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Christianity Versus The Decadence of Nero's Rome
on April 4, 2004
"Quo Vadis", based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz would have to be near the top of my list of favourite 1950's religious epic productions. Indeed "Epic" is the word to fittingly describe this mammoth MGM production that cost an amazing 7 million dollars to make in 1950 and was the studio's biggest money maker since "Gone With The Wind". It has everything an epic movie lover could desire, the already stated fine literary source, breathtaking sets (no computer generated effects here!), meticulously researched historical costumes, enormous crowds scenes and a stunning recreation of Pagan Rome at it's height. The film boasts an extraordinary cast but towering over all of them is the late Peter Ustinov in his unforgettable performance as the deranged Nero. His interpretation of this infamous Emperor who began the first concentrated persecution of the early Christians is still the visual image for a lot of people, myself included,that first comes to mind when Nero's name is mentioned. Already having been filmed a number of times in the silent era and once again since this 1951 film, this is still the definitive version of the story of the early Christian Church struggling to survive in Nero's Rome after the great fire.
With the advent of television in the early 1950's Hollywood fought back with splashy, lavish productions that could not be matched by the flickering black and white image of television in it's infancy. "Quo Vadis", lent itself perfectly for this purpose and an already shaky MGM put all of it's resources into the filming of this elaborate production. The story centres around cocky Roman soldier Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) who after three years of successful campaigning returns to savour the delights of Nero's Rome. Detained at the villa of a retired Roman general Marcus falls for the simple charms of the general's adapted daughter Lygia (Deborah Kerr) who unbeknown to Marcus is secretly a Christian. Seeing her love for him but not understanding the families belief in the love of a single god and in loving your fellow man despite their background or race Marcus has Lygia taken to Rome and placed in Nero's "House of Women" and seeks to make her is own. Lygia escapes and is taken in by other believers but in the meanwhile Marcus finds himself the focus of the unwelcome and quite dangerous affections of the Empress Poppaea (Patricia Laffan). Meanwhile Nero's meglomania continues to grow and he develops a wild scheme to rebuild Rome to his own glory and secretly sets the city on fire. The backlash from this act however sets Nero to find a scapegoat and thus begins the persecution of the Christian sect that are, to the amazement of the Romans, the disciples of a simple young carpenter from Galilee who was executed for his beliefs. Marcus finds Lygia however both are imprisoned together as Christian believers to become the sport of Nero's festivities in the arena. The appearance of the Apostle Peter who has been called to Rome by Christ's message gives the Christians the strength to endure their ordeals and Marcus and Lygia are married by him just prior to his own matrydom on Vatican Hill. Nero however goes too far in his persecution and the mob turns on him resulting in his fall from power and suicide and the reins of power being taken over by the more level headed General Galba.
While "Quo Vadis", in some areas is not always accurate historically the faults are not glaring ones and it does give a vivid picture of the growth of the early Christian movement and the persecution it endured which of course went on long after Nero's death. First and foremost it is inspiring and dramatic viewing and is the classic example of old style movie making at its most lavish. The film is filled with unforgettable images, for example the huge crowd scenes during Marcus' triumpiant entry into Rome, and the burning of the city by Nero which incredibly was done on both full sized and miniature sets. The cold blooded destruction of the Christians in Nero's Circus of course is probably the most vivid image in the film and is riverting in it's horror and accurate depiction of people being eaten by lions or being used as human torches. These scenes in "Quo Vadis", have I believe never been bettered in depicting the insanity and brutality of Nero and his regime. Performances are uniformily fine here. As the two lovers Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr are just perfect as the two illmatched lovers from different worlds. Finlay Currie does a most inspirational piece of work as Peter and special mention must go to Patricia Laffan who is perfect in a chilling performance as the evil Empress Poppaea. Directed by MGM veteran Mervyn LeRoy, who was responsible for such diverse MGM productions as "Waterloo Bridge", and "Blossoms in the Dust", here he is still just as at home with this super scale type of film and his directoral integrity is evident in every frame of this film. "Quo Vadis", ended up being nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov.
I always find "Quo Vadis", a moving viewing experience generally around Easter time when my thoughts often go back to the earliest years of my religion. Liking the older style of movie making I can also appreciate the film on its superb technical achievements and massive historical recreation. This however never submerges my appreciation of its very simple message that all people need to love each other despite their differences for the world to be a happier place. Take time soon to view this epic production of "Quo Vadis", you wont regret it.