Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)

The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

Scenes I Love: Gladiator



While Lisa Marie watches Ben-Hur on TCM I decided to revisit one of my favorite films to start of the new millenium. This was a film that helped resurrect sword and sandals epic that had burnt out during the late 60’s. From the late 50’s and throughout most of the 1960’s we had such classic epics as Spartacus, Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur. Then we have the Italian-produced peplum films which ranged from memorable to awful.

In 2000, Ridley Scott released the film that would finally win Russell Crowe an Oscar for Best Actor (one he should’ve won for The Insider in the previous year). Gladiator was a return to the old-school epic-scale filmmaking that we hadn’t seen in decades and audiences ate it all up as it won in the box-office and charmed critics.

I wasn’t sure about Gladiator leading up to it’s release, but I was always up for some hacking and slashing in my entertainment. What changed my mind from just being interested to buying fully into the film was when I first saw it and the opening scene which I dub the Battle of Germania. This opening sequence appealed to my sense of adventure as a viewer and also as a student of history (especially military history). While the scene itself wasn’t as accurate as I would’ve liked it got enough of how the Roman Legions fought as an army correct that I was able to forgive Sir Ridley for some dramatic flourishes that wasn’t historically accurate.

In this scene we see the Legions form up in square ranks with their recognizable scutum (Roman shield) into their typical shield wall formation. There are also the auxiliries acting as long-range support such as archers, catapults and ballista (though the last two were rarely, if ever used outside of sieges). Then there were the Roman cavalry led by Maximus himself (a unit seen less as an elite formation as we see later in the Medieval era). Scott was able to combine all these elements and create a scene that probably was as close as we’d get to seeing how war was waged between the Roman Empire and the so-called barbarian hordes of Germania.

I think this scene would’ve been perfect if the Roman Legion formations remained cohesive and just meat-grinded their enemy in front instead of breaking apart and turning the fight into a free-for-all. Other than that misstep this scene was what I loved about Gladiator.