There is a concept inherent in watching a film, and really in being an audience to any work of fiction or narrative in general, that I feel has gotten increasingly lost or muddled in the last few decades or so. Suspension of disbelief to some, verisimilitude in fiction to others, the thought is essentially the same: that willingness to believe in the reality of the film itself, fictional though it be, to believe in the very believability of the film’s world along with the characters that act in it and the narrative that takes place. It’s a notion that’s become so second-nature over the century-plus of moviegoing that it’s taken for granted, and with the increasing need of movies to thrill, excite, surprise, & get a strong reaction out of its audience to where they have to go one step further than what they were able to before to do so, which the audience then comes to expect or anticipate, so then filmmakers go another step further, or try and come up with bigger twists or heavier hammer-drops… It’s a vicious cycle that’s resulted in moviegoing populations today being so jaded that they’ll mock or dismiss as “cringe” what, twenty or thirty years before, would’ve delighted or moved them, or at least been enough to sell them on what the film itself was doing or being. It’s why I’ve mentioned often on this site that I try and view a film in the mindset of someone watching it from the time it came out in, and I go in particular depth talking about it here to explain my response to watching Quo Vadis, a Roman/Biblical-era epic that would set the cloth that later films like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur would cut to perfection: almost nothing about this film works when looked at from a modern angle, but still, when I got myself to fall into the presentation of the world the film was selling, I found myself nevertheless having enjoyed it.
Marcus Vinicius is a Roman commander who’s spent years away with his troops fighting victorious battles in Britain and France, and is eager to return to the city and partake in its pleasures. Rome, however, isn’t quite the same city as when he left it; the Emperor Nero, a pompous man-child and self-stylized artist, has grown increasingly bored and agitated with the commonfolk and the overall sycophantic advisors encircling him, and seeks to be more daring and ostentatious in his artistic endeavors to win the praise of the people, and while the Emperor is still publicly seen as a divine figurehead, there have been growing crowds of converts to a new collective that follow the teachings of a man known as Christ, a crowd that includes the young adopted daughter of a retired Roman general by the name of Lygia, who catches Marcus’ eye upon their meeting. Marcus, however, has caught the eye of Nero’s sultry wife Poppaea, equally agitated as the Emperor but for different reasons, and the impending collision of these clashing forces both within and surrounding Rome threatens to set a match to the future of the city, the Empire, and the prospects of Marcus & Lygia ending up together as well.
It would be easy to sum up Quo Vadis as a film to a modern audience in terms of selling points, and indeed I basically did in the opener when I said that it set the standard for Biblical-era epic films that would follow, such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (many of the crew members on Quo Vadis would go on to also work on Ben-Hur as well). Now, epic films like this have been around the block in Hollywood before; even Ben-Hur was actually a remake of a similarly-titled silent film from 1925, but Quo Vadis marked a jump for the genre in terms of both production and box office. MGM put $7 million into shooting the film, making it the most expensive film ever made at that point, and their efforts would bring them their highest-grossing film at the box office since Gone With the Wind. It also marked the genre’s shift into color film, and all of this combined makes Quo Vadis a feast for the eyes and ears on a level several steps above what the genre had seen before. The production value in the film, from the sets to the costuming & make-up to the sheer number of extras throughout, is almost excessive, but it works for the setting the film is in, and also does a lot to hold attention where the film would otherwise falter. Even with the runtime being almost three hours, I was surprised at how well-handled it was and how I never got bored watching it, even with certain scenes being noticeably long, and I again attribute this to my brain’s willingness to go along with the film’s presentation style and the setting it was lavishly basking in. Part of this willingness extended to the dialogue, which may come across as hokey and bombastic to modern ears, but for me merely felt theatrical for the sake of setting, and it aided the presentation of the film. The cast also helped in this regard, particularly Peter Ustinov as Nero, who gleefully masticates the scenery of his character while savoring every bit he’s chewing on; Robert Taylor felt somewhat not enough of a presence to really anchor the film as Marcus Vinicius, but this had the unexpected benefit of making the film feel much more of an ensemble effort than one that had to rely on him as the male lead, and it highlighted the supporting players that much better as a result (though Deborah Kerr as Lygia unfortunately can’t escape being just recognizable enough to feel rather out-of-place as a more-known name).
While well-regarded when it came out, it seems time has not been kind to Quo Vadis; the film’s reputation and overall entertainment value among audiences has dropped quite a bit in the decades since, and what was once awe-inspiring and theatrical has become maudlin and passé as tastes have changed and audiences have gotten more used to films that followed this one. It’s understandable, to be certain; the storytelling in Quo Vadis is very much not tightly-knit together, the romance angles are very forced and lack subtlety, and the excessive production value, full of splendor to viewers at one point, can look needlessly so to a sizeable percentage of moviegoers today. I’m occasionally guilty myself of not regarding a film’s value and service as entertainment both within and outside of the time it’s from; I am, after all, a corporeal being that exists in one particular time within one particular culture, and to pretend as if that has no effect on me in things like this is to be basically lying to myself. But to take that thought to its extreme, to be closed-minded and outright dismissive of practically everything that doesn’t fall squarely within my purview or manage to outsmart me as a viewer with enough wow moments; to be rendered unable to enjoy or appreciate films like Quo Vadis for, at the very least, what they are trying to be, is probably more cringeworthy than any subjective projection of ego would have the people around me believe. I’m not saying moviegoers in general should force themselves to like films like Quo Vadis or think they’re good; I found numerous faults with the film even though I generally enjoyed it overall, and that’s largely why I’m giving it the rating I am. But, instead of opting to fit in with crowds or posture on social media by being totally jaded to films such as this, maybe they should at least try, to be more open and try responding to the style of pitch the film is selling. Who knows; maybe, like I did with this, you might find yourself having a better time than you pre-emptively thought you would’ve.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10
It’s a grand spectacle and all, but I found it far too long for the story. And I think the relationship is an abusive one. And I think Robert Taylor is dull as dishsoap.
Peter Ustinov, though, is great.
It seems my critique overall is a more pared-down version of yours; we covered basically the same strengths and complaints, but your feelings were a lot stronger about each. I also did not pick up at all on the inconsistencies with the historical portrayal of Christian persecution and general glossing over of the religious angles that you did, but I basically had no knowledge of any of that until I read your review after I’d posted mine. My ignorance of that probably helped the film’s success in getting me to play along with the story even more than it otherwise would’ve.