Quo Vadis (1951 film)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Quo Vadis is an epic 1951 film made by MGM. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and produced by Sam Zimbalist, from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S. N. Behrman and Sonya Levien, adapted from the classic 1895 novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The music score was by Miklós Rózsa and the cinematography by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall.
The film is about the persecution of early Christians, involves the crucifixion of Saint Peter (in A.D. 64), then the murder of Empress Poppaea by Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov), and the mercy killing of Nero by his Christian friend Acte, inspired by the suicide of Nero in A.D. 68
The action takes place in ancient Rome from 64-68 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Nero. The subject is the conflict between Christianity and the corruption of the Roman Empire, especially in the last period of the Julio-Claudian line. The characters and events depicted are a mixture of actual historical figures and situations and fictionalized ones.
The film tells the story of a Roman military commander, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), returning from the wars, who falls in love with a devout Christian, Lygia (Deborah Kerr). Commander Vinicius becomes intrigued by her and her religion. Their love story is told against the broader historical background of early Christianity and its persecution by Nero (Peter Ustinov). Though she grew up Roman as the adopted daughter of a retired general, Lygia is technically a hostage of Rome. Marcus persuades Nero to give her to him for services rendered. Lygia resents this, but still falls in love with Marcus.
Meanwhile, Nero's atrocities become increasingly more outrageous and his acts more insane. When he burns Rome and blames the Christians, Marcus goes off to save Lygia and her family. Nero captures them and all the Christians, and condemns them to be killed in the arena. Marcus is also arrested for trying to save Lygia. In prison, Peter (Finlay Currie), who has also been arrested, marries the couple; eventually, Peter is crucified upside-down, implicitly at his own request ("To die as Our Lord did is more than I deserve'," he says, and the Praetorian guard sneeringly answers, "We can change that").
Poppaea, Nero's wife, who lusts after Marcus, devises a diabolical revenge for his rejection of her. Lygia is tied to a wooden stake in the arena. A wild bull is also placed there, and Lygia's bodyguard giant, Ursus (Buddy Baer) must try to kill it with his bare hands, otherwise Lygia will be gored to death. Marcus is tied to the spectator's box and forced to watch, much to the horror of his officers, who also attend the spectacle. When all seems hopeless, Marcus exclaims "Christ, give him strength!", whereupon Ursus is able to break the bull's neck. Hugely impressed by Ursus' courage, the crowd exhorts Nero to spare them, which the emperor is not willing to do. However, Nero's four court retainers Seneca (Nicholas Hannen), architect Phaon (D.A. Clarke-Smith), Lucan (Alfredo Varelli), and Terpnos (Geoffrey Dunn) vouch for the mob's demands by putting their thumbs up as well. Marcus then breaks free of his bonds, leaps into the arena, frees Lygia with the help of his loyal troops, and announces that General Galba is at that moment marching on Rome, intent on replacing Nero.
The crowd, now firmly believing that Nero, and not the Christians, is responsible for the burning of Rome, revolts. Nero flees to his palace, where he strangles Poppaea to death, blaming her for forcing him to make martyrs of the Christians. Then Acte, a Christian woman who was once in unrequited love with Nero, appears. Because he lived like a monster, she begs him to die like an emperor by committing suicide before the mob storms the palace. The cowardly Nero cannot bring himself to do it, so Acte drives the dagger into his chest.
Marcus, Lygia and Ursus are now free and leave Rome. By the roadside, Peter's crook has miraculously sprouted flowers. The radiant light intones, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."