“It is not enough to live well. One must die well.”
Mid 20th century Hollywood loved an epic. Mid 20th century Hollywood really loved a swords and sandals, biblical epic. Even if you didn’t have the big JC, a big JC like figure would do the trick. There’s a reason why the phrase ‘bigger than Ben Hur’ was coined. So when I settle in to watch a mid 20th century swords and sandals, biblical epic, I expect to be couch bound for a little while. And that’s exactly what I was in for with the almost three hours that is Quo Vadis.
30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Roman General Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is headed back to the big smoke after several years of whooping ass around Europe and Britain. At first denied access to Rome, Marcus demands an audience with the Emperor, Nero (Peter Ustinov). That night, in Nero’s palace, he meets and begins to fall for Lygia (Deborah Kerr), who introduces him to her mate, Paul. But not just any Paul, it’s only Paul from the bloody Bible!
There’s word of St Peter headed to town, and Lygia and Paul are just the tip of the ever growing Christian iceberg. In the years since Jesus bit it, his fan base has been growing, while the Roman Empire supporters have been disappearing quicker than a pair of jocks up Nero’s back passage. So now Marcus is torn between his lifelong devotion to being a pretty shit hot military man for Rome, and his lover’s nuts for Lygia and her god bothering ways.
Quo Vadis never really grabbed me. And at just under three hours, that’s a lot of time to not be grabbed by a movie. Growing up with Catholicism forced on me, it’s kind of hard to see the Christians of Quo Vadis as these noble heroes, held down and oppressed. The hindsight of Christian dominance over the Western world in the last few centuries also makes it difficult to symapthise with the woe is me attitude of these characters. You can’t really play them as underdogs when they’ve been on top for so long in the real world.
But also, Quo Vadis is just boring. Apart from the gloriously camp scenery chewing of Ustinov, the rest is just so dry, so serious and so overly sincere. Regardless of how historically accurate it may or may not be, when you have grown ass men wearing these costumes, a movie is going to automatically have a certain level of camp value to it. And where someone like Charlton Heston has the gravitas to pull it off in Ben Hur, almost everyone in Quo Vadis just seems self important and pompous. And only Ustinov manages to make that entertaining.