones, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," words reported to have been spoken by Jesus (John 14:6, New Testament).
The music score by Miklós Rózsa is notable for its historical authenticity. Since no Ancient Roman music had survived, Rozsa incorporated a number of fragments of Ancient Greek and Jewish melodies into his own choral-orchestral score.
In 1950, before film production began, Rozsa made pre-recordings of numerous fanfares, marches, songs and dances with the M-G-M Studio Orchestra in Culver City, and these survive. In 1951 he recorded the full score at M-G-M's British studios with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but these recordings were reportedly lost later on in a fire at the Culver City studios. However, 'dubdowns' of all of those recordings that were used in the film (about two-thirds with added sound effects) do survive. In 1951, M-G-M Records issued gramophone discs, in three different editions and speeds, of twelve tracks from the original soundtrack music (without sound effects). Consequently, much of the original recorded score is still available in various formats. In 2009, Film Score Monthly collected and issued these elements on two CDs.
In 1963, M-G-M Records brought out a stereo compilation of excerpts from Rozsa's film scores played by the Symphony Orchestra of Rome, conducted by Rozsa and Carlo Savina. Rozsa conducted the Triumphal March from Quo Vadis.
In 1967, Rozsa conducted the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra in a stereo compilation of excerpts from his epic film scores. This included three selections from Quo Vadis.
In 1977, Rozsa made a stereo recording of twelve selections from his score, once again conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 2012, Nic Raine, conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded the entire score (a total of 38 tracks on two CDs). This included several pieces of music that were originally recorded by Rozsa but not used on the film's soundtrack.
At the end of the film, a triumphal march heralds the success of the armies of the new emperor, Galba. This theme would be re-used by Rózsa in Ben-Hur (1959) as the brief 'Bread and Circuses March' preceding 'The Parade of the Charioteers', prior to the famous chariot race.
In his 1982 autobiography, Miklos Rozsa expressed his regret at the way his score was handled by producer Sam Zimbalist, 'a dear personal friend': "[He] didn't use the music in any way as effectively as he might have done. After all the trouble I went to, much of my work was swamped by sound effects, or played at such a low level as to be indistinguishable ... It was a great disappointment to me." However, he was mistaken when he wrote: "Quo Vadis, because it was produced abroad, was completely boycotted by Hollywood and received no Academy nominations." Although it didn't win any Academy Awards it did, in fact, receive eight nominations - including one for Rozsa's score.
Rozsa's love theme for Lygia ("Lygia") was set to words by Paul Francis Webster and Mario Lanza sang it for the first time on his radio show broadcast of January 1952.
Screenshot of Peter Ustinov from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis
In the late 1930s, M-G-M bought the talking picture rights to the 1896 novel Quo Vadis from author Henryk Sienkiewicz's heirs. (At the same time they had to buy the 1924 silent screen version.) The company originally intended to make the film in Italy, but the outbreak of WWII caused it to be postponed. After the war, production was restarted. A lease was obtained on the huge Cinecitta Studios, eight miles outside Rome, with its 148 acres and nine soundstages. After months of preparation, the art director, costume designer and set decorator arrived in Rome in 1948. Construction of the outdoor sets began at once: the huge Circus of Nero and exterior of Nero's palace, a whole section of Ancient Rome, a great bridge, and the Plautius villa. The manufacture of thousands of costumes for extras began, along with drapes and carpets, metal and glass goblets, and ten chariots. Official permission was granted to refurbish a section of the Appian Way. One of Hollywood's foremost animal experts began to procure lions, horses, bulls and other animals from around Europe. Well in advance of filming, the producer, director, chief cinematographer and casting director arrived in Rome. The film finally went into production on Monday, May 22, 1950.
The film was originally cast in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor as Lygia and Gregory Peck as Marcus Vinicius. When the production changed hands the following year, the roles went to Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor had an uncredited cameo role as a Christian in the Circus prisons.
Although most of the cast was British and a few Italian (Marina Berti, Alfredo Varelli, Roberto Ottaviano), Robert Taylor was certainly not the only American. Others included Buddy Baer (Ursus), Peter Miles (Nazarius), Arthur Walge (Croton) and William Tubbs (Anaxander). There were also several among the uncredited cast. Perhaps the most notable of these was 70-year-old Irish-American character actor Richard Garrick as the public slave who stands behind Marcus in his Triumph chariot, holding a victory laurel above his head, and repeating "Remember thou art only a man."
Peter Ustinov recalled how he was cast as Nero in 1949: "An exciting proposition came my way when I was twenty-eight years old. M.G.M. were going to remake Quo Vadis, and I was a candidate for the role of Nero. Arthur Hornblow [Jr] was to be the producer, and I was tested by [the director] John Huston. I threw everything I knew into this test, and to my surprise John Huston did little to restrain me, encouraging me in confidential whispers to be even madder. Apparently the test was a success, but then the huge machine came to a halt, and the project was postponed for a year. At the end of the year the producer was Sam Zimbalist and the director Mervyn LeRoy. They also approved my test, but warned me in a wire that I might be found to be a little young for the part. I cabled back that if they postponed again I might be too old, since Nero died at thirty-one. A second cable from them read 'Historical Research Has Proved You Correct Stop The Part Is Yours'.
Clark Gable turned down the role of Marcus Vinicius very early in the film's production history because he thought he would look ridiculous in Roman costumes.
Sophia Loren appeared in the film as an extra. (Attempts to identify her don't seem to have been successful.) The Italian star Bud Spencer also had an uncredited extra role as a Praetorian Guardsman inside Nero's summer palace at Antium. (He answers Nero, but his voice may be dubbed.)
Audrey Hepburn, still widely unknown when the film was released, was considered for the part of Lygia. Director Mervyn LeRoy wanted to cast her, but the role went to established M-G-M contract star Deborah Kerr instead. Wardrobe stills of her in costume for the film still exist.
Produced for $7 million, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time. It would become M-G-M's largest grosser since Gone with the Wind (1939)
The film holds the record for the most costumes used in one movie: 32,000.
Peter Ustinov relates in his autobiography Dear Me that director Mervyn LeRoy summarized the manner in which he envisioned Ustinov should play the Emperor Nero, very salaciously, as "Nero ... The way I see him ... He's a guy plays with himself nights." Ustinov comments: "At the time I thought it a preposterous assessment, but a little later I was not so sure. It was a profundity at its most workaday level, and it led me to the eventual conviction that no nation can make Roman pictures as well as the Americans ... The inevitable vulgarities of the script contributed as much to its authenticity as its rare felicities. I felt then as I feel today, in spite of the carping of critical voices, that Quo Vadis, good or bad according to taste, was an extraordinarily authentic film, and the nonsense Nero was sometimes made to speak was very much like the nonsense Nero probably did speak."
In the summer of 1950, when Quo Vadis was in production, Rome was in the grip of an intense heatwave, as Peter Ustinov recalled: "Rome was in the throes of Holy Year, and bursting with pilgrims. It was also one of the hottest summers on record." The heat affected not only the cast and crew but also the lions. Mervyn LeRoy recalled that because of the heat the lions were reluctant to enter the arena.
Patricia Laffan was selected by the producer and director for the major role of Poppaea after they watched a screen-test she made for a smaller part in the film.
At one point in the film Nero shows his court a scale-model illustrating his plans for the rebuilding of Rome as a new city to be called Neropolis. Studio publicity claimed that this was the famous model of Ancient Rome housed in the Museum of Roman Civilization and that it had been borrowed from the Italian government. (This was originally constructed by Mussolini's government for a 1937 exhibition of Roman architecture.) However, the museum model is of 4th Century Rome, not of 1st Century Rome as it would have looked when rebuilt after the Great Fire of 64AD. The screen model looks nothing like the museum model. (It was almost certainly constructed especially for the film - perhaps by its special effects model-maker, Donald Jahraus.)
The first use of the phrase 'Hollywood on the Tiber' - which has come to refer to a golden era of American runaway film production in Italy - was as the title of a Time magazine article in the issue dated June 26, 1950, published while Quo Vadis was being shot in Rome.
Filmed at the sprawling Cinecitta Studios that had been opened by Benito Mussolini in 1924 as part of the dictator's master plan to make Rome the pre-eminent world capital. (Mussolini and Hollywood producer Hal Roach later negotiated to form the R.A.M. ["Roach and Mussolini"] Corporation, which was ultimately aborted. This business alliance with the Fascist state horrified 1930s Hollywood moguls and ultimately led to Roach defecting from his M-G-M distribution deal to United Artists in 1937). Filming in post-war Italy offered American studios immense facilities and cheap Italian labor and extras, of which thousands were required. Hollywood would return to Cinecitta often, producing many of its biggest spectacles there, including Helen of Troy (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963) - the latter two dwarfing Quo Vadis in scale. The studio would later be used by many Italian producers and directors, including Federico Fellini.
Composer Miklós Rózsa said that he wrote most of his score at the Culver City studios while the film was being shot in Italy: "[The] rushes were being sent back to Hollywood for cutting at the same time as they were being cut back in Rome ... I set to work so that at least something was ready, even if it had to be modified later. I worked with the Chief Supervising Editor, Margaret Booth, whose technical knowledge is incomporable ... Finally the Rome contingent arrived home with their version. It wasn't so very different from the one that Margaret had put together, and there were no insuperable problems. Sam Zimbalist was amazed and delighted that I had all the music ready in three weeks, thanks to the work Margaret and I had already done."
Numerous Italian locations - as many as ten - were used in the film. With the exception of the Appian Way, most of these haven't been identified. But the final stage of the chariot chase was filmed along Bolgheri's 2000-year-old Viale dei Cipressi (Avenue of Cypresses). This famous landmark in Livorno, Tuscany is easily recognizable.
Anthony Mann worked on the film as an uncredited second-unit director. He spent 24 nights (four working weeks) on the Cinecitta backlot shooting scenes for the Burning of Rome sequence. (However, he was not the co-director of the film, as some of his admirers have claimed.) The soundstage scenes for the same sequence were directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
At 105 years of age (on 31 August 2019), Italian actor Alfredo Varelli (Lucan) may be the oldest surviving person associated with the film.
Box office performance
The 1953 Japanese Theatrical Release Poster
The film was a commercial success. According to M-G-M's records, during its initial theatrical release it earned $11,143,000 in the U.S. and Canada and $9,894,000 elsewhere, making it the highest-grossing film of 1951, and resulting in a profit to the studio of $5,440,000.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote in a mixed review, "Here is a staggering combination of cinema brilliance and sheer banality, of visual excitement and verbal boredom, of historical pretentiousness and sex." Crowther thought that even Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross "had nothing to match the horrendous and morbid spectacles of human brutality and destruction that Director Mervyn LeRoy has got in this. But within and around these visual triumph and rich imagistic displays is tediously twined a hackneyed romance that threatens to set your teeth on edge."Variety wrote that the film was "right up there with Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind for boxoffice performance. It has size, scope, splash and dash, giving for the first time in a long while credence to the now-cliched 'super-colossal' term. This is a super-spectacle in all its meaning." Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times declared it "one of the most tremendous if not the greatest pictures ever made ... Its pictorial lavishness has never been equaled in any other production."Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called it "a fabulously entertaining movie. Though the expansive, expensive film from the celebrated novel runs over three hours on the Palace screen, you won't believe you've been there nearly that long."Harrison's Reports declared, "For sheer opulence, massiveness of sets, size of cast and beauty of Technicolor photography, no picture ever produced matches 'Quo Vadis'. It is a super-collosal [sic] spectacle in every sense of the meaning, and on that score alone it is worth a premium price of admission."The Monthly Film Bulletin was negative, writing that the film "demonstrates how inordinately boring the convention of size and spectacle can be, when divorced from taste, feeling, and, to a surprising extent, creative talent. The film is unimaginatively directed, at a very slow pace in keeping with the general larger than life proportions, and its technical qualities are not impressive."
Peter Ustinov won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. The Golden Globe for Best Cinematography was won by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture - Drama.
A two-disc special edition of the movie was released on DVD in the U.S. on November 11, 2008, after a long photochemical restoration process. A high definition Blu-ray version was released March 17, 2009.
Comic book adaptation
Thriller Comics No 19, July 1952 (Amalgamated Press, London) Full-color photo-cover [image reversed] o 64 pages in black-and-white (Adapted by Joan Whitford o Drawn by Geoff Campion) [Remarkably faithful to the look of the film. However, apparently for reasons of space, both Marcus' friend Nerva and Petronius' slavegirl Eunice are excised.]