When General Marcus Vinicius returns to Rome from battle, he falls in love with Lygia, an adopted daughter of a fellow general, but effectively a hostage. When she is presented to him as a gift, he discovers she is in secret a Christian. When Emperor Nero decides all Christians must be thrown to the lions, it is up to Marcus to save Lygia and her family, and in so doing discover that Rome is in need of a soul.
A bold, blustering, afternoon gobbling mega-epic that set the template for that brew of postwar Classical renditions — very much pro-Christian and mounted with indomitable magnificence from the building blocks of purest melodrama. In concept it seems unbearable, but five minutes in and there’s no going back, you’re there for the long haul.
In its day, Quo Vadis was the biggest spectacle ever made (yes, even bigger if not better than Gone With The Wind) — the sets, the costumes, the cast of thousands, it was a marketeer’s dream and they milked it for all it was worth (the trailers declared it to be most lavish screen spectacle ever!). So what if the performances drift between the hammy (Peter Ustinov’s demented Emperor Nero) and the wooden (Robert Taylor’s stoic General Vinicius), the history certainly dubious, and the stark Christian morality hard to swallow, feel that scope.
Mervyn Le Roy’s endeavours are, as they boasted, spectacular: the fighting in the Coliseum devastating, the decadence of Nero’s court succulently delivered, and that all important burning of Rome, as Ustinov’s burbling Nero strums like a fruitcake on his fiddle, the dramatic climax. And the Biblical touchstones are intriguing — saints Peter and Paul turn up to boost the Christian philosophy, while the conflict Vinicius faces between the offerings of love on one side and Roman decorum on the other reveals an attempt to define a context for the birth of Christianity. But, brainy sections aside, its great pleasure in the fact it is a soap opera in togas. Will Deborah Kerr’s beautiful but devoted Lygia fall for the macho but proud Vinicius? Will Christianity win out over Rome’s pagan hostility? Will the lions get dinner tonight? And will Nero lose the plot entirely? Pack a thermos of coffee and sandwiches, this will take a while.
Enough large-scale spectacle scenes to outweigh the inevitable religiose sludge that creeps in between them