(director: Mervyn LeRoy; screenwriters: from book by Henryk Sienkiewicz/S.N. Behrmann/Sonya Levien/John Lee Mahin; cinematographers: Robert Surtees/William Skall; editor: Ralph Winters; cast: Robert Taylor (Marcus Vinicius), Deborah Kerr (Lygia), Peter Ustinov (Nero), Leo Genn (Petronius), Patricia Laffan (Poppaea), Finlay Currie (Peter), Abraham Sofaer (Paul), Rosalie Crutchley (Acte), Marina Berti (Eunice), Buddy Baer (Ursus), Ralph Truman (Tigellinus), Felix Aylmer (Plautius); Runtime: 171; MGM; 1951)

“Peter Ustinov’s delightful over-the-top prissy performance was fun to watch.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A glossy MGM extravaganza; a Bible film that is more pleasing to watch for its conspicuous opulence than for its dramatics, dialogue, religion or politics. Directed with a mixture of tedium and oomph by Mervyn LeRoy. This Roman spectacle set in 64 A.D., at the time of Nero’s rule, runs for close to three hours before Nero decides to do the honorable thing and stick a knife in himself — which is his way to say he’s done.

Commanding General Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) of the 14th Legion returns to Rome after three years of victorious battle in Britannia. He returns to a corrupt Rome under its nefarious Emperor, the 29-year-old Nero, who killed his mother and his wife; but, nevertheless, loves to think of himself as an artistic soul. He is living a debauched life with harems and flatterers surrounding him, as he plays a bad lyre and sings choppy verses to praise himself as a greater god than Jupiter. His empress is the lustful and cunning Poppaea (Laffan), who is having an affair with his head of the Praetorian Guard, Tigellinus (Truman), right under his curly blond locks of hair.

The plot concerns the romance between a beautiful early Christian woman, Lygia (Deborah Kerr), and the agnostic Roman commander, Marcus. They meet when the war-weary soldier is a guest in her adopted father’s house, the former Roman general who has now secretly become a Christian. She is physically attracted to the handsome and athletic man, but is unappreciative of his soldier’s attitude.

Marcus’ Uncle Petronius (Genn) is one of Nero’s counselors who knows how to flatter him best. He owns many slaves and one of the slaves is a beautiful girl who loves him unabashedly, Eunice (Berti). Marcus is told by his cynical uncle that he can get the emperor to grant him what he wants for the conquests he brought to Rome and suggests he takes a rulership in Egypt, but his nephew instead wants the emperor to turn Lygia over to his care.

Lygia is dismayed to be with the soldier, who foolishly tries to take her by force. She’s into the Christian cult and is thrilled that the apostle Peter comes to her father’s house to explain his days with Christ and how he fulfilled Christ’s prophecy by denying him three times after the crucifixion; but, he has now come to Rome to build the Christian church as prophesized by Christ. She also has other interesting houseguests: such as, the radical rabbi, Paul of Tarsus, who is on a mission across the Roman Empire to spread the word of the new cult religion.

Nero has this mad idea of burning down Rome and building it over in his image. He burns it down and is pleased with the flames he sees, and plays the lyre while Rome burns. But when things go badly and the Roman mobs are ready to attack him for destroying their homes and so many lives, Poppaea comes up with this bright idea of blaming the Christians for it. She does this primarily because she is scorned by Marcus and jealous of Lygia.

Marcus chooses love over the empire and saves Lygia, her giant bodyguard Ursus (Baer), and her family from the fire, by getting the Roman soldiers to open up the gates to the city to let the people in. But when the mob hears Nero’s accusations that the Christians caused the fire, the mob turns against the Christians; and, Marcus is rounded up with all the others and jailed. Petronius says of Nero’s lie that people will believe any lie, if it is fantastic enough.

Now Marcus and Lygia must find a way to stop the lions from killing them in the Coliseum.

“Quo Vadis?” was a big money grosser for the studio in the pre-CinemaScope era. They shot the film in Italy, with a cast of thousands. At the time, it was only second to GWTW in how much cabbage it brought in. It had a lot of spectacular shots, but it was not a particularly moving film experience. Peter Ustinov’s delightful over-the-top prissy performance was fun to watch. There were also other spectacularly shot events: a giant killing a bull in the arena, Peter crucified upside-down, and a beautiful fire. They don’t make them like this one anymore because it costs too much and the studios are not sure if the crowds will come again.