Cast & Crew
In 64 A.D. commanding officer Marcus Vinicius returns to Rome after three years abroad waging battle for emperor Nero, a tyrant who believes he is a gifted divinity. Nero's most trusted advisor Petronius, who is also Vinicius' uncle, informs his nephew that Nero has recently murdered his wife and mother and married a slave named Poppaea, and that the disgruntled Roman Senate is making plans to replace Nero with General Galba of Tuscany. While visiting the home of retired General Plautius, Vinicius flirts with a woman he assumes is a household slave, but soon discovers that she is Plautius' daughter Lygia, who rebuffs his crass advances. Over dinner, when Vinicius eagerly describes the defeat of Rome's enemies, Lygia expresses her disgust with the brutalities of war. Plautius explains that Lygia was once a princess who was made a slave during his military campaign against her people. Plautius and his wife Pomponia adopted Lygia in attempt to make amends for her suffering. Later, when family friend Paul philosophizes about peace, Vinicius insists that Lygia is too lovely to worry about such trivial teachings and leaves. Paul then tells the family that the apostle Peter, who spoke with their savior Jesus Christ before his death, will arrive in Rome shortly. Later that night, after Vinicius invites Lygia to a feast celebrating the legions' triumph, she reveals she is attracted to Vinicius, but admits his tales of conquest disturb her and refuses him again. After he leaves, Lygia prays for Vinicius' conversion to Christianity. During the military parade the following day, Petronius suggests to Nero that he buy Vinicius a slave as a sign of gratitude. Nero orders Lygia taken and given to Vinicius. While Vinicius tries to interest the sullen Lygia in the palace festivities that night, the conniving Poppaea jealously spies on them. After Nero arrogantly sings amateurish lyrics while accompanying himself on the lyre, Petronius suggests Nero must improve his verses to reflect his "true genius." Nero then exclaims that he might burn the city just to inspire him to create a great epic. Later, while Lygia is being escorted to Vinicius' quarters, her guard, the giant Ursus, attacks the escorts, allowing Lygia to escape. The next day, when Vinicius seeks Petronius' help in locating Lygia, Petronius reveals that Paul is a frequent visitor at Plautius' home. Petronius explains that Lygia, like Paul, is a Christian, members of a secret sect that worships Christ, an opponent of the state who, although crucified, is still of political concern to both Nero and the Senate. Petronius sends his friend to Chilo, a soothsayer, who leads Vinicius to a Christian rite held in a cave that evening. During the ceremony, Peter describes his first meeting with Jesus at Galilee, where the savior miraculously filled their empty fishing nets with catch. Peter continues with the story of how he and eleven other apostles followed Jesus, who was crucified at Calvary. Soon after, Jesus appeared before the apostles, forgave them for their sins and bade them to follow the Ten Commandments and abstain from violence. After the meeting, Vinicius and his guard Croton follow Lygia, but Ursus kills Croton and knocks out Vinicius to protect Lygia. He then carries Vinicius to a hideout, where Lygia tends to his wounds. Vinicius asks her to marry him and offers to fill their home with grand sculptures celebrating her god, but Lygia says she has no need of expensive gestures because she carries the image of Christ in her heart. Driven by jealousy, Vinicius demands that Lygia choose between her faith and him. When she chooses Christ, Vinicius leaves for Antioch, where Poppaea, having heard about his failure with Lygia, tries to entice him into an affair. That afternoon, Nero, surrounded by his council, announces that he killed his mother and past wife to experience a great sacrifice and thereby inspire his "new creative vision." He then unveils a sprawling architectural model of a city called "Neropolis," which will replace Rome. When Petronius asks what will become of the existing city, Nero announces that he has set fire to Rome. Fearing for Lygia's life, Vinicius steals a chariot and races to Rome, where buildings are tumbling down and fires spill out over thousands of citizens. Opening a sewer grate, Vinicius leads a crowd to the city's edge, where he spots Lygia. Petronian guards, following Nero's orders, block the exits out of the city, but Vinicius fights the commanding officer and orders the troops to break ranks, thus freeing thousands of people from imminent death. Soon, the citizen mob reaches the palace at Antioch prepared to kill Nero for his incendiary act. Desperate to find a scapegoat, Nero orders his commanding officer Tigellinus to take the blame, but Tigellinus threatens to turn his legions against Nero. When Poppaea suggests sacrificing the Christians, Nero agrees, but Petronius warns that the Christians will then become martyrs. The next morning, while Petronius signs a petition presented to him by Vinicius requesting Galba replace Nero, he warns his nephew that Poppaea has issued a warrant for his arrest and that Christians are being imprisoned for setting fire to Rome. Vinicius searches for Lygia in the prisons, where he is thrown into a cell with her and her parents. Learning that they will soon be fed to the lions, the Christian prisoners demand to know why God has deserted them; however, Plautius and Pomponia encourage the crowd to be courageous and have faith in God. Meanwhile, travleing toward Greece on the road outside Rome, Peter witnesses the skies filling with light as God, speaking through his fellow traveler, the young orphan Nazarius, announces, "My people in Rome have need of thee," thus causing Peter to return to Rome. That night, Petronius holds a dinner for his friends and announces he is freeing his slaves, including Eunice, to whom he has devoted his love. Denouncing his cynical wit, and believing that a better life awaits him after death, Petronius orders one of his servants to slit his wrist. Eunice, distraught by her lover's act, slits her wrist as well. As they lay dying at the head of the table, Petronius dictates a letter to Nero in which he implores his leader not to "mutilate the arts" with his "mediocre performances," and admonishes him to "brutalize the people but do not bore them as you have bored your friend." When the letter is delivered, Nero seethes at his advisor's words. Later, at the Roman arena, Nero and Poppaea are awaiting the first sacrifice of the Christians, when Peter enters among the spectators and tells the faithful that they are blessed for dying in the name of Christ. His words prompt the victims to sing fearlessly as the lions attack them, infuriating Nero. In a cell that evening, Lygia asks Peter to marry her and Vinicius, who is beginning to understand their faith. Soon after, Peter is crucified along with Plautius, who publicly accuses Nero of setting fire to Rome. The next day, Vinicius is forced to watch beside Poppaea as Ursus guards Lygia from a charging Brahma bull in the arena. When Vinicius calls out to Christ to give the guard strength, Ursus wrestles the beast to the ground and kills it. As the crowd and council demand that Lygia and Ursus be spared, Vinicius announces to the public that Galba will soon take over as emperor of Rome. Nero flees the arena to his palace, which is surrounded by throngs of irate Roman citizens. Accusing Poppaea of encouraging him to make martyrs of the Christians and thus cause his downfall, he chokes his wife to death then locks himself in his room. Slave Acte is waiting there and hands her master a dagger, telling him to kill himself like an emperor. A coward to the end, Nero begs her to help him plunge the knife into his breast. In the following days, as Galba's troops march into Rome, Vinicius admits that all dynasties are destined to fail and observes that hope resides in one faith that will unite the world. Soon after on the road out of Rome, Nazarius shows Lygia, Vinicius and Ursus the blessed spot where God spoke through him to Peter, which is marked by Peter's upright cane covered with blooming vines.
D. A. Clarke-smith
Lia Da Leo
Anna Maria Mancini
Michael De Krasny
Maj. Philip J. Kieffer
Jack Del Rio
Maurice De Bosardi
Eduardo Di Persis
S. N. Behrman
A. Arnold Gillespie
William A. Horning
John Lee Mahin
Charles E. Parker
William V. Skall
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Of London
Ralph E. Winters
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actor
The production of Quo Vadis came at the height of an executive power struggle at MGM (Dore Schary replaced former mogul Louis B. Mayer) and at a crucial time in the history of U.S. motion picture production because of the new competition from television. Director Mervyn LeRoy believed that motion pictures should offer larger and better spectacles in order to compete with the new medium. Whether this opinion was the result of prescience or hindsight, Quo Vadis was indeed the greatest spectacle ever made up to that time.
The logistics involved in producing a film of this magnitude were staggering. There were over two hundred speaking parts, many hundreds of workmen, and tens of thousands of extras. The company was managed in a paramilitary fashion, with group captains assigned to a specific number of extras, for whom they were responsible for everything from make-up to wages during the length of the shoot. As the first color film made at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, there were problems with lighting and equipment that was unfamiliar to Roman technicians who only had experience working in black and white film.
Imagine building a huge set only to see it burn? For scenes of Rome burning, dozens of workmen labored for months to construct a four-block area of ancient looking buildings, placing pipe throughout the sets for the flames. It took LeRoy and his technicians 24 nights to burn down the Rome they created for the cameras, when historically it only took Nero six days. Incredibly, all 2,000 extras moved through the fires without a single mishap. And somewhere in that swaying, moving mass of humanity, look for Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor who have bit parts.
Managing people is one thing, but working with one hundred and twenty lions for the coliseum scenes proved to be the biggest problem for the production. The lions did not like the sun. When the gates opened, the lions charged forward until they saw the bright rays of the sun. Even when starved for weeks the beasts still did not behave like voracious man-eaters. Finally, on the advice of lion-tamers, meat was stuffed in "dummies" dressed like Christians and the lions tore them to pieces quite savagely. Unfortunately, the dummies were too brutalized to use in the final film.
Another arena scene that prompted serious apprehension was when Lygia was tied to a post while waiting to be attacked by a bull. The athletic prowess of Ursus, played by actor Buddy Baer, was the only thing protecting Lygia from being mauled by the charging bull. In fact, the wrestling scenes between man and bull are some of the best in Quo Vadis because they seem so realistic.
When the Academy Award nominations were given out for 1952, Quo Vadis received eight including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actors (Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction, Best Dramatic Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design. However, it didn't win in any category since An American in Paris, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Place in the Sun claimed most of the major awards.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien
Based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Art Director: William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno
Cinematography: Robert Surtees, William V. Skall
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie
Cast: Robert Taylor (Marcus Vinicius), Deborah Kerr (Lygia), Leo Genn (Petronius), Peter Ustinov (Nero), Patricia Laffan (Poppaea).
C-169m. Closed captioning.
by Celia M. Reilly
Quo Vadis - QUO VADIS - The 1951 Costume Epic in a Two-Disc Special Edition
Quo Vadis is certainly a pious picture, celebrating Christian ideas and symbols. It includes several miraculous visions, as when a heavenly light tells the Apostle Peter to turn back toward Rome. The historical facts of the rule of Nero (a young Peter Ustinov making his first splash in Hollywood) fit nicely into the imagined tale of a hedonistic Roman general converted to Christianity by the love of a beautiful maid. Sienkiewicz's story is politically sound: Nero ignores the Christians until he need a scapegoat for his foolhardy burning of Rome. Christian sympathizers like old General Plautius (Felix Aylmer) are sacrificed as well. Even the political expert Petronius (the great Leo Genn) runs afoul of Nero's spite, simply for not rubber-stamping his every whim. Petronius (the author of Satyricon, later to be filmed by Fellini) is smart enough to see Nero's wrath coming.
General Marcus Vinicius (a stern, dry Robert Taylor) stubbornly wastes two hours trying to win the beautiful hostage Lygia (Deborah Kerr) the loutish Roman way, by making her his legal property. Prevented from exercising his owner's rights by Lygia's muscleman bodyguard Ursus (wrestler Buddy Baer, taking on a kind of Maciste-protector role), Marcus backs off. He's tempted by Nero's reptilian consort Poppaea (the stunning Patricia Laffan of Devil-Girl from Mars). But when Nero sets Rome aflame, Marcus realizes that both Lygia and her faith present better alternatives. Although Deborah Kerr does well enough, her Lygia is yet another colorless and enervated MGM role, after her stunning parts in English pictures like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. Kerr instead found fame lip-synching to another's voice in The King and I.
Ancient Rome with its parades and parties is presented with great solemnity, coming off as a respectful but unexceptional pageant. Nero's "orgy" stays a discreet distance from the revelers, whose most extreme behavior is to feed grapes to each other. Mervyn LeRoy's static direction adds very little, leaving the good actors to carry it all. Peter Ustinov and Leo Genn are head and shoulders above the other actors, with Ustinov marvelous as the insufferably infantile, murderously treacherous Nero.Since Nero has already had his own mother and wife killed, Genn's Petronius must walk a verbal tightrope. Petronius treads a diplomatic path around Nero's psychotic whims by inventing new forms of flattery.
Finlay Currie and Abraham Sofaer do the heavy Biblical lifting, in fairly lifeless flashbacks to the Jesus story. At prayer meetings Christians stand in noble poses, enlightenment beaming from their faces. Combined with Miklos Rozsa's inspirational music score, all the requirements for the Bible epic are fulfilled. The movie is sincere; it's certainly less melodramatic and manipulative than some of the 50s films that would follow.
Also making an impact are Marina Berti as Petronius' adoring Spanish slave, and Rosalie Crutchley (The Nun's Story) as Acte, the spurned lover who returns to Nero in his final moments. In the docu accompanying the film, Sir Christopher Frayling can't help but be amused that Mervyn LeRoy gives Caesar an exit line similar to his Little Caesar of twenty years before. Maybe the filmmakers didn't take the story all that seriously, all the time.
Filmed in Italy in lavish Technicolor, Quo Vadis is heavily laden with production values. A few scenes do have the thousands of extras promised in the outrageous publicity, that claimed that Quo Vadis will be the most impressive movie you will ever see. Although MGM's blue screen traveling mattes look terrible in daytime scenes, the chaos of the burning of Rome (said to employ a young Sergio Leone as one of many assistant directors) is beautifully directed and photographed. The climax comes when Nero executes hundreds of Christians in the arena. The brief scenes of violence, with many thrown to the lions or burned alive, is probably as strong as could be depicted in the restrictive climate of 1951. The much more perverse horrors of DeMille's The Sign of the Cross had all been censored for a wartime reissue, so there was little in the public's recent memory to provide an immediate comparison.
Star watchers should keep an eye out: rumor has it that actresses Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor may be found in crowd scenes during Nero's party, and among the cowering Christians awaiting their appointment with hungry lions.
Warner's 2-Disc Special Edition DVD of Quo Vadis is a fine rendering of the crowd-pleasing epic, said to be remastered from the original 3-strip elements. It's presented on two discs to afford a high bit rate and a lengthy new docu. Colors are warm but accurate; day exteriors are beautiful and night interiors moody. Day interiors vary in quality. Plautius' house uses a terrible painted backdrop, but a seaside retreat is created with a matte painting and still looks real. Although more than one expert in the docu talks about stereophonic sound, the track provided is a sturdy mono. Miklos Rozsa's impressive score comes complete with entrance and exit music. No intermission is present, if the film ever had one.
Film critic F.X. Feeney provides a lengthy audio commentary that establishes the literary and filmic context for Quo Vadis. He's joined on New Wave's long docu by many learned and qualified spokespeople, all of whom seem compelled to overstate the film's merit -- it's a fine effort that doesn't need hyperbole. Probably owing to Robert Taylor's stiff acting, Quo Vadis didn't attain the heights of box office glory promised by MGM's ad campaign. The docu is overlong but contain a number of interesting chapters, including one devoted to examples of Peter Ellenshaw's nearly flawless matte work.
Blur-ray owners take note: it is said that Quo Vadis will be released on that format this coming Easter.
For more information about Quo Vadis, visit Warner Video. To order Quo Vadis, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Quo Vadis - QUO VADIS - The 1951 Costume Epic in a Two-Disc Special Edition
Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)
He was born Peter Alexander Ustinov on April 16, 1921 in London, England. His father was a press attache at the German embassy until 1935 - when disgusted by the Nazi regime - he took out British nationality. He attended Westminster School, an exclusive private school in central London until he was 16. He then enrolled for acting classes at the London Theater Studio, and by 1939, he made his London stage debut.
His jovial nature and strong gift for dialects made him a natural player for films, and it wasn't long after finding theatre work that Ustinov moved into motion pictures: a Dutch priest in Michael Powell's One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1941); an elderly Czech professor in Let the People Sing (1942); and a star pupil of a Nazi spy school in The Goose Steps Out (1942).
He served in the British Army for four years (1942-46), where he found his talents well utilized by the military, allowing him to join the director Sir Carol Reed on some propaganda films. He eventually earned his first screenwriting credit for The Way Ahead (1944). One of Sir Carol Reed's best films, The Way Ahead was a thrilling drama which starred David Niven as a civilian heading up a group of locals to resist an oncoming Nazi unit. It was enough of a hit to earn Ustinov his first film directorial assignment, School for Secrets (1946), a well paced drama about the discovery of radar starring Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Richard Attenborough.
After the war, Ustinov took on another writer-director project Vice Versa (1948), a whimsical fantasy-comedy starring Roger Livesey and Anthony Newley as a father and son who magically switch personalities. Although not a huge hit of its day, the sheer buoyancy of the surreal premise has earned the film a large cult following.
Ustinov made his Hollywood debut, and garnered his first Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as an indolent Nero in the Roman epic, Quo Vadis? (1951). After achieving some international popularity with that role, Ustinov gave some top-notch performances in quality films: the snappish Prinny in the Stewart Granger vehicle Beau Brummel (1954); holding his own against Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict in We're No Angels (1954); the ring master who presides over the life of the lead character in Max Ophuls's resplendent Lola Montez (1955); and a garrulous settler coping with the Australian outback in The Sundowners (1960).
The '60s would be Ustinov's most fruitful decade. He started off gabbing his first Oscar® as the cunning slave dealer in Spartacus (1960); made a smooth screen adaptation by directing his smash play, Romanoff and Juliet (1961), earned critical acclaim for his co-adaptation, direction, production and performance in Herman Melville's nautical classic Billy Budd (1962); and earned a second Oscar® as the fumbling jewel thief in the crime comedy Topkapi (1964).
He scored another Oscar® nomination in the Best Original Screenplay category for his airy, clever crime romp Hot Millions (1968), in which he played a con artist who uses a computer to bilk a company out of millions of dollars; but after that, Ustinov began taking a string of offbeat character parts: the lead in one of Disney's better kiddie flicks Blackbeard's Ghost (1968); a Mexican General who wants to reclaim Texas for Mexico in Viva Max! (1969); an old man who survives the ravaged planet of the future in Logan's Run (1976); and an unfortunate turn as a Chinese stereotype in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981). Still, he did achieve renewed popularity when he took on the role of Hercule Poirot in the star laced, Agatha Christie extravaganza Death on the Nile (1978). He was such a hit, that he would adroitly play the Belgian detective in two more theatrical movies: Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Appointment With Death (1988); as well as three television movies: Thirteen at Dinner (1985), Murder in Three Acts, Dead Man's Folly (both 1986).
Beyond his work in films, Ustinov was justifiably praised for his humanitarian work - most notably as the unpaid, goodwill ambassador for United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Since 1968, he had traveled to all corners of the globe: China, Russia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, Egypt, Thailand and numerous other countries to promote and host many benefit concerts for the agency.
Ustinov, who in 1990 earned a knighthood for his artistic and humanitarian contributions, is survived by his wife of 32 years, Hélène du Lau d'Allemans; three daughters, Tamara, Pavla, Andrea; and a son, Igor.
by Michael T. Toole
Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)
It is not enough to live well. One must die well.- Petronius
The people won't believe such a lie!- Vinicius
People will believe any lie, if it is fantastic enough.- Petronius
Now indeed, Nero has his place in history.- Petronius
You will be worthy of the spectacle -- as the spectacle is worthy of you.- Petronius
These people know how to die, Nero. In death you will squeal like a hog!- Vinicius
32,000 costumes were used in the film.
Sophia Loren's bit role as a slave marked her film debut.
Among the many actresses who tried out for a role in the film: a pre-stardom Audrey Hepburn.
Screen Debut - Bud Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli) as Emperor's guard
Following the opening credits, voice-over narration by actor Walter Pidgeon introduces the setting of the story, with action that opens on the Appian Way in 64 A.D., outside Rome, a "corrupt state on the cusp of destruction." The narration also describes "a miracle" that happened thirty years previously, following the death of Christ. The film's (and original novel's) title is spoken in the scene in which "Peter" has a vision of Christ and utters the words Quo vadis, Domine?, which comes from the Gospel of St John.XVI.5 and is traditionally translated from Latin as "Whither goest Thou, Lord?" Within the film, there is a brief flashback sequence in which Peter describes his first meeting with Christ and subsequent time as an apostle. The picture closes with voice-over narration reciting a passage from St. John.XIV.6 "I am the way, the truth, the life."
Although some sources refer to the film as Quo Vadis?, like Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1895 novel, the M-G-M film does not include a question mark in the title. Sienkiewicz's novel was first published in his native Poland, and within a few years became an international best seller, translated into many languages. According to some modern sources, the first English translation, made in 1896, was an American best seller for more than twenty-five years. Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905, due primarily to Quo Vadis?
Although the novel and film's love story and its characters are fictional, many of the political and religious characters were actual historical figures. The emperor Nero, who reigned from 37-66 A.D., has been regarded negatively throughout history, primarily because of his instigation of what is known as the first Christian persecution. He presided over Rome during the great fire of 64 and, over the centuries, various historical sources have blamed him for having the fire deliberately set.
Nero's death precipitated a chaotic time in Roman history. Following Nero's death, three emperors came to the throne in rapid succession, Otho, Galba and Vitellius, resulting in a period known historically as the year of the four emperors. Some incidents within the film, including the death of St. Paul outside Rome, the flowering of St. Peter's staff and his crucifixion upside down, are taken from passages in the New Testament of the Bible or Christian religious tradition.
The 1951 film had been planned for many years prior to the start of principal photography. The following information has been gleaned from contemporary news items, feature articles in newspapers and magazines, studio press releases and modern sources as noted:
Although modern sources indicate that M-G-M had been negotiating for the rights to film Sienkiewicz's novel since 1925, the earliest news item located about the production appeared in late 1935. At that time, a Hollywood Reporter news item mentioned that "television rights" were holding up M-G-M's production of Quo Vadis, which other news items stated was to star Wallace Beery as "Nero." An undated, but contemporary Hollywood Reporter news stated that Marlene Dietrich was being sought for the role of Nero's wife "Poppaea." According to a Los Angeles Herald Express news item, Howard Estabrook wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 1939. Other Los Angeles Herald Express news items noted that the film was to star Robert Taylor and cost "a couple million bucks" to produce.
In 1942, it was announced that the film was to be the first M-G-M production of Arthur Hornblow, Jr. and that Walter Reisch was working on a treatment. Other news items indicated that Hornblow had offered the role of Nero to Orson Welles because Broadway star Alfred Lunt was unavailable for the project. That same year, S. N. Behrman was also reported as working on a script, and M-G-M press releases related in Hollywood Reporter stated that the production would have an "unprecedented scope," with 176 speaking parts and 30,000 extras.
In early 1943, HR news items predicted that Quo Vadis would be ready to shoot in three months or more, that Margarita de Guirola was cast in the film (probably as "Lygia"), and that M-G-M was seeking a six foot-six to seven foot actor to portray "Ursus." In March 1943, HR reported that Mervyn LeRoy would direct the picture, if he finished Madame Curie in time (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50).
Various news items at the time mentioned that Walter Pidgeon was favored for the role of "Petronius," Lana Turner had tested for Lygia and Thomas Mitchell was sought for "Paul of Tarsus." In May 1943, it was reported that Ernst Lubitsch was "negotiating to direct." At around the same time, it was reported that M-G-M was seeking Charles Laughton, who had portrayed Nero in Paramount's 1932 Sign of the Cross (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40) to recreate his role but that Laughton would only agree to do the film if Robert Z. Leonard directed.
Other news items in spring 1943 items stated that the film was to begin principal photography by early summer. In June 1943, it was reported that the film might be shot in Mexico because of the "authentic atmosphere" and low production costs of building lavish sets and hiring thousands of extras. Manart Kippen and Katherine Balfour were tested at that time for unspecified roles, and the film, which would take about a year to shoot, would start, with Leonard as the director, in four to six months. William Cannon was then announced as the unit production manager, and Eugene Bearman was named costume designer.
Possibly because of strong anti-fascist sentiments prevalent during World War II, Hornblow announced that the film would be about Nero "both as epitaph and warning to any autocrats who might come along in the future." By mid-summer 1943, news items indicated that the film would be postponed for the fall 1943 schedule due to the large budget and scale of the production, but by September 1943, the production was postponed indefinitely, possibly due to finances as well as shortages and logistical problems due to wartime restrictions.
Interest in the production revived after World War II. In 1948, a Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Sam Wood was set to direct the picture. By 1949, however, various news items reported that John Huston was to direct, with Gregory Peck as the lead and British actor Robert Morley as Nero. Ben Goetz, head of M-G-M's British studios outside London, was announced as a primary coordinator of the production, which would be utilizing over $2,500,000 in frozen funds for its production base in Rome, Italy.
A Daily Variety news item on May 9, 1949 noted that Famous Artists agency head Charles K. Feldman had acquired the rights to Fabiola, a French-Italian co-production, directed by Allesandro Blasetti and starring Michele Morgan and Henry Vidal and that Feldman planned to rush the film into theaters before filming began on the similarly themed Quo Vadis. On May 21, 1949, a Hollywood Citizen-News article reported that the $5,000,000 budgeted M-G-M production, which was have to begun shooting in Rome on 1 Jul, was to be shelved "for at least a year." The article went on to say that Peck, who was to co-star with Elizabeth Taylor, had a serious eye infection that prevented him from working. However, the Hollywood Citizen-News article stated that "one studio source" speculated Quo Vadis was being cancelled because of Feldman's acquisition of Fabiola. A Los Angeles Times article on May 22, 1949, (possibly written prior to the previous day's Hollywood Citizen-News article) indicated that the production was still on, with Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov cast as Nero.
A Huston biography stated the production was delayed because of Peck's eye infection. The biography further stated that Huston later claimed he was coerced into accepting the directing assignment for Quo Vadis by M-G-M studio head Louis B. Mayer. He additionally said that M-G-M executives were concerned about the escalating costs of Quo Vadis and wanted to cancel the production around this time, but Hornblow convinced them to continue. After Peck's eye problems, Hornblow resigned from the project and Huston followed suit a short time later. Hornblow and Huston's departures, as well as Peck's, were noted in an December 8, 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item. The biography further proffered that the director had wanted Ava Gardner for the female lead and his father, Walter Huston, for Peter.
Following the departure of Hornblow, Huston and Peck, numerous trade paper news items and M-G-M press releases documented the film's final months of pre-production: John Lee Mahin was hired to write a screenplay in late December 1949, which, in March 1950 was announced as a $7,000,000-budgeted picture. Mahin shares screenplay credit with Behrman and Sonya Levien. In April 1950, according to an American Cinematographer article by director of photography Robert Surtees, M-G-M production chief Dore Schary gave the final signal that the production could go ahead. April 1950 trade paper news items announced that Robert Taylor was once again cast in the lead, with Deborah Kerr as Lygia, joining Ustinov and Genn in the film's four major roles, and that the film would be shot in Rome.
The American Cinematographer articles, New York Times and the film's pressbook noted that M-G-M executive E. J. Mannix, production manager Henry Henigson, art director William A. Horning and other crew members traveled to Rome many months before the actual start of filming. Cinecittà, the film studio built outside Rome during the mid-1930s, was in general disrepair after years of use as a barracks for German soldiers during the war and a refugee camp after. To make it ready for Quo Vadis, M-G-M had to finance extensive repairs and reconstruction of the studio.
Principal photography began at Cinecittà Studios on May 22, 1950, more than a dozen years after it was first put on M-G-M's schedule. Despite the lengthy planning stages and vast scale of the production, several news items affirmed that principal photography, which was completed on November 1, 1950, ended ahead of schedule. Surtees' American Cinematographer articles attributed the success of the production to the American crew members imported to work with the Italian crew, as well as the organization of Horning and Henigson. Hugh Gray, whose onscreen credit reads "lyrics compositions and technical advisor," is credited by several sources as being both a contributing writer and an instrumental part of the overall production team.
In the summer and fall of 1950, actors mentioned in Hollywood Reporter as being cast in Quo Vadis but whose appearance in the released film has not been verified include John Douglas and Blanche Zohar. Walter Lazzaro was mentioned as being cast as Christ in "an effect sequence," most likely Peter's vision, but Robin Hughes is credited with the role in the CBCS. [As in other films of the era, Christ was not shown full-face, but merely suggested or shown from behind or in long shot.]
According to the pressbook and news items, as many as 30,000 extras were used in the film, the large portion of them for two key sequences, the burning of Rome and the Colosseum scenes. In modern interviews, actress Sophia Loren stated that she and her mother were among the thousands of extras appearing in the film's famous scenes set in the Roman Colosseum. The burning of Rome took a crew of twenty men to coordinate thousands of gallons of inflammable liquid that had to be mixed and piped to various sets as the dramatic action required. The sequence required three months of preparation and twenty-four nights to shoot. The film's pressbook, reviews and articles about the film recounted numerous statistics of the vast numbers of costumes, sets and other properties used for the film. A Hollywood Reporter news item in July 1950 stated that the production's simultaneous use of four color cameras was thought to be a first. A October 14, 1951 New York Times article added that use of the four cameras provided "maximum mobility" and guarded against "the high costs of re-takes involving thousands of extras."
According to Surtees' articles and other contemporary sources, the film's dailies were sent to London where two prints were processed. One print would then be sent back to Rome, with the other print sent to M-G-M's Culver City studio. An December 11, 1950 article in Hollywood Reporter reported that film editor Ralph E. Winters had just returned from Rome with 580,000 feet of the film that needed to be edited for the final release.
The first preview of the film was held on June 30, 1951 in Berkeley, CA, with a second "sneak" held the following night in San Francisco. According to a New York Times article on the film, audience members at both previews were asked if they preferred to have the picture shown with an intermission or have it run straight through. The article stated that both audiences, one of which was given an intermission, the other not, voted overwhelmingly to have an intermission at one screening and not to have one at the other. When the film had its premiere and road show engagements, an intermission was included.
Most reviews of the picture praised it. Trade reviews predicted huge financial as well as critical success: the Hollywood Reporter reviewer stated "Quo Vadis is going to sell more tickets than any motion picture in the industry's history. And well it should." The Daily Variety critic commented, "That it will ring up top grosses and strong repeat business for years to come is a certainty;...More importantly, however, it is a film that realizes the potentialities of the medium, reflecting top credit on all concerned." Although film critic Bosley Crowther of New York Times also predicted the financial success of Quo Vadis, he was less enthusiastic about its aesthetic merits, calling it "a perfection of spectacle and of hippodrome display...a staggering combination of cinema brilliance and sheer banality, of visual excitement and verbal boredom, of historical pretentiousness and sex."
Although there were several "premieres" and road show engagements for Quo Vadis from late 1951 through early 1952, studio records and release charts indicate that the film did not have a wide national release until December 25, 1953. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, the film had "nearly 100" commercial tie-ins, the largest number for a single motion picture to that time. Interest in the picture was so great that a Los Angeles Examiner ad on November 29, 1951 announced that there would be a special 10:00 a.m. showing of the film that morning at the United Artists Theatre on Wilshire Blvd. that would "not effect the Invitation Premiere" at the 4 Star Theatre that night.
Publicity for the film included a one-reel Technicolor short on "the making of..." and an enormous outpouring of stories and full-color ad inserts in major newspapers. A commemorative book, according to a Hollywood Reporter article, "one of the most elegant ever," was sold in theater lobbies where the film was being road shown. The top ticket price for the film's first run was to be $2.40. According to a pre-release article in Hollywood Reporter, all Loew's theaters had been instructed to prevent ticket scalping by having someone at each theater monitor sales of blocks of tickets for clubs and groups. A 16 November Hollywood Reporter news item stated that in its first week of release at the Capital Theatre in New York (which, along with the Astor Theatre was the only venue currently showing the film in the city), the film had set a box-office record, and slightly more than doubled the take from the first week of 1939's box-office smash Gone with the Wind (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40).
Quo Vadis was nominated for eight Academy Awards, although it did not win any. The nominations included Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor for both Genn and Ustinov; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color) for Horning, Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno and Hugh Hunt; Best Cinematography (Color) for Robert Surtees and William V. Skall; Best Costume Design (Color) for Herschel McCoy; Best Film Editing for Ralph E. Winters and Best Scoring (Drama or Comedy) for Miklos Rozsa.
According to a March 31, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item, Quo Vadis had recouped its production costs, reputed by various sources to have been between $6,000,000 and $7,000,000, the most for any film made to that time. The articles stated that total rentals for the U.S. and Canada alone came to $10,450,000, with $7,315,000 going toward production costs. According to an April 11, 1956 Daily Variety news item, the film was just concluding its final booking after running continuously since its late 1951 premieres.
Although not the first of the "Biblical epics" that were prominent during the 1950s, Quo Vadis, which was released a year after Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50), is credited by film historians as a major influence on the genre, and the film that set the standard for epic Roman or Biblical films shot abroad and featuring a "cast of thousands."
Quo Vadis was adapted to the screen in a twenty minute French version in 1902, but its most important film adaptation prior to the 1951 version was the 1912 Italian Quo Vadis?, directed by Enrico Guazzoni and often called the first film epic and the longest film ever made to that time. The film was an enormous worldwide success and opened to critical acclaim in the United States in 1913. Another Italian version of the story was made in 1925, starring German-born silent film star Emil Jennings as Nero.
Released in United States Fall November 1951
Released in United States March 1980
Sophia Loren is barely visible in the crowd scene in which she was an extra. The film is one of her first "appearances."
Released in United States March 1980 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Epic: A Monumental Movie Marathon) March 4-21, 1980.)
Released in United States Fall November 1951