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Friday Film Review: Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951 and 2001)
Genre: Religious Historical
Grade: B-

Yes, the dates are correct. This is a dual review of the famous 1951 Hollywood version and a Polish version made in 2001 which was also released as a six part TV version in 2002. I saw the Polish TV version which clocked in at almost four hours (note if you get this from Netflix as I did, they have it marked as 4.5 hours) while the 1951 movie is almost 3 hours. So word to the wise: allow some tush refreshing time. I know that there will probably be some people who don’t want to read a review of a Christian themed movie – well, then just skip this week and wait for the next. But spring is here, ’tis the season of religious movies and I could have inflicted Ben Hur with Charlton Heston’s wooden acting on you.

From what I’ve read about the 2001 version, it’s much closer to the book, written by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. The ’51 is close but has a few differences. On his way back to Rome, Marcus Vinicius (Pawel Delaq looking like a young and very hot James Purefoy/Robert Taylor) rests and recuperates/is forced to stop outside Rome at the home of Plautius (Piotr Garlicki/Felix Aylmer) and Pomponia (Danuta Stenka/Nora Swinburne) an older couple looking after Lygia (Magdalena Mielcarz/Deborah Kerr) a political hostage of Rome. Marcus falls for her like a ton of bricks and returns to his uncle Petronius (Bouslaw Linda/Leo Genn) all afire to have her. Together they scheme to get her custody awarded to Marcus so he can take her as a concubine but when Lygia realizes what’s up, she works with Akte (Malgorzata Pieczynksa/Rosalie Crutchley), Nero’s (Michal Bajor/Peter Ustinov) former mistress – who is an almost convert to Christianity – to escape what to her as a Christian is a fate worse than death.

Marcus, who is dangerously and 1980′s alpha-ly obsessed with possessing Lygia, goes nuts and hires a weasely Greek PI Chilo (Jerzy Trela/John Ruddock) to find her. Once while Marcus was with Lygia at her guardian’s house, she made the sign of the fish and from that plus his earlier acquaintance with a man named Glaucus (Andrzej Tomecki) – also a Christian – Chilo knows who to bribe and how to lie to get the information he needs. But Marcus’s attempts to kidnap Lygia go horribly wrong and he ends up wounded and at the mercy of the Christians with whom Lygia is living.

It’s then that he begins to learn about the religion they’ve all converted to and watches their faith in action. He’s still not convinced about it but woos Lygia, who already loves him, and wins her hand. Meanwhile Nero inflicts his songs and poetry on his poor select circle and Petronius neatly walks a verbal tightrope of praise in person and disparagement behind Nero’s back. In search of inspiration for his poem on the burning of Troy, Nero is delighted when news reaches him that Rome is burning. Every great artiste needs a real life model, doncha know.

But the populace of Rome – post conflagration – demands vengeance and Tigellinus (Krysztof Majchrzak/Ralph Truman) the leader of the Praetorian Guard plus Poppaea (Agnieszka Wagner/Patricia Laffan) cheerfully suggest the upstart sect who won’t acknowledge Nero as a god. For a villa of his own, Chilo happily betrays everyone he knows including Lygia. Yes, it’s time to throw the Christians to the lions. Or crucify them. Or burn them. The fun goes on for days. As the citizens of Rome settle in for the spectacle, Marcus and Petronius work furiously to free Lygia but Petronius has fallen from favor and it takes Lygia’s bodyguard Ursus (Rafal Kubacki/Buddy Baer) saving Lygia from death a la Dirce to turn the mob in Marcus’s favor and (2001) force Nero to pardon her/(1951) when Nero refuses to pardon them it brings about his downfall. In a compression of history, Marcus, Lygia and Ursus hotfoot it out of Rome while Petronius beats the execution warrant headed his way, Nero orders Poppaea killed then has to flee and commit suicide when he loses power. At different times, depending on the version the Apostle Peter (Franciszek Pieczka/Finlay Currie) encounters Jesus while leaving Rome and asks “Quo Vadis Domine?” After which he turns and heads back to Rome and his fate.

I think these could be watched as historical films but the main emphasis is on religion. Yet though the religious theme is all pervasive, one of my favorite characters is Petronius who is always willing to poke a little fun at the all too serious Christians. Nevertheless, there are lots of scenes of Christians acting like they ought to – forgiving those who have wronged them, not taking life, etc – behaving, well, like Christ taught and thus converting more and more Romans to their way of believing.

Care has been taken with the scenery and costumes though some of the sets have more of a “closed in” soundstage look in 2001. The 1951, filmed in Rome, is all spectacle with its 30,000 extras and costumes. I could kiss whoever did NOT have stirrups on the 2001 saddles. Plus there is a bull and lots of real lions! The stories of how they got and filmed the lions in 1951 are a hoot. Apparently the picky cats thought the arena too hot and rushed back to their cages. It took meat stuffed costumes to get them out. In 1951 the bull also escaped and caused havoc on the set. But in either version the scenes don’t look half bad.

The scenes of martyrdom, more so in 2001, are quite suggestingly grisly so be warned. I think these sections are even more realistic than what was in “Rome.” But hey, there’s also an orgy which (2001) is less teasing and more showing than the Hollywood ‘covered navel’ show and which also (2001) has a male dancer in place of the usual flirty females shaking their thangs. Be prepared for bosoms in abundance and a shot of Delaq’s very trim backside if you watch the Polish edition. See! It ain’t all about religion.

I’m not sure what arena the games are supposed to be in as the famous Colisseum wasn’t built then but in both it looks nice and cozy with a bird’s eye view of the action. The 2001 burning of Rome was anemic and without all the panic I would have expected. I guess the budget just didn’t extend quite far enough. On the other hand, the beautiful shots at “Antium” make me want to build a villa there too. But for the ’51 movie, all stops were pulled out and Rome burned, baby, burned. The extras also look more like people who don’t want to be crispy critters for Nero’s art rather than people merely headed out for a quart of milk at the Quickstop.

As I alluded to earlier, I love both Boguslaw Linda’s and Leo Genn’s portrayals of Petronius. He can slyly lie to Nero without coming off as two faced and enjoys a small romance of his own with a slave named Eunice (Marta Piechowiak/Marina Berti) who loves him and joins him in death. Berti plays it more cloying and at times I winced as she almost worshiped her master.

Bajor looks a bit like the busts of Nero and gives a convincing portrait of a spoiled brat who thinks “it’s all about me. Why can’t people understand my frustrated artistic soul?” Ustinov, true to what’s said about him, chews the scenery to bits and also seems a little more psychotic. I liked Laffan’s Poppaea better. Her role is bigger and plays the central part in why Lygia is singled out in the arena. Plus she has two cool pet cheetahs!

Another major change between 1951 and 2001 is Chilo. In the Hollywood version, he’s barely there but played by Trela, who initially was in it for whatever he could scam and squeeze, he turned out to be one of my favorites in 2001. I’m not quite sure I buy his conversion at the end but his smarmy beginning is great.

Delaq does a good job going from an obsessed soldier who’s been refused a human toy he wants to a man who weeps when he’s baptized and who is willing to risk his life to save the woman he loves. Taylor is, I think, a little old for the role and his pursuit of Lygia seems more rote than passionate. Mielcarz is a truly lovely Lygia but sometimes comes off like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Mostly she seemed little more than a pretty face and it’s obvious she hasn’t much acting experience. Kerr on the other hand turns in a better performance and shows more of the woman torn between her love for Marcus and her religious principles. As Bill Clinton said, I could feel her pain.

The 1951 version has more of a “gee look at this amazing spectacle” feel rather than one focused on the characters as in 2001. Though for that one, I could have done with less attention to inventive ways to kill people and a punched up burning of Rome. Still there is something to be said for a 1951 Hollywood cast of (ten) thousands and a desire to razzle dazzle people back into the theater. From what I’ve heard, the ’51 movie was also supposed to be seen more as a commentary on WWII and the then postwar world instead of as a religious epic. But whichever version you watch, be ready to take some breaks as they are long. B-

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

11 Comments

  1. Bonnie Dee
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 05:57:27

    Is the Polish version in POlish with subtitles? I would assume but just checking

    ReplyReply

  2. Jayne
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 06:00:27

    @Bonnie Dee: Yes, the spoken language is Polish with English subtitles in the version I watched. I can’t recall if there were subtitles for any other language.

    ReplyReply

  3. A.M.K.
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 06:37:02

    The English translation is available on Project Gutenberg, if anyone wants to read the book:)

    ReplyReply

  4. Kaz Augustin
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 07:19:41

    Yes, my Polish hubby tells me that Quo Vadis was written solely as an allegory for WWII. (I could only wince my way through a third of the book before giving up.)

    Please don’t say you can watch this as an historical as Sienkiewicz didn’t care whether he was historically accurate or not. The putz. Now everybody believes that Christians were routinely thrown to the lions and it’s all because of this idiot who made it up out of whole cloth. But, no doubt, somebody is going to use QV as a kind of bible for some future coliseumpunk. Sigh.

    ReplyReply

  5. Jayne
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 07:31:29

    @Kaz Augustin: Please note: I didn’t say the films were historically accurate just that they could be viewed as historical films rather than religious films. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear.

    Also, the book was written in (I believe) the 1890s so it is not an allegory for WWII. Rather the 1951 film version is.

    ReplyReply

  6. Kaz Augustin
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 09:00:00

    Yes, you’re right. Sienkiewicz died during WWI. However there IS an allegory there, it’s just that I screwed it up! :) At the time, it was fashionable for authors to have a “tendency” in their novels; that is, an agenda. And Sienkiewicz’s agenda for QV was to try to encourage the Poles to keep their faith even though Poland itself didn’t exist at that time. (It had been partitioned into three.)

    Also, your view that “an historical film” need not be “historically accurate” was exactly his view too because that’s how he approached the writing of QV. In which case, is it really accurate to call it “historical” (when it’s not based on verifiable history) or is it actually fable? Maybe “historical fantasy”?

    ReplyReply

  7. bettie
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 09:45:46

    Reading this review, I was reminded of Cecil B DeMille’s excellently exploitative pre-code epic of piety and prurience, Sign of the Cross (1932), which has pretty much the same plot but with way more nudity, including Claudette Colbert as Poppaea bathing in a pool of asses’ milk. Unlike the 1951 Quo Vadis, Sign of the Cross was filmed in beautiful, exotic Fresno, CA. But what Sign lacks in historical accuracy and actual Roman setting, it more than makes up for with luridly inaccurate Roman-esque spectacle.

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  8. Pat
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 10:57:33

    Dear me, I remember seeing the 1951 version back then. As I recall, I enjoyed Leo Genn’s Petronius and thought Robert Taylor pretty but boring, as usual. Not, I think, a movie I long to see again.

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  9. Barb in Maryland
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 16:25:43

    Got a good giggle out of your Ben-Hur remarks. I, too, remember seeing the 1951 version a long, long time ago. Never was a Robert Taylor fan.
    You could have also given us Paul Newman in a really, really awful movie (Silver Chalice)or The Robe, featuring Richard Burton as our skeptical Roman and Jean Simmons as our lovely, blonde Christian in trouble. Both movies are from the early 1950′s. I always quite enjoyed The Robe

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  10. Jayne
    Apr 23, 2011 @ 03:58:18

    @Barb in Maryland: I have never seen The Silver Chalice. Even when I was growing up and these Bible themed movies got shown each and every spring on TV, this was one didn’t make the cut. Then, even when I heard about it, it was always about how truly awful it is. I might have to check it out one day just for kicks.

    I also didn’t mention any Victor Mature movies. He’s another one like Taylor who just doesn’t do much for me.

    Having only seen The Robe once, I can’t remember much about it.

    ReplyReply

  11. danyulengelke
    Apr 21, 2014 @ 10:04:53

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

    ReplyReply

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