Returning to Rome after three years in the field, General Marcus Vinicius meets Lygia and falls in love with her, though as a Christian she wants nothing to do with a warrior. Though she grew up Roman, the adopted daughter of a retired general, Lygia is technically a hostage of Rome. Marcus gets Emperor Nero to give her to him for services rendered but finds himself succumbing gradually to her Christian faith. Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Audio anachronism: I seemed to hear at one of the scenes at the beginning, when Nero-Ustinov is entertaining guests at his palace, a sentence in French! He turns around to address one of the musicians, and says something like: Joue pour moi! (Play for me). This was an original soundtrack version showed in Spanish TV, on April 5th 2007. I don't know if this was a joke or an incredible anachronism, since French was derived from Latin many centuries afterward. Maybe a hint to Nero's snob-ism... See more »
[as Vinicius and the other soldiers march past]
Come closer. Look. They march as they fight: strong, brave, relentless... our unconquerable children. We must take them to our breast.
[Obviously attracted to Vinicius and interpreting the double-entendre literally]
Yes, my lord.
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Henryk Sienkiewicz was one of Poland's great historical novelists, and one of the first recipients of the Nobel Prize for literature (1905). It has only been in the last decade or so that translations of other novels by him have appeared in English, but his major work, QUO VADIS?, has been known since it appeared over a century ago. It was a study of the early days of the Christians in Rome, and their first persecution by the Emperor Nero (54 - 68 A.D.) It concentrates on the burning of Rome and the persecution of the Christians (including the death by crucifixion of St. Peter). So the background is identical to Cecil B. DeMille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS. Inevitably comparisons between the two films, their plots, and the performances of the two Neros (Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov) result.
But the two stories are not the same. Sienkiewicz threw in far more of the history of the Rome of that period than the author of the play THE SIGN OF THE CROSS did. And because of his deeply felt commitment to his faith, Sienkiewicz showed the destruction of Nero's rotten regime and the first triumph of Christianity. THE SIGN OF THE CROSS does not do that - my comment there was that DeMille never made such a pessimistic and tragic film in his career, with all the good people being destroyed and Nero (at that time) triumphant. This does not happen in QUO VADIS, where the corruption and incompetence of the regime finally loses the support of the people (and ... ironically worse ... the army!).
There is also the addition of the leading poet-courtier of the day, Petronius Arbiter. A man of wit and taste, Petronius was one of several figures of literary note in Nero's court, and one of several to meet tragedy by being near that egomaniac. The others were led by Nero's original chief minister Seneca, the stoic philosopher and dramatist. Seneca's nephew Lucan was also a leading figure in the court. Both men were eventually turned into foes of the regime, especially as Seneca fell from his ministerial position after the murder of Nero's mother Agrippina. Petronius managed to avoid the political conflict that involved the other two, but the Emperor's irrational jealousy helped link the three. Lucan wrote a savage epic poem against the Imperial family (PHARSALIA) which signaled his rejection of the regime. Lucan joined a conspiracy against Nero led by a Senator named Piso. It was discovered, and Lucan and Seneca implicated. Both were forced to commit suicide (by opening their veins). Tigellinus, Nero's leading adviser, insinuated that Petronius was involved too (he wasn't). Petronius also committed suicide the same way, but wrote a witty and accurate denunciation to Nero which was given to the Emperor after the writer's death.
Petronius' major surviving work, THE SATYRICON, was a wonderful look at the rot at the center of the regime of Nero. It (by the way) was turned into a film by Fellini in the late 1960s.
Leo Genn brought Petronius and his delicate wit and taste out in the film, and merited the Oscar nomination he got for this - his best remembered role (aside from Dr. "Kick" in THE SNAKE PIT). Ustinov brings a degree of frailty to Nero - an uncertainty as to the acceptance of his public persona. He flails about between seeking the approval of the artists like Petronius and those who manipulate the tyrant in him (Poppeia and Tigellinus). Despite his vicious evil one sympathizes with him - he is a sick man. And his reconstruction program (he burns down old Rome to create "Neropolis") is on par to that of another tyrant of more recent vintage, who planned to build a world capital called "Germania" over Berlin's bones. He too left many bones, but it is hard to consider him at all sympathetic.
As spectacle and history QUO VADIS? is quite rewarding. It may telescope the events of 64 - 68 A.D. (when Nero committed suicide with assistance), and avoid the three brief Emperors who ruled after Nero within the year (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius) before Vespasian came back from the war in Israel to take the throne for a decade - but it does show how Nero's regime collapsed. DeMille never tackled it. But despite those two omissions the film does do the period pretty well.
Robert Taylor is more effective as a military commander / hero than Fredric March had been in SIGN OF THE CROSS. Deborah Kerr is more believable as an early Christian convert. And Finley Currie is wonderful as Simon Peter - who realizes that he must die for the Lord that he once denied. His end is based on a legend that Peter was crucified upside down, supposedly at his request that he did not deserve to be crucified in the same way as the Lord he briefly failed. Altogether a superior religious - historic epic.
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