The spectacle of terror and the Hollywood antihero
By Zeke Trautenberg
Shot in vivid Technicolor on colossal sets teeming with thousands of extras, MGM’s Quo Vadis is an iconic Hollywood epic. Mervyn LeRoy, the film’s director, had knack for big budget epics and working with studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. That Quo Vadis was shot largely in Rome at the famed Cinecittà studios only enhances its connection to the glamour of classical Hollywood cinema and the excess and monumental scale of early Italian cinema.
Set in 64 A.D., the film opens with the return of a Roman legion from a campaign in Britain. As the troops march down the Appian Way towards Rome, a voice-in-off tells describes the system of oppression that undergirds the empire. “The individual is at the mercy of the state,” he declares. Equally distressing is the fact that Roman tyranny does not distinguish between classes: “High and low alike become Roman slaves, Roman hostages. There is no escape from the whip and the sword.” The commander of this legion is Marcus Vincius, played with unwavering hubris by Robert Taylor. Taylor’s leading man good looks, masculine vitality (highlighted by his shining armor and hairy chest), and unwavering belief in his own expceptionalism make him an ideal American cinematic hero in the early Cold War and Hollywood Blacklist era (the conservative Taylor was a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee). No slave girl can resist the hero’s emphatic line readings.
As Marcus and his troops approach Rome they are detained outside the city by the Praetorian Guard and told to make camp. The commander objects to this edict and determines to confront the Emperor Nero, played with the unrestrained glee of a spoiled man-child by Peter Ustinov. Marcus’s wily uncle Petronious (Leo Glenn), intervenes on his behalf and Nero grants Marcus permission to enter the city before the parade of legions returning from the four corners of the empire.
At the home of Aulus Plautius (Felix Aylmer), Marcus encounters a beautiful woman with flowing red hair (Deborah Kerr), who he initially mistakes for a slave girl. She is none other than Lygia ,the daughter of the Lygian kings. She was taken Rome as a baby and adopted by Plautius. Like her adopted parents, Lygia is a Christian. During Marcus’s stay they welcome Saint Paul, who has come to spread the gospel in Rome. While Marcus doggedly courts Lygia and the Christians gather in the city, Nero’s delusions of grandeur grow. These multiple plot lines converge in an explosion of death, destruction, and creative willpower.
Quo Vadis draws heavily on the legacy of early Italian cinema. Although it is the first Hollywood adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel of the same title, two productions of Quo Vadis were produced in Italy in 1912 and 1924. Prior to the Second World War, films about Roman history and myth proliferated and established a model for the epic film. Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and Carmine Gallone’s Scipione l’africano (1937) incorporate many of the features that distinguish LeRoy’s film: a singular hero, colorful villains, competing virgin and lecherous female love-interests, massive sets, a sprawling cast, strongmen, kitschy costumes (epitomized by the ubiquitous peplos garment), oversize sets, lavish production design, a thunderous score, and an underlying moral allegory the emphasizes strength, purity, and virtue. These tropes surface again in subsequent cinematic adaptations of Greco-Roman history and myth, most notably, the plum genre films produced between 1958 and 1965. Like these early Italian and peplum films, the maxim of Quo Vadis is bigger is better. The magnitude of the film’s ambitions are underscored by Miklós Rózsa’s thunderous score and the bold costume design, in particular the green and gold ensembles worn by the lascivious Empress Poppaea (Patricia Laffan).
LeRoy’s film embraces broad allegory over subtle nuance—in addition to Saint Paul, Saint Peter and Jesus appear in the film. (The Coen Brother’s film Hail, Ceasar! (2016) parodies Quo Vadis’s representation of Christ, who in both films is “tastefully” shot from behind and also appears as a burst of light). The opening narration of Quo Vadis frames the film as a Manichean struggle between the peace-loving and inclusive Christians and the unhinged Nero (the film, like the novel, draws on the historian Tacitus’s negative portrayal of the Emperor in his Histories). However, the epic model of good versus evil is steadily undermined by the portrayal of Nero. The film depicts the Emperor as a morally corrupt, vain, and tempestuous character, it also represents him as an antihero artist. He is a quixotic leader whose ambitious, hallucinatory, and fiery creative endeavors mirror the film’s grandiose depiction of Roman history.
Throughout the film, Nero seeks the favor of his advisors for his artistic endeavors. He composes songs, tells jokes, and builds a model the creation of his new Rome, “Neropolis.” He sets fire to the city to realize his simultaneously apocalyptic and utopian artistic vision. Nero’s earnest, though destructive, creative endeavors subvert the initial framing of the film as a moral allegory. Underlying this surface level allegory is a more complex and nuanced one about the process of artistic creation and spectacle. After all, Nero says that he envisions a “spectacle of terror” when he proposes burning Rome to the ground. His advisor Petronius warns him against his ambition: “Burn a city in order to create an epic. That’s carrying the principle of art for art’s sake too far.” Notwithstanding Petronius’s criticism of art for art’s sake, the film depicts the burning of the city with the tonal and emotional intensity of Karl Bryullov’s romantic painting The Last Days of Pompeii (1830-1833).
On the one hand, the film’s apocalyptic representation of a smoldering city fits its emphasis on binary contrasts and Christian morality. Rome embodies excess and its immolation is divine justice ironically wrought by the man who believes that he is a living deity. On the other hand, Quo Vadis indulges in the horrors of this devastation, which culminates in the persecution of the Christians, who are fed to the lions in the Coliseum. The tension between the film’s moralizing framework—laid out in the initial voice-over narration— and its depictions of mass violence converge in the figure of Nero, whose mix of vanity and insecurity make him the most complex, and therefore human of character in the film. In his desire to please the mob and, by extension, the viewer, Nero is a subversive and ironic personification of the epic Hollywood filmmaker. Early in the film, as Nero surveys the passing parade of legions and the thousands of Roman citizens in the Forum below, he asks: “Do I live for the them or do they live for me?” This self-reflexive question encapsulates the duality at the core of Nero’s antihero artist identity: his creative impulses are accompanied by the yearning for an audience to his “terrible spectacle.” These parallel and complementary elements converge in Quo Vadis’s fever dream of a city aflame.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Running Time: 171 minutes