Classically Inclined

March 18, 2013

Film Review: Quo Vadis (1951)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:13 pm
Tags: , , ,

Although I’ve read a lot and spoken a little bit about this film, I’ve never actually sat down and watched it. So last week, I finally made the time (across two evenings – they don’t make films with that epic spread any more). It turned out to be a surprisingly appropriate film for Lent, because of the significant role played by the early Christian church in the narrative; it also finally made the chariot race in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum make sense! But I now have a better understanding of why Quo Vadis has remained one of the touchstones for classical reception in film, besides its comparatively early production date.

A couple of things about the film surprised me. Although I’d been prepared for it, the way Peter Ustinov played Nero for laughs but then moved the character into a darker and more dangerous place came as a shock. The clowning buffoonish character was sustained throughout the film, ending with a surprisingly heightened emotional scene when Nero had to rely on his spurned lover Acte to help him commit suicide before the mob who have broken into the palace find him. There are moments that are funny despite themselves – “Tigellinus! My robe of grief,” Nero utters as he is about to begin his musical performance over burning Rome, which he has had torched so he can sing convincingly about the fall of Troy. The film clearly aims to show how the spoilt and indulged emperor is abusing his authority, and thus why his fall is justified, but the pantomime aspects sit at odd with the portentous voiceover at the start of the film which labels Nero the antichrist. (I know that label forms part of the historical record and that Christian texts identify Nero in this way, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it in a 1950s introduction.)

The second thing that I was surprised by, and (if I am honest) rather annoyed by, was the relative unimportance of Seneca to the plot and the introduction of the Petronius romance subplot. I have no issues with Petronius having an important role, and with his death being a set piece – after all, it is in Tacitus. I do have issues with the joint suicide of Seneca and his wife Paulina being attributed to Petronius and a slave girl. (Yes, I know Nero’s soldiers saved Paulina from actually dying, the point stands.) It seems to me that Seneca is criminally underused, standing in for ‘template senatorial toady’ who wishes he could resist Nero as Petronius bravely does. Petronius gets to be a creative maverick who can take risks with what he says to Nero, but who unwittingly plants the idea for setting fire to Rome in his mind. Seneca could have been, well, anything – a tutor trying unsuccessfully to bring his charge back to the lessons of his youth; a cynic hardened to the inevitable outcomes of the emperor’s whims despite his philosophy; an optimist who imperils himself through trying to speak Stoicism as Petronius speaks Art. But no, he gets relegated to Standard Representative Of The Senate, thoroughly sidelined, and has parts of his story nicked and given to Petronius to boot. Colour me unimpressed.

The fact that I can complain about this, however, does indicate that the writers clearly knew their sources to be able to appropriate Seneca’s suicide in the first place. There are plenty of similar examples in the script. St. Peter is given the opportunity to repeat great chunks of the Sermon on the Mount. The famous bon mot that it would be more convenient if the Roman people only had one neck, as then they could all be killed at once, is attributed to Nero, but actually comes down to us as something said by Caligula. A slave stands behind Marcus Vinicius as he celebrates his triumph, holding his golden wreath and repeating pointedly ‘remember you are a man’. It’s a really interesting case of a film where the producers and writers have decided that historical accuracy is important, but have not been too fussed about where the snippets of historical accuracy have been fitted in.

As I said, the emphasis on Christianity came as something of a surprise, less because of the fact it was there, and more because of how it was there. I think I was expecting something more along the lines of Ben-Hur, where the narrative of corrupt Rome versus moral Christianity is played out implicitly, with Jesus’ crucifixion being a tangential event that nonetheless has a great impact on the protagonist. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see both Saint Paul and Saint Peter in person (the latter in suspiciously clean white robes at all times), and given a good amount of screen time, culminating in Peter’s crucifixion. The depiction of the underground church movement, the small households that follow Christianity, the mix of class that the religion facilitates, and the practical Christian ethics the film depicts (for instance, Lygia nursing Marcus Vinicius after a head wound despite the fact he is trying to capture her and take her home as his ‘hostage ward’), the innocent Christians in the arena singing hymns as they die – all these moments create a picture of early Christianity that is heavily idealised but also intensely appealing.

This wouldn’t be one of my reviews without a brief comment on sexuality and gender in the film, the most disturbing element of which was the way that Lygia appeared convinced that the brash and brutish Marcus does in fact have a heart of gold, and that by loving him she will be able to save him. This is exactly the sort of narrative that perpetuates abusive relationships, that if the abused person just sticks with it, the abuser’s better nature will be revealed, and it’s very much in keeping with a 1950s gender agenda. However, the film isn’t without its more subversive gender elements (besides Poppaea sensuously stroking her pet leopards). I was particularly struck by the scene where Nero is panicking after the mob have burst into the palace during the fire, and is looking for people who will die for him. The scene takes on a homoerotic tinge as his court both seek to demonstrate their love for their emperor and also avoid being thrown to the mob; the language of the scene repeatedly uses the words ‘love’ and ‘die’ in the same context, bringing to mind la petite mort. I’d like to think this is a subtle but deliberate way of further signalling Nero’s failure to grasp the seriousness of his situation, or of commenting on the erotic power relations operating within his court.

Either way, it’s a splendid film which has no shame in being outrageously lavish and spectacular (as the various scenes of Christians in the ampitheatre testify, inter alia); make time in your schedule to settle down with it.


  1. The movie followed the novel rather faithfully. As I remember, Seneca played only a very small part in the novel. At one point, he was derided for his hypocrisy, preaching moderation but eager for wealth. The novel, of course, is much richer in character developement and incident.

    Comment by Aristides — March 19, 2013 @ 10:45 am | Reply

    • I haven’t read the novel, but it’s interesting to know that the adaptation was that faithful. The only other adaptation I’m familiar with the details of (through scholarship rather than personal comparision) is Spartacus, where the adaptation seems to have been rather freer.

      Comment by lizgloyn — March 20, 2013 @ 8:02 am | Reply

  2. Quo Vadis is one of several Christian-oriented films that use Nero as the villain. In fact, that is the reason he is so popular in older film – not because of the ancient Roman perception of him, but because of the Christian narrative that developed around him. Have you seen The Sign of the Cross? That’s another one that influenced Quo Vadis. The Robe is another from the 1950s but not with Nero. It’s a whole subgenre of Roman reception that’s quite neat. I’ve used Quo Vadis successfully with students to show how modern biases can shape our perception of antiquity. Plus, Poppaea and leopards.

    Comment by LDG — March 19, 2013 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

    • I haven’t seen The Sign of the Cross, although it’s on the list! I know there’s a whole earlier tradition that established the platform for Quo Vadis to build on, but I’ve not seen most of them. Yet. I like the idea of using this in one’s teaching – when I talk about it, it’s normally in the context of classical reception more broadly rather than as a methodological point.

      Poppaea and the leopards are awesome.

      Comment by lizgloyn — March 20, 2013 @ 8:04 am | Reply

      • I think that is partially why Seneca does not get foregrounded: his figure is too ambiguous given that even contemporary Romans had difficulty with his role in Nero’s reign (and murder of his mother), and yet there is the pseudo-epistolary tradition between him and prominent christians. So he muddies the waters too much.

        Though if you want a GREAT Nero movie that has some good Seneca moments, check out Nero’s Big Weekend (originally the Italian Mio Figlio Nerone) also from the 50s.

        Gloria Swanson as Agrippina
        Brigitte Bardot as Poppaea

        Need I say more?

        Comment by LDG — March 20, 2013 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

        • I had never heard of this film, but I am clearly going to have to make time to sit down and watch it – thanks!

          Comment by lizgloyn — March 22, 2013 @ 10:12 am | Reply

          • I love it so much I can’t even stand it. When Agrippina shows up after the shipwreck…. the thunder…. priceless.

            Comment by LDG — March 25, 2013 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

  3. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!

    Comment by danyulengelke — April 21, 2014 @ 4:02 pm | Reply

  4. […] excerpt from the review at Classically […]

    Pingback by Academy Monday – Watch: ‘Quo Vadis’ (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) | Seminal Cinema Outfit — April 21, 2014 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

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