Quo Vadis (1951 film)

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Quo Vadis
Poster - Quo Vadis (1951) 01.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Produced by Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay by S. N. Behrman
Sonya Levien
John Lee Mahin
Based on Quo Vadis
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Starring Robert Taylor
Deborah Kerr
Leo Genn
Peter Ustinov
Narrated by Walter Pidgeon
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography Robert Surtees
William V. Skall
Edited by Ralph E. Winters
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • November 8, 1951 (1951-11-08)
Running time
171 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $7.6 million[1]
Box office $21 million

Quo Vadis (Latin for "Where are you going?") is a 1951 American epic film made by MGM in Technicolor. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and produced by Sam Zimbalist, from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien, adapted from the novel Quo Vadis (1896) by the Polish Nobel Laureate author Henryk Sienkiewicz. The score is by Miklós Rózsa and the cinematography by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The title refers to an incident in the apocryphal acts of Peter.[2]

The film starred Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, and Peter Ustinov, and featured Patricia Laffan, Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer, and Abraham Sofaer. In addition, Sophia Loren and Carlo Pedersoli appeared as uncredited extras. Sergio Leone assistant directed the Italian cast members. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards (though it won none), and was such a huge box-office success that it was credited with single-handedly rescuing MGM from the brink of bankruptcy.


The story, set in ancient Rome during the final years of Emperor Nero's reign, 64–68 AD, combines both historical and fictional events and characters, and compresses the key events of that period into the space of only a few weeks. Its main theme is the Roman Empire’s conflict with Christianity and persecution of Christians in the final years of the Julio-Claudian line. Unlike his illustrious and powerful predecessor, Emperor Claudius, Nero proved corrupt and destructive, and his actions eventually threatened to destroy Rome's previously peaceful social order.

Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is a Roman military commander and the legate of the XIV Gemina. Returning from the wars, he falls in love with Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a devout Christian, and as a result, finds himself increasingly drawn to her religion. Though she grew up Roman as the adopted daughter of Aulus Plautius (Felix Aylmer), a retired general, Lygia is technically a hostage of Rome. Marcus persuades Nero (Peter Ustinov) to give her to him as a reward for the services he has rendered. Lygia resents this arrangement, but nevertheless falls in love with Marcus.

Screenshot of Deborah Kerr from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

Meanwhile, Nero's atrocities become increasingly outrageous and his behavior more irrational. After Nero burns Rome and blames the Christians, Marcus sets off to rescue Lygia and her family. Nero captures them, along with all the Christians, and condemns them to be killed in the arena. However, Petronius (Leo Genn), Marcus's uncle and Nero's most trusted advisor, warns him that the Christians will be made martyrs. Then, tired of Nero's insanity, and suspecting that Nero may be about to turn on him too, Petronius composes a letter to Nero expressing his derision for the emperor (which he previously had concealed to avoid being murdered by him) and commits suicide by severing an artery in his wrist. Marcus is arrested and sent to prison for his efforts to save Lygia. Saint Peter (Finlay Currie) also has been arrested and imprisoned after returning to Rome in response to a sign from the Lord, and Peter marries the couple. Peter is later crucified upside-down, a form of execution conceived of by Nero’s guard as an expression of mockery.

Screenshot of Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), Nero's wife, who lusts after Marcus, devises a diabolical revenge for his rejection of her. Lygia is tied to a wooden stake in the arena. A wild bull is also placed there, and Lygia's bodyguard Ursus (Buddy Baer) must try to kill it with his bare hands, otherwise Lygia will be gored to death. Marcus is tied to the spectator's box and forced to watch, much to the horror of his officers, who also attend the spectacle. When all seems hopeless, Ursus is able to break the bull's neck. Hugely impressed by Ursus's courage, the crowd exhorts Nero to spare them. The emperor refuses to do so, even after four of his retainers Seneca (Nicholas Hannen), architect Phaon (D.A. Clarke-Smith), poet Lucan (Alfredo Varelli), and Terpnos (Geoffrey Dunn) add their endorsement of the mob's demands by putting their thumbs up as well. Marcus then breaks free of his bonds, leaps into the arena, frees Lygia with the help of the loyal troops from his own legion, and announces that General Galba is at that moment marching on Rome, intent on replacing Nero.

Ringling Museum Sarasota, Florida. Bronze statue of Lygea tied to the bull by Giuseppe Moretti

The crowd revolts, now firmly believing that Nero, and not the Christians, is responsible for the burning of Rome. Nero flees to his palace, where he strangles Poppaea to death, blaming her for attempting to scapegoat the Christians. Then Acte (Rosalie Crutchley), a palace slave who was once in unrequited love with Nero, appears and offers to aid him in ending his own life before the mob storms the palace. Nero can not do it, so Acte helped him, helping him to push the dagger into his chest.

Marcus, Lygia and Ursus are now free and leave Rome. By the roadside, Peter's crook, which he had left behind when he returned to Rome, has miraculously sprouted flowers. The radiant light intones, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," words reported to have been spoken by Jesus (John 14:6, New Testament).


Publicity photo of Marina Berti for Quo Vadis


Scene from Quo Vadis

The musical score by Miklós Rózsa is notable for its attention to historical authenticity. Rozsa incorporated a number of fragments of ancient Greek melodies into his own choral-orchestral score. New recordings were made by Rózsa with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1977) and by Nic Raine, conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic (2012). At the end of the film, a triumphal march heralds the success of the armies of future emperor Galba. This theme would be re-used by Rózsa in Ben-Hur (1959) as the music accompanying the parade of the chariots around the track, prior to the famous chariot race.

Production notes[edit]

Screenshot of Peter Ustinov from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis
  • The film was originally cast in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor as Lygia and Gregory Peck as Marcus Vinicius. When the production changed hands the following year, the roles went to Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor was also a Christian prisoner in arena, but uncredited.
  • Clark Gable turned down the role of Marcus Vinicius because he thought the costume would make him look ridiculous.
  • Sophia Loren briefly appears uncredited as a slave. The Italian actor Bud Spencer also had an uncredited extra role as a Praetorian Guardsman.
  • Audrey Hepburn, then still widely unknown when the film was released, was considered for the part of Lygia. The studio wanted to use an unknown but the role went to Deborah Kerr instead. Photos of her in costume for the film still exist.[3][4]
  • Produced for $7 million, the film was MGM's largest grosser since Gone with the Wind (1939)
  • The film holds a record for the most costumes used in one movie: 32,000.
  • The film was shot on location in Rome and in the Cinecittà Studios.
  • Peter Ustinov relates in his autobiography Dear Me that director Mervyn LeRoy summarized the manner in which he envisioned Ustinov should play the Emperor Nero, very salaciously, as "Nero...He plays with himself, nights." Ustinov, getting the director's gist, thereafter notes that this depraved manner was the basis of his creation of the character of Nero for the film.
  • Also according to Ustinov, the film originally was slated to be directed by John Huston. Ustinov screentested with Huston before the production changed hands.
Screenshot of Patricia Laffan from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis
  • At one point in the film Nero shows his court a scale model illustrating his plans for rebuilding Rome. This model originally was constructed by Mussolini's government for a 1937 exhibition of Roman architecture—the film's producers borrowed it from the postwar Italian government.[5][6]
  • The first use of the phrase 'Hollywood on the Tiber', which has come to refer to a golden era of American runaway film production in Italy, was used as the title of an article in the June 26, 1950 issue of Time.[7]
  • In his memoir Dear Me (1981), Ustinov recalled that MGM had sought him for the role of Nero, but dithered for months, refusing to commit. During this time, he received numerous telegrams from the studio, one of which stated that they were concerned that he might be too young to play the notorious Roman emperor. Ustinov replied that Nero died when he was 30 and that, if they waited much longer, he'd be too old. The studio cabled back: "Historical research has proved you correct. You have the part."
  • Filmed at sprawling Cinecitta Studios that had been opened by Benito Mussolini in 1924 as part of the dictator's master plan to make Rome the pre-eminent world capital. Mussolini and Hollywood producer Hal Roach later negotiated to form R.A.M. ("Roach and Mussolini") Corporation, which was ultimately aborted. This fascist business alliance horrified 1930s studio moguls and ultimately led to Roach defecting from his MGM distribution deal to United Artists in 1937. Filming in post-war Italy offered the studios immense facilities and cheap Italian labor and extras, of which thousands were required. Hollywood would return to Cinecitta often, producing many of its biggest spectacles, including Helen of Troy (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), the latter two dwarfing Quo Vadis in scale. It would be later used by many Italian producers, including Federico Fellini.


Box office performance[edit]

The film was a commercial success. According to MGM records, during its initial theatrical release it earned $11,143,000 in the U.S. and Canada and $9,894,000 elsewhere, making it the highest-grossing film of 1951, and resulting in a profit to MGM of $5,440,000.

Awards and honors[edit]

Screenshot of Marina Berti & Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis was nominated for eight Academy Awards: twice for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov as Nero), and for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Hugh Hunt), Best Cinematography, Color, Best Costume Design, Color, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Picture. However, the movie did not win in any categories.[8]

Peter Ustinov won the Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actor. The Golden Globe for Best Cinematography was won by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The film also was nominated for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

Home media[edit]

  • A two-disc special edition of the movie was released on DVD in the U.S. on November 11, 2008, after a long photochemical restoration process.[9] A high definition Blu-ray version was released March 17, 2009.[citation needed]

Comic Book adaptation[edit]

  • Thriller Comics No 19, July 1952 (Amalgamated Press • London). 64 pages in black-and-white. Adapted by Joan Whitford • Drawn by Geoff Campion. [Remarkably faithful to the look of the film. However, for reasons of space, both Marcus' friend Nerva and Petronius' slave Eunice are excised.][10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hall, Sheldon; Neale, Steve (2010). Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press. p. 137. ISBN 0814330088. 
  2. ^ The words "quo vadis" as a question occur five times in the Latin Bible -- in Genesis 16:8, Genesis 32:17, Judges 19:17, John 13:36, and John 16:5.
  3. ^ Spoto, Donald (2006). Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn. London: Hutchinson. p. 48. ISBN 9780091796556. 
  4. ^ "Photo". 2.bp.blogspot.com. 
  5. ^ Wyke, Maria (1997). Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History. New York: Routledge. p. 140. ISBN 9780415906142. Retrieved 5 April 2012. 
  6. ^ Kelly, Christopher (2006). The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 128. ISBN 9780192803917. Retrieved 5 April 2012. 
  7. ^ Wrigley, Richard (2008). Cinematic Rome. Leicester: Troubador. p. 52. ISBN 1906510288. 
  8. ^ Murphy, Mekado (2016-12-27). "Movies - The New York Times". Movies.nytimes.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-07. Retrieved 2017-02-11. 
  9. ^ "Quo Vadis Two-Disc Special Edition: Restored and Remastered Classic Finally Comes to DVD November 11 from WHV". Business Wire. 2008-07-21. Retrieved 2017-02-11. 
  10. ^ David Ashford and Steve Holland (Eds): The Thriller Libraries: The Fleetway Picture Library Index Volume 2 (Book Palace Books • London • 2010) p146

External links[edit]