This post is part of the Sword and Sandal blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini
The 1950s were known for many things, but in Hollywood, they were primarily known as the decade of the Biblical epic. A number of great epics including Quo Vadis were made in this ten year span, films such as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959), David and Bathsheba (1951), Solomon and Sheba (1959), etc. Quo Vadis is considered one of the greats of this era, and rightfully so.
Based on the best selling novel Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1895) by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the film follows the Roman tribune Marcus Vinicius as he encounters a mysterious sect called “Christians” after falling in love with a captive woman named Lygia (who belongs to this mysterious cult). Marcus, who holds token respect for the Roman gods at the beginning of the story, initially cannot fathom this Christ that the Christians hold in great reverence. In his mind, he loves Lygia, therefore Lygia should love him back and that should be the end of it. But even though Lygia DOES love Marcus in return, her faith in God is too strong to permit her to leave her faith for the love of one man.
Ustinov’s portrayal of Nero is quite chilling at times
All of this takes place during the reign of the Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov), a spoiled, full-of-himself ruler, who believes he is a god on Earth (and is worshipped as such), capable of doing no wrong, a veritable genius (though his musical skills are mediocre at best). His wife, the Empress Poppaea, has eyes only for Marcus, and sees Lygia as a rival that should be eliminated. Attempting to keep the half-mad Emperor in line is Gaius Petronius, Nero’s “arbiter of elegance” (and also the uncle of Marcus). Petronius maintains his place in court by simultaneously mocking and then praising Nero to the heavens, in such a witty fashion that Nero cannot bear to part with him.
Lygia is not happy with Marcus
Impatient to have Lygia, Marcus decides to have her kidnapped from her foster home (since she is technically a Roman hostage, being the daughter of a pagan king who fought against Rome and therefore belongs to Nero) and brought to the palace, to be given to Marcus at a feast, as a reward for being so successful in recent combat. Lygia manages to escape though, and goes into hiding with other Christians. Marcus tracks her to a secret gathering led by the apostle Paul and Peter himself, newly arrived in Rome. While he is intrigued by the Christian teachings, Marcus cannot (as yet) believe in them, but he understands enough to let Lygia go and promises not to follow her anymore.
At the same time though, the Christians are becoming an annoying thorn in Nero’s side, as is the city of Rome itself. The former bothers him because they deny his divinity, and the latter bothers him because of its overwhelming corruption. Petronius unwittingly gives Nero an idea when he mocks the emperor’s epic about “burning Troy” because the emperor had never seen a burning city himself. After moving the imperial court safely to Antium, Nero makes plans to have the city (barring the Palatine area where the wealthy live) set ablaze, while he returns to compose his greatest epic. When the arson backfires (thanks to the intervention of Marcus) and many people end up escaping with their lives, the emperor needs a scapegoat to divert attention from himself. Against the protests of Petronius, Nero writes an edict pronouncing the Christians are responsible for burning Rome and are henceforth enemies of the state. In despair, Petronius commits suicide several days later (but not before endorsing the Roman general Galba as a replacement ruler for Nero).
Peter is successfully smuggled out of Rome along with a young boy named Nazarius. But along the way, Christ comes to Peter (speaking through the boy) and when Peter asks “Quo Vadis Domine?/Where are you going Lord?, Christ answers “My people in Rome have need of thee, if thou deserts my people, I shall go and be crucified a second time.” By which Peter understood that he needed to go back to Rome, because it was time that he gave his life while preaching the Word.
The Empress Poppaea, seeing Marcus really is in love with Lygia after he rescues her from the fire, arranges to have him arrested and thrown in jail with the other Christians, among whom are Peter and Lygia’s foster parents. Over the course of several days, the Christians are systematically killed, some by lion, some by crucifixion while being burned alive. But Nero finds no joy in the spectacle, because, instead of screaming in terror, the Christians go singing to their deaths, proclaiming the world that is to come with their words. Nero decides to have Peter crucified upside down as an example, but still the Christians go singing as they die. Poppaea has one final spectacle planned: while Marcus stands bound at her side, Lygia will be tied to a post in the arena, while a wild bull is let loose. Only her giant protector, Ursus, will be able to stop the bull from killing Lygia. As the fight goes on, Marcus struggles to get free, and in a visible leap of faith, begins to pray for Christ to give Ursus strength to kill the bull, which happens!! In the chaos, Marcus breaks his bonds and jumps to the arena floor, telling the people of Rome the truth: that NERO burned Rome and it is Nero who should die, with General Galba set up in his place. Nero flees for his life, but ultimately commits suicide, urged on by Acte, a former wife (who still loves Nero despite everything and doesn’t want to see the crowds rip him apart).
For now, Rome is safe again, as General Galba rides triumphant into Rome, while Marcus, Lygia, Nazarius, and Ursus, ride away from the city, to places unknown.
The score for this film is one of my favorites and was composed by Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa is probably best known for his work on Ben-Hur (1959), and not many know that several themes heard in that film were created for Quo Vadis eight years earlier. Rozsa spent a great deal of time researching ancient music and instruments for this film, and assisted the props team in creating highly detailed replicas of ancient musical instruments that were seen all over the film.
The “Quo Vadis” of the title comes from the pivotal moment when Peter encounters Christ while fleeing Rome and asks him “Quo Vadis Domine?” Where are you going Lord? The story can be found in the Apocrypha of the Bible.
Biblical epics can be hard to get through because of their sheer length, but Quo Vadis is worth watching at least once if you’ve never seen it before. Made in an era long before CGI, the hand-built models and miniatures give scenes (especially the burning of Rome sequence) a sense of reality that you would be hard pressed to find today.
This is my entry for the Sword and Sandal blogathon, and I hope you enjoyed it! -Bex
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