Quo Vadis (1951)

Quo Vadis
Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr

''Quo Vadis' is an historical epic movie set in Ancient Rome, made in 1951, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov. The movie was adapted from Henryk Sienkiewicz's Polish historical epic "Quo Vadis: a Narrative of the Time of Nero", first published as a newspaper serial in 1895 and then as a novel in 1896, contributing to the author winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905. The title is from the Bible John 16:5, translated in the film as "Whither goest Thou, Lord?"

Produced at a cost of $7,000,000, the movie was the most expensive film ever made at the time and it became a major commercial success.During its initial release, it earned over $21,000,000 and was MGM's highest grossing film since 'Gone With The Wind'.

.Nevertheless it received a less than enthusiastic critical reception. It received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and two for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov as Nero), but did not win a single Oscar. In its defence this was one of Hollywood's champagne years with competition coming from 'The African Queen', 'An American In Paris', and 'A Streetcar Named Desire'.

'Quo Vadis' was made at a time when television was just beginning to show itself as a threat to the cinema and Dore Schary, who had just taken over the helm at MGM from Louis Mayer, wanted to make a spectacular Technicolor epic which would fight off the looming small screen threat. He wanted Mervyn LeRoy to create nothing less than the greatest movie spectacle of all time and LeRoy certainly delivered.

'Quo Vadis was the most expensive film ever made up to then, with more than 200 speaking parts, 120 lions, a bull, enormous, lavish sets, and over 30,000 extras (including, supposedly both Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren at the start of their careers.) An amazing total of one hundred and fifty sets and fifteen thousand costumes were required. Deborah Kerr alone required thirty-six changes of dress. Some of the sets were the largest ever seen in a movie up to that time. The recreation of the great Circus Maximus, where the Christian martyrs were thrown to the lions, was large enough to seat 30,000 people.


The action takes place around AD 64 when Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), a patrician Roman commander returning from war in the time of Emperor Nero, falls in love with Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a Christian hostage of state, who becomes caught between her love for a warrior Roman and her love for God.


The film had a long gestation period, even by Hollywood standards. MGM bought the film rights in the late 1930s, part of the deal being that they had to buy the 1924 silent screen version also. It was intended to make the movie in Italy and production had to be considerably delayed due to WWII. After the war began the process of constructing the enormous outdoor sets and making thousands of costumes for extras, along with drapes and carpets, metal and glass goblets, and 10 chariots.

Casting was originally done in 1949 and shooting finally started on May 22, 1950. Most of the filming took place at Rome's Cinecitta Studios. Italy offered American studios immense facilities and cheap Italian labor and extras, of which thousands were required.

Robert Taylor was one of the biggest Hollywood names and he and Deborah Kerr make a convincing couple. Leo Genn as Petronius - the sarcastic and cynical adviser of Emperor Nero- is outstanding and Peter Ustinov as the ever more insane Nero is quite brilliant. The narrator is an uncredited Walter Pidgeon.

The resulting movie is a classic which still holds the audience transfixed today. It is a stunning spectacle with fine performances of an intelligent script by an excellent cast. The costumes and sets are magnificent and the photography and music (it was composer Miklós Rózsa's first biblical epic film) are all of the highest order.

The picture was influential in changing the filmmaking fashions of the era. Antiquity became fashionable and shortly after 'Quo Vadis' came Warner Bros' 'Helen of Troy', Columbia's 'Salome' and Universal's 'Sign of the Pagan'. But none could match the sweep and breadth of 'Quo Vadis'.

Main Cast

Robert Taylor ... Marcus Vinicius
Deborah Kerr ... Lygia
Leo Genn ... Petronius
Peter Ustinov ... Nero
Patricia Laffan ... Poppaea
Finlay Currie ... Peter
Abraham Sofaer ... Paul
Marina Berti ... Eunice
Buddy Baer ... Ursus
Felix Aylmer ... Plautius
Nora Swinburne ... Pomponia
Ralph Truman ... Tigellinus
Norman Wooland ... Nerva
Peter Miles ... Nazarius
Geoffrey Dunn ... Terpnos


Director ... Mervyn LeRoy
Producer ... Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay ... John Lee Mahin, S.B.Behrman, Sonys Levien
Story by ... Based on the epic poem by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Music ... Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography ... Robert Surtees, William V. Skall
Format ... Color (Technicolor)
Distribution Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date ... November 8, 1951
Running time ... 171 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Eight Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Sam Zimbalist
Best Supporting Actor ... Leo Genn
Best Supporting Actor ... Peter Ustinov
Art Drection/ Set Direction ... William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno/Hugh Hunt
Cinematography ... Robert Surtees, William V. Skall
Costume Design ... Herschel McCoy
Film Editing ... Ralph E. Winters
Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) ... Miklós Rózsa