Monday, January 10, 2011

1951 - Quo Vadis

It's almost hard to believe that my visit to Australia is very nearly over. Tomorrow, Kat and I fly back to the United States after a whirlwind tour of Sydney. The last couple of weeks have been all hustle and bustle as we caught up with friends and family, every meeting seeming to involve food. And for some reason, we met an inordinate number of babies for the first time, many around the eight to ten month age range. If my calculations are correct, it appears that these couples may have specifically waited for us to leave the country to conceive their children. Hmmm...

So busy was I during this trip that I am only now posting this review despite having watched this film almost a week ago. My first film of 2011 was the final nominee from 1951's Best Picture contenders...

Quo Vadis
Mervyn LeRoy
John Lee Mahin, S.N. Berhman, Sonya Levien
(based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz)
Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov, Patricia Laffan, Finlay Currie, Abraham Sofaer, Marina Berti
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
0 wins

Ancient Rome in the first century is governed by Nero (Ustinov), who acts more like a tantrum-throwing child than an emperor. After years as Nero's advisor, the far more intelligent Petronius (Genn) placates and coddles his emperor to the point of manipulation, biding his time. Marcus Vinicius (Taylor), a commander in Nero's army, returns from battle and chauvinistically pursues Lygia (Kerr), a hostage of Rome and a member of a newly-formed religious group known as the Christians. Vinicius asks his emperor if he can have Lygia as compensation for his successful military duties. What girl could resist such a romantic gesture? Lygia falls in love with Vinicius anyway, but their newfound happiness is short-lived as Nero begins to cruelly persecute the Christians and those who associate with them.

As a historical drama, Quo Vadis hits all the right notes. However, Quo Vadis is not entirely a historical drama. It is mostly a Christian allegory and, as such, can appear a tad preachy. Although, its perceived preachiness is probably dependent on the viewer's religious convictions, I suppose. Nevertheless, the allegorical content is itself engaging and, therefore, not too detrimental to the enjoyment of the film for those of a non-Christian persuasion.

It is difficult not to at least compare this picture to that other Roman epic of the 1950s, Ben-Hur. Indeed, there is a brief chariot scene in Quo Vadis, complete with drivers whipping each other and spiky wooden wheels tearing other wheels to shreds. The whole thing may well have been considered reminiscent of the Charlton Heston classic if it weren't for the fact that Quo Vadis was released about eight years prior to Ben-Hur.

In any case, the exciting action sequences are fitting for any film hoping to label itself an epic, and they are complemented by lavish sets and costumes creating a theatrically extravagant atmosphere. Only the special effects leave a bit to be desired. Due to the limited technology of the time, the blue-screen effect often leaves a blue glow around the actors, making them seem like 70s TV weathermen. Despite this unavoidable flaw, the chaos surrounding the burning of Rome is still immensely powerful.

Most importantly, the film has a very engaging story, approaching the material in a personal and emotional way despite the epic backdrop. The characters are interesting, both as written and as performed. Peter Ustinov is the standout with his hilarious yet poignant portrayal of the narcissistic emperor Nero. His right-hand man, Petronius, is played with delicious restraint by Leo Genn. Both men received Supporting Actor nominations from the Academy, boosting the film's total nods to eight, only three less than Ben-Hur's in 1959. The two films' conversion rates are a little less similar. While Ben-Hur took all but one of its nominations, Quo Vadis failed to take home any awards at all...

1 comment:

  1. Quo Vadis was the third of the five films nominated in 1951 that I hadn't seen before - one of the lowest percentage years that is now corrected. It is quite the piece of entertainment, if historically inaccurate. It was Louis B. Mayer's swan song with MGM, as he was slowly eased out, along with the decline in the studio system. I think that Mayer and the other predominantly Jewish moguls knew that the strongly Christian ethic of the movie-goers of the Golden Age would respond to the stories of early Christianity, saints and miracles. Today, those films do seem like a relic of the past. I must admit that while I rationally have tempered those stories, emotionally, the little Catholic schoolboy in me still responds. Wait until you get to The Song of Bernadette.

    Anyway, Quo Vadis did pave the way for the sword and sandals epics that would come throughout the fifties. It also could have benefited from a CinemaScope process that was a few years away.

    Ustinov and Genn were certainly the acting standouts, on opposite ends of the scale from flamboyant to intelligently modulated. Robert Taylor, a bit old, but still handsome, was fine, if wooden. Deborah Kerr was as lovely as always, and Scottish character actor Finlay Currie, a far cry from his sinister Magwitch in Great Expectations, handled the preachy parts as Peter, and Max Baer's brother Buddy, as Lygia's stalwart protector. His tussle with the bull was actually quite well done.

    At the time I watched this, I also happened to watch 1979's Hair. Not much linking these two movies, except one of Hair's musical numbers was called "Where do I Go", which is a pretty close translation of the Latin Quo Vadis: "Whither Goest Thou" or where do you go?