Warner Bros. // 1951 // 174 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 27th, 2009
Before 300...Before Gladiator...Before Ben Hur...There was Quo Vadis.
The epic has a long and proud tradition, telling the stories of great men on doing great deeds. Some of our oldest surviving literature falls into this category, so it's no surprise that cinema has chosen the form for some of its biggest films. Quo Vadis, from 1951, is one such piece of epic cinema that showcases both the possibilities and pitfalls of epic cinema. Quo Vadis (Blu-ray) is a re-release of 2008's Two Disc Special Edition; it boasts a significantly upgraded visual presentation and all the extras of the previous release, all on one Blu-ray disc.
The year is 64 A.D., and General Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor, Ivanhoe) returns to Rome victorious after a three-year campaign in Briton and Gaul. Things, however, are not as he left them. The mad Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov, Death on the Nile) has squandered many of Rome's resources, and one such expenditure includes a "bread and circus" train that keeps Vinicius and his troops from entering Rome in triumphant fashion. While waiting to return, Marcus meets a young woman named Lygia (Deborah Kerr, An Affair to Remember), a Christian slave girl. Marcus falls in love, but has difficulty understanding this new religion, with its disdain of Roman bloodshed and preaching of love.
The obvious strength of the cinematic epic is the sheer scale of the spectacle that the form allows, especially one set in Rome. Although Quo Vadis doesn't have the benefit of the widescreen frame (which can make even the pedestrian appear heroic), it does enjoy some serious spectacle, both in terms of what's on the screen and how its shot. The craftspeople at Cinecittà certainly know how to stage a Roman film. Crowd shots include an impressive number of (non-CGI) extras, and interiors are sumptuous and detailed without ever quite taking over the frame. All of this handiwork is shot with a steady hand. The bold hues of Technicolor, which can sometimes look cartoonish, are kept in check so they indicated the glory of Rome without turning it into a total carnival.
Spectacle aside, however, any film, no matter how well-crafted has to have a story to tell. Here we see the problem with the epic: it must tell the heroic story of great people. Sadly, Quo Vadis doesn't quite do that. The story of Lygia and Vinicius, despite the backdrop of Nero's Rome, seems to cry out for a more intimate treatment, while the history of early Christians seems to warrant a bigger story than that of a general and a slave girl. The tension between these two elements keeps the film from being entirely successful.
Despite the difficulties with the story, the film's cast is generally excellent. Peter Ustinov steals the show with his boisterous, disastrous Nero who seems to have total control of the world around him but without any connection to it. Deborah Kerr as Lygia isn't immediately ravishing in her beauty, but her subtle strength and the conviction she can wear on her face make her character compelling. The real weak link in the cast is Robert Taylor. He's a little too square-jawed in the role, without any of the darkness that makes Heston and Douglas interesting in period films. It's not a bad performance, but one longs to see what Gregory Peck (who was originally cast in the role) would have made of it.
All the pomp and circumstance of the film is well-presented on the Blu-ray edition of the restored film. I've heard complaints about the original DVD release. Detail was apparently high, but some saw the colors as a bit off from their usual Technicolor splendor. Those concerns have been largely swept away with his Blu-ray transfer. Detail is surprisingly high, and the colors seem rich and saturated without ever threatening to bloom out. There is some fairly extensive damage to the print, however. This takes the form of white specks that dapple the screen throughout. Some of the grain and color can fluctuate as well, but this seems a problem with the source rather than the transfer. However, these problems weren't particularly distracting. The only distracting element of the visuals to me was the increased clarity brought to the matte work and other special effects. They can't quite stand up to the resolution of Blu-ray. The mono audio sounds surprisingly clear for a film of this age. The dynamic range is a little short, but the audio, especially the film's score, doesn't sound tinny as I would have expected.
For me, the reason to own this disc is the extras. The main supplement is a commentary by film historian F. X. Feeney. He is direct, engaging, and full of information about everything from the film's source novel to its extensive pre-production as well as information on all the major players. This one film gives Feeney the opportunity to talk about everything from the studio system and World War II to John Huston and epic cinema. He goes understandably quiet towards the end of the film's 174 minutes, but for the majority of the film he's an excellent audio companion. The other main extra is a documentary on the film and biblical epics with interviews and clips. It was especially interesting to see clips of previous adaptations of the novel from which Quo Vadis was drawn. Finally, we get the film's trailers. I should also note that the entire film and all the supplements are on a single disc, as opposed to the two discs of the DVD edition.
I think Quo Vadis is a relatively minor piece of epic filmmaking, easily overshadowed by films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra; however, fans of that era of filmmaking will find more than a nostalgia trip in this film. While the film can't quite balance the heroic and the personal, fans of Peter Ustinov and Deborah Kerr should almost certainly watch for these performances.
For sheer spectacle, Quo Vadis offers movie fans a satisfying viewing experience. However, those looking for a human core at the center of their spectacle might be disappointed. This Blu-ray disc offers an excellent transfer of this older film, and the extras do a great job of supplementing the viewing experience. For those who haven't bought the film yet, this disc is the way to go. For fans who already bought the 2008 DVD, I doubt the upgrade is worth it unless you really want better video or want to watch the feature on a single disc.
Quo Vadis is not guilty, even if it could have been more.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 174 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailers