Saturday, 17 September 2011

Quo Vadis? (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1951)

I enjoyed Quo Vadis? more than I expected to. Being a 1950s blockbuster based on a nineteenth century novel, it shares with later films like Spartacus a view of Rome as a hotbed of sin and Christianity as the solution. However, since unlike Spartacus it is not only set during a period when there actually were Christians, but during one of the biggest persecutions of Christians, this is a little bit less annoying than when it gets shoved into stories set seventy years before the birth of Jesus.

I was rather unconvinced by the central romance, though I like Lygia, especially for her 'I like what I see, but not what I hear' speech. Marcus Vinicius is a slimeball, which I suppose is the point, since the idea is that he is redeemed by his relationship with Lygia, but still, what on earth does she see in him? The minute he agrees not to rape her after all, she's engaged to him. Urgh. He improves a bit when he runs into a burning city to rescue her, but by then the whole relationship makes so little sense I've stopped caring very much. Both of them are fictitious, though Vinicius is symbolically named, as one of the historical Marcus Viniciuses was involved in the assassination of Caligula.

We don't know much about whether St Peter went to Rome or what he did there. The Catholic Encyclopedia is rather overethusiastic on the subject (none of this is 'indisputably established historical fact' by any stretch of the imagination) but in amongst the rhetoric it does have a handy list of the relevant sources. The tradition of the vision of Christ on his way to Rome and Peter asking 'Where are you going?' and the answer 'to be crucified a second time' and of Peter being crucified upside down because he complained he wasn't worthy to die in the same way as Jesus come from the apocryphal Acts of Peter, texts not accepted as genuine by the Catholic Church.

Throughout the film, Nero refers to himself as a god and has everyone address him as 'divinity'. This is very unlikely to be historically accurate. Caligula may have thought himself a god, but while Nero associated himself with Apollo the same way Augustus had, and probably expected to be deified after death like Augustus and Claudius, it's very unlikely that he set himself up as a god during his lifetime. However, this appropriation of one of Caligula's characteristics to Nero produces an effective parallel for the film. Throughout the film, parallels are emphasised between the use of the word 'lord' (Latin dominus) for their master by slaves, for Nero by everyone and for Jesus by Christians. As the story goes on, Nero asks Tigellinus 'Do you love me?' and he replies 'You know it, Lord,' clearly paralleling Jesus' post-resurrection conversation with Peter in the Gospel of John. This emphasises the good guys/bad guys relationship the audience is encouraged to see between the Christians and Nero and his court.

Nero is also depicted as mad - Peter describes him as 'sick' rather than 'a beast'. The real Nero was probably, like the real Commodus, more cruel and vicious than actually mad. The first few years of his reign, under Seneca's influence, seem to have gone quite well. However, dramatically, his characterisation here, and Peter Ustinov's performance, are wonderful. The sheer scale of Nero's vanity and the twisted logic he follows, along with a healthy dose of pop-culture-Roman decadence, are great fun to watch.

I love the characterisation of Petronius here. The real Petronius Arbiter remained in favour throughout the fire and the persecution of the Christians and was forced to suicide because he was friends with someone who conspired against Nero, but that bit of artistic licence aside, this Petronius fits the probable author of the comic novel the Satyricon rather well. The staged event at which he kills himself and the final piece of writing, here presented as a letter, outlining all Nero's faults, are historical. We don't have the document, but I love the idea that he complains of being bored to death - that sounds like something the author of the Satyricon would say.

Poppaea here fulfils the role of Evil Woman, since Nero's mother Agrippina is already dead by the start of the film. We don't know much about the historical Poppaea, other than that Nero kicked her to death while she was pregnant, so I've always felt rather sorry for her. But here, the story needs a villain, since Nero is definitely not playing with a full deck and Tigellinus is really only a lackey, so Poppaea has to be the schemer, the thinking bad guy. Nero here kills her because he blames her for the general diasaster he's facing, which credits him with rather more of a motive for this than the sources provide. We know even less about Nero's mistress Acte, except that she buried him, together with his nurses, which implies that, as here, she felt a genuine affection for him.

For the most part, and aside from deliberate instances of artistic licence, the depiction of the ancient world is fairly accurate. There are some exceptions though. For example, Vinicius refers to his soldiers wanting to go home to their wives, but in the Roman army, only the officers were allowed to get married and raise legitimate families (Rome's Lucius Vorenus specifically mentions that he got a special dispensation in the first episode). Once the emperors were firmly installed, the army tended to posted to the same place for decades or even centuries, and the soldiers simply formed unofficial relationships with native women wherever they were posted.

The depiction of Christinity, unsurprisingly, is more reflective of Western twentieth century Christianity than of what little we know of first century Christianity. For example, this is a bit early for Christians to be giving up keeping slaves. Christians were never against slavery, though in the fourth century some Christian ascetics freed all their slaves and lived together with them in proto-monasteries. But this is too early for that, and the Christian philosophy in general seems a bit too developed for a time when Jesus was still within living memory - for example, Lygia prays to be forgiven for anger, but I suspect this aspect of Christian teaching is a later result of interaction with Stoic philosophy (Jesus Himself gets pretty cross in the Gospels). They've also got an impressive repertoire of Victorian-sounding hymns for a secretive cult that's only been in existence for thirty-odd years, and I'm not sure Peter and Paul really worked together - it's not my area, but I understand they preached essentially two different schools of Christianity (Paul's won). Paul gazing up adoringly at Peter looks a bit off to me - but then, this is one of those areas we know so little about authors have a lot of room for manoever.

On the pagan side, it is very unlikely that a state religious occasion would be led by a priestess in Rome, as shown here (presumably to contrast pagan religion with Christianity, which in the twentieth century did not allow women much opportunity for major roles within the various churches). There were priestesses, and the Vestal Virgins were extrememly important, but state religion was led chiefly by the augurs and by the emperor himself. And the recitation of gods followed by the crowd crying 'We worship you!' sounds more like part of a Catholic mass than anything else to me (with a slight change of vocabulary, obviously).

The story's interpretation of the fire of Rome is interesting and quite effective. Nero deciding to burn Rome because Petronius suggests you have to experience things to write about them is results in an intriguing interpretation of Nero singing while Rome burns - here, the fact that he can sing while the fire rages is part of the point of the fire, rather than just (as it is in the sources) an indication of how little he cared. The song itself is both hilariously bad and intensely dramatic and poignant. The other reason, which was rumoured in antiquity, is of course that Nero wanted to rebuild the city to suit himself. I rather like the use of Mussolini's model, which is of a much later Rome complete with Colosseum, as Nero's model of how he wants Rome to look in the future, which is neatly done.

Some odd bits and pieces... The only time you see Jesus' face is in a recreation of Da Vinci's Last Supper (so, from a distance) which is taken to represent the moment when Jesus has just told Peter he will deny him three times. I quite like this old tradition of never showing his face, though it probably wouldn't work with today's more secular approach and more fluid cinematography. Poppaea's leopards are random but rather fun. The fire sequence is good, and I like the escape via the Cloaca Maxima (the sewers).

The bit where Nero has the Praetorians block the bridge to the Palatine to prevent people from escaping the fire that way is a bit over the top - according to Tacitus, Nero opened up the Circus Maximus, Agrippa's buildings and even his own gardens to the populace to help them survive. Whether he was involved in starting the fire or not (probably not, historically speaking) he certainly wasn't aiming to kill people. His persection of the Christians, on the other hand, is pretty faithful to what Tacitus describes (Annals 15.44, which also includes Tacitus' rather low opinion of said Christians) albeit with lions rather than dogs. Lions are more cinematic, and more Symbolic, thanks to the story of Daniel in the lions' den.

Like Gladiator, the ending of Quo Vadis? is almost totally unhistorical. Nero was forced to suicide, but it was three years after the fire and not sparked off by a confrontation in the arena (we don't even get to hear his famous last words 'Oh, what an artist dies with me!', which makes his death more dramatic and less comical but still, I was disappointed. According to the extra on the DVD, his final line here, 'Is this the end of Nero?' was an echo of one of the director's previous films, spoken by the gangster Little Caesar). Still, it's quite a satisfying ending, if cheesy, and neatly brings the film full circle to where it started, on the Appian Way.

Somewhat fuzzy photo of the Appian Way from our study trip to Rome during our undergraduate degree, with some of my friends walking away from the camera. We don't know it yet, but we're actually walking quite far in the wrong direction... It's very pretty though!


  1. Great review Juliette!

    I have rather vague memories of this one, despite having seen it several times! I seem to remember it being on TV here in Spain quite frequently when I was on holiday visiting my grandparents.
    Funny how movies influence your later views, I think all I know about Nero probably comes from this film! :p

  2. It's weird, I'd never seen it before - I guess either it hasn't been on here much, or it was on at times of day I was doing something else!

  3. Excellent review Juliette.

    Quo Vadis has a long history in Hollywood.

    The story first came to the attention of MGM in 1925 when the studio considered making a film based upon the book Quo Vadis: A Narrative Of The Time Of Nero written by the Polish Nobel Laureate Henryk Seinkiewicz.

    In 1935 it was rumored that Marlene Dietrich would play that part of Poppaea, and then in 1942 both Orson Wells and Charles Laughton were approached to play the role of Nero, however World War Two put an end to those plans.

    After the war, in 1947, Louis B Mayer hired John Houston to direct and Gregory peck to star, but scheduling conflicts arose (as they often do in Hollywood) and both Peck and Houston moved on to other projects.

    When MGM finally did mount the production of Quo Vadis we know today, it was seen at that time as Hollywood's answer to the popularity of the new box invading homes all over America - the Television.

    MGM set out to make the most visually extravagant spectacle ever seen. To that end the production involved over 200 speaking roles, nearly 30, 000 extras and even 120 lions. At the conclusion of principle photography the director had over 580,000 feet of film to edit.

    When all was said and done, Quo Vadis cost $57 million to make and brought in over $312 million in US Box office alone. (in 2005 adjusted dollars). THe film still ranks #97 on the lost of top US Box Office films as of 2009.

    This info courtesy of the book: George Lucas's Blockbusting (c2010) pages 348-349.

    For my review of that book:

    Once again, great review Juliette.

  4. Your review reminded me how silly this is in places. But in a fun way.

    My fave scene is the one where Petronius's slave-girl kisses his statue. I used a similar scene in The Sirens of Surrentum, where Flavia kisses a statue of Pollius Felix, the bronze still warm from the sun.

    A fun fact, Hebrew letters all have numerical value and the value the Hebrew letters of ‘Nero Caesar’ add up to 666.

  5. Another piece that reminds me how good your writing on movies is.

    A few random points:

    The movie omits the question mark from the title - considerable play was made of this at the time, with publicity saying that the question mark wasn't a Latin punctuation mark. In contrast the 1901 French short silent version, and the 1913 and 1925 Italian features, all have the question mark.

    Maria Wyke is very good on Quo Vadis in Projecting the Past. I haven't read Ruth Scodel and Anja Bettenworth's Whither Quo Vadis?, though it looks good.

    Henry Sienkiewicz intended Marcus Vinicius to be the son of the Vinicius involved in the murder of Caligula.

    Hollywood tends to homogenise its mad Roman emperors, so that Caligula, Nero and Commodus all end up bonkers in the same way. Similarly it tends to treat pagans as Christians with different hats.

    I hadn't realised that the end of Quo Vadis is a nod to Little Caesar (I don't think Rico is ever called that in the movie other than in the title). Interesting.

  6. I can't say I know much about Poppaea either. Nero either stole her from Otho or had Otho act as a placeholder until Mommy Dearest was out of the way and he could marry her himself. Otho wound up with Lusitania as exile or reward, depending.

    Also: Jesus Himself gets pretty cross in the Gospels
    You could perhaps have put that a little better.

  7. Also: Jesus Himself gets pretty cross in the Gospels
    You could perhaps have put that a little better.

    No, I don't think would be possible.

  8. @Nomad:
    Oh, I snerked. I'm glad I wasn't drinking anything when I read that. I'm not sure if it's quite what Juliette was going for though.

  9. Thanks Tony and Nomad :)

    @Tony I ought to take the question mark off I suppose, but it looks so wrong to have a question without a question mark! (I am strange, I realise this).

    @Caroline I liked that scene too - I quite liked that storyline, it was rather sweet, though you could interpret the slave as suffering from a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome...


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