‘Quo Vadis’: Rome Burns Under Nero, While Early Christians Teach Love

Quo vadis is Latin for “Where are you going?” and a question posed in the apocryphal Acts of Peter. It forms the centerpiece of MGM’s 1951 epic, inspired by the 1896 eponymous novel by Polish Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz.

The film “Quo Vadis” (“QV”), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, centers around the love of Commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) for a former slave, Lygia (an incandescent Deborah Kerr), now an adopted daughter of a Roman family.  This story is set during the reign of Nero (an astonishingly young Peter Ustinov, in his 20s), who burns Rome for his own purposes and blames Christians, who are thrown into the Colosseum to be martyred.

Sienkiewicz’s story pits ancient Rome against early Christians. First, the Christians fall; they are hunted down and thrown to lions in the arena. Next, the Romans are burned and buried by their excesses. Then, as if by some invisible law, the Christians rise. Perhaps the sharp irony of it tickled Sienkiewicz’s 19th-century sensibilities. Rome crushed Christians for centuries; it now hosts the Vatican, seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

Director and producer Mervyn LeRoy puts a crown on actor Peter Ustinov during the filming of LeRoy's film "Quo Vadis." Ustinov is dressed in costume as the Roman Emperor Nero. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Director and producer Mervyn LeRoy puts a crown on actor Peter Ustinov during the filming of LeRoy's film "Quo Vadis." Ustinov is dressed in costume as the Roman Emperor Nero. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Nero’s Rome

Who embodies Rome in director LeRoy’s film? The mad—and  maddening—Emperor Nero, Cmdr. Vinicius, and Nero’s adviser Petronius (an impeccable Leo Genn).

Who embodies the Christians? Slave girl Lygia and her giant bodyguard Ursus (6 1/2 foot tall American boxer Buddy Baer). From the bath in which Vinicius sits, the camera gapes up at the mighty Ursus as he fills the doorway, bearing a giant cauldron of water that even three men would struggle with.

In a memorable action scene, Ursus wrestles a bull. For all of 120 seconds, the scene pulsates with energy and dread. You see Ursus sweat, hear his labored breathing, and share his struggle with a beast that drags and then lifts him clean off the ground, as if he were no more than a toga.

Like earlier emperors, Nero treats Rome as his property. Only, he’s worse. He lights a city up with about as much thought as a chain-smoker lights up a cigarette, never mind that the city houses thousands of citizens. Likewise, Vinicius treats Lygia as his property.

Conquest is Rome’s “truth,” the language it understands and transacts in. Lygia gently repels that “truth” with a more powerful truth: love.

Love conquers, too, just differently. Unlike the flame of lust, love’s fire doesn’t consume, doesn’t burn up, doesn’t burn down, doesn’t burn out. Love endures.

Buddy Baer as Ursus and Deborah Kerr as Lygia in the coliseum scene in "Quo Vadis." ((Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Buddy Baer as Ursus and Deborah Kerr as Lygia in the coliseum scene in "Quo Vadis." ((Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Lust for Blood

Nero, like modern-day Neros, is whimsical and wicked. Petronius wields just enough wit to match the emperor’s waffle. Together, they form a grimly funny political satire team not too different from those in White House films such as “Dave” or  “My Fellow Americans,” or in TV farces such as “Parks and Recreation” or “Three’s Company.” Only one of two speakers is ever serious. Think “Canadian Bacon” (1995), “Bulworth” (1998), “Primary Colors” (1998), or “Veep” (20122019).

Moments after a lustful Vinicius spies Lygia, he pesters Petronius: “What’s the law regarding hostages? Can they be bought, reassigned—What?”

Robert Taylor as Vinicius and Deborah Kerr as Lygia in "Quo Vadis." ((Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Robert Taylor as Vinicius and Deborah Kerr as Lygia in "Quo Vadis." ((Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

When Lygia resists, Vinicius responds with typical sexual predatory entitlement, “A young mare often enjoys fighting the bit.”

The minute citizens realize that Nero’s lust for power has lit up Rome, they charge his palace, just as his terrified advisers cut to the chase.

Nero (frantic): “What do they want? Justice?”

Nero’s Advisers: “No mob ever wants justice. They want vengeance. A victim!”

Cornered, they conjure a minority—Christians—who can serve as bait for the mob’s lust for blood. Frankly, any minority will satiate, as long as those chosen can’t defend themselves.

As Rome burns, a belatedly conscientious Petronius chastises himself. He and his silently complicit courtier friends should have spoken the truth and exposed Nero for the walking corpse that he is: “I could have gone to the mob and told them that Nero burned Rome …. But I did not … because out of force of long habit, I’ve become content only to be an amused cynic, a selfish onlooker, leaving others to shape the world.”

Stunned, a desperate Vinicius turns to Petronius.

Petronius: “Did you not hear his orators at the street corners? Already the people are being given the story, along with grain and wine, that it was the Christians and not Nero who set fire to Rome.”

Vinicius: “They won’t believe such a lie!”

Petronius: “But they are believing it. People will believe any lie if it is fantastic enough.”

Of Its Time

LeRoy is in no hurry to show off the grandeur of his sets. It isn’t until a full half hour that you see (in a scene lasting over seven minutes) the spectacle that Rome is used to. Crowds in the thousands, in a stadium-sized courtyard: dancers, musicians, roaring spectators, pagan priests, skyscraper-sized statues of the gods. Pan and tracking shots of horse-drawn chariots thundering through the countryside. And some 30,000 costumes.
The spectacle of Rome in "Quo Vadis." ((Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The spectacle of Rome in "Quo Vadis." ((Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

In light of the totalitarianism in parts of the world today, only occasionally does producer Sam Zimbalist’s “Quo Vadis” look and feel like satire. It captures the cut and thrust of a state that makes gods of mere men. Though set in A.D. 64, the script bristles with conversations that wouldn’t be out of place in the corridors of contemporary power; you can almost hear them echo through some air-conditioned corridor, as if from last evening, or last week.

You’ll need to be patient with the film’s leisurely pace, its indulgences, its distractions, unwieldy romantic subplots, and English accents jostling with those of Italian, American, and Scottish. But MGM had been wrestling with a screen version of Sienkiewicz’s novel from as far back as 1925; their fits and starts straddled a bruising six-year world war. Pared-down storytelling may have helped endear it to wider, younger audiences, but “QV” is a product of its time.

Marquee showing the theatrical release of "Quo Vadis." (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Marquee showing the theatrical release of "Quo Vadis." (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

You’ve seen the CGI-pumped “Gladiator” (2000) and “Troy” (2004)? Now imagine the audacity of filming “QV” so realistically, decades before special effects and CGI overwhelmed Hollywood. “QV” must be judged by its ambition: to show moral decay full-scale. By that yardstick, it’s outstanding.

Nominated for eight Oscars, “QV” failed to win any. Yet alongside Cecil B DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” (1949), it’s LeRoy’s 1951 classic “Quo Vadis” that spurred the ambition for subsequent sword-and-sandal epics. These earned the Oscars: “The Robe” (1953), “The Ten Commandments” (1956), and “Ben Hur” (1959), and they were the ones that deserved the extravagance of IMAX but didn’t get it.

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