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At the time it was produced, Quo Vadis (1951) was the highest grossing movie from MGM after Gone With the Wind (1939). This remarkable epic takes place during a fascinating period in ancient history. It offers as spectacular a cast as it does sets, costumes, and everything else that could rightly be construed as colossal. Between the slaughter of innocent Christians in the arena, half of Italy starring as Roman citizens, and sets that dwarf even Ustinov, is a story of Roman commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) serving under the berserk Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov). While Vinicius at first seems indifferent to the plight of the persecuted Christians, he soon sympathizes with them when he falls in love with a Christian girl, Lygia (Deborah Kerr), causing them both to be thrown to the lions.
The production of Quo Vadis came at the height of an executive power struggle at MGM (Dore Schary replaced former mogul Louis B. Mayer) and at a crucial time in the history of U.S. motion picture production because of the new competition from television. Director Mervyn LeRoy believed that motion pictures should offer larger and better spectacles in order to compete with the new medium. Whether this opinion was the result of prescience or hindsight, Quo Vadis was indeed the greatest spectacle ever made up to that time.
The logistics involved in producing a film of this magnitude were staggering. There were over two hundred speaking parts, many hundreds of workmen, and tens of thousands of extras. The company was managed in a paramilitary fashion, with group captains assigned to a specific number of extras, for whom they were responsible for everything from make-up to wages during the length of the shoot. As the first color film made at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, there were problems with lighting and equipment that was unfamiliar to Roman technicians who only had experience working in black and white film.
Imagine building a huge set only to see it burn? For scenes of Rome burning, dozens of workmen labored for months to construct a four-block area of ancient looking buildings, placing pipe throughout the sets for the flames. It took LeRoy and his technicians 24 nights to burn down the Rome they created for the cameras, when historically it only took Nero six days. Incredibly, all 2,000 extras moved through the fires without a single mishap. And somewhere in that swaying, moving mass of humanity, look for Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor who have bit parts.
Managing people is one thing, but working with one hundred and twenty lions for the coliseum scenes proved to be the biggest problem for the production. The lions did not like the sun. When the gates opened, the lions charged forward until they saw the bright rays of the sun. Even when starved for weeks the beasts still did not behave like voracious man-eaters. Finally, on the advice of lion-tamers, meat was stuffed in "dummies" dressed like Christians and the lions tore them to pieces quite savagely. Unfortunately, the dummies were too brutalized to use in the final film.
Another arena scene that prompted serious apprehension was when Lygia was tied to a post while waiting to be attacked by a bull. The athletic prowess of Ursus, played by actor Buddy Baer, was the only thing protecting Lygia from being mauled by the charging bull. In fact, the wrestling scenes between man and bull are some of the best in Quo Vadis because they seem so realistic.
When the Academy Award nominations were given out for 1952, Quo Vadis received eight including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actors (Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction, Best Dramatic Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Costume Design. However, it didn't win in any category since An American in Paris, A Streetcar Named Desire, and A Place in the Sun claimed most of the major awards.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien
Based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Art Director: William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno
Cinematography: Robert Surtees, William V. Skall
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie
Cast: Robert Taylor (Marcus Vinicius), Deborah Kerr (Lygia), Leo Genn (Petronius), Peter Ustinov (Nero), Patricia Laffan (Poppaea).
C-169m. Closed captioning.
by Celia M. Reilly