Judge Joel Pearce once burned down a city, but he swears it was an accident.
Our review of Quo Vadis (Blu-Ray), published March 27th, 2009, is also available.
Spectacle over substance.
Quo Vadis is, without question, one of the biggest movies I have ever seen. There are several sequences with 30,000 extras. It runs 174 minutes. The music is vast and epic. The color palette bursts from the screen in its 3 strip Technicolor glory. Alas, despite its awe-inspiring scope, Quo Vadis isn't the best of the '50s era biblical epics, as it fails to succeed on the small level.
Facts of the Case
On returning to Rome after a long campaign, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor, Billy the Kid) is forced to camp his army outside the walls of the city to make way for Emperor Nero's (Peter Ustinov, Spartacus) gigantic "bread and circuses" festival designed to keep the people in check. As he waits, Marcus meets a Christian slave girl named Lygia (Deborah Kerr, King Solomon's Mines). They immediately fall in love, but Marcus has a hard time understanding the ideology of this strange new religion. Before long, however, he finds himself knee-deep in Christianity as he fights to protect Lygia when she and the other Christians are accused for Nero's burning of Rome.
Biblical retellings are almost as old as film itself, but Quo Vadis must have stood out in 1951 when it was released. It had a broad scope rarely before seen in film, it was filmed in Rome, and its cast of 30,000 extras easily filled the city's largest courtyards and amphitheatres. Certainly, several of the film's more epic sequences have lost none of their glory, especially the astonishing central sequence of Rome burning as well as the astonishing climax in the gladiatorial arena. These sequences inspired not only the other films in the genre, but arguably all of the mega-productions that were released in the two decades that followed. I was struck by these largest sequences as I watched—sequences this enormous can only be done now by CGI special effects—even large studios can't afford to mount these kinds of sequences with real actors anymore.
Also at the core of the film is Peter Ustinov's scene-shredding performance as Nero. While he can't be considered the main character here, he certainly adds evidence towards Milton's theory that evil is much more interesting than good. He chews through his scenes in a way we rarely get to see anymore—his almost bipolar performance has been copied by dozens of other villains since Quo Vadis arrived on the scene. The thought that men like this once held this much power is deeply thought provoking, and remains just a bit scary.
I would also be remiss to ignore the stunning cinematography throughout Quo Vadis. While the camera movement lacks the finesse of a truly great cinematographer, we don't get to see films with this kind of color often anymore. The orange of the flames licking the buildings of Rome, the Deep reds of the evening sky, the dazzling purples and reds in the costumes…while they aren't always realistic, new films never have colors this bold and overwhelming. It perfectly matches the stately, bold tone of the film, and makes Quo Vadis a visual delight to behold.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alas, even in the greatest of epics, we need characters that we relate to and care about. While Quo Vadis has a few standout performances, many of the sequences have become pretty tough to watch in the past 57 years. While I can picture Robert Taylor in a number of other roles, he lacks the chops to carry a film this big. His performance is stiff and lackluster, easily overshadowed by his supporting cast. The script doesn't encourage additional enthusiasm either, in fact it often feels sluggish and repetitive. While I realize that biblical epics need to be huge, I think half an hour could be sliced out of Quo Vadis's running time without damaging the overall feel of the film. Ultimately, the rich visuals and scale of the production threaten to overwhelm the story and characters, which suffer as a result.
That said, I can't complain about Warner Bros.'s astonishing remastering of the film elements for the DVD release. While the film's visual style begs for a bold widescreen framing, the standard video transfer (in the original aspect ratio) is near flawless, especially for a film of its age. At times, the colors almost threaten to bleed into each other, but they are kept just under blooming. The detail levels are also excellent, and the film generally looks a lot newer than it really is. The sound transfer hasn't aged nearly so well, especially given the symphonic richness in the scoring. It all sounds just a bit tinny, though I suspect the original elements didn't allow for much more. There are a few extras on the two discs, including a commentary track by film historian F.X. Feeney. There is also a featurette placing Quo Vadis in the history of the biblical epic, as well as the overture and exit music that hasn't been heard since the roadshow version of the film. While this hardly makes it a fully stocked special edition, fans of the film will be pleased by what's been included here.
Perhaps Quo Vadis's experience at the Oscars is the clearest way to explain how I feel about it. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including many of the biggest categories. It didn't manage to win any, though, as the film was ultimately overshadowed by smaller but superior offerings. It has a number of phenomenal sequences that deserve recognition, but it never comes together in the way that it should. Still, fans of the classic sword-and-sandal epics will be pleased with the presentation it has received here.
Not guilty, though it ultimately plays out as a bit of a letdown.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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