Polish author Henryk Sienciewicz (pronounced I believe shee-en-kay-evich) published his novel Quo Vadis in 1896, and like The Last Days of Pompeii and Ben-Hur it met with instant and enduring international success (Henryk went on to win the Nobel Prize) both literary and cinematic. The story is set in ancient Rome during the reign of emperor Nero. The centurion Marcus Vinicius falls in love with christian girl Lygia but Marcus has caught the lustful eye of Nero's feline empress and when the mad emperor sets Rome on fire she suggests that the blame should be placed on the christians who are then rounded up and thrown to the lions. Sienciewicz weaves the characters of the apostles Peter and Paul into his story and the novel's title derives from the legend that as Peter is fleeing the persecution in Rome he encounters along the Appian Way a vision of Christ and the apostle asks the question "Quo Vadis Domine?" or "Where are you going Lord?". It is the answer to this question that convinces Peter that he must return to Rome and face matyrdom.
Movies based on classical or biblical subjects were a staple of the silent cinema from the earliest days and there were at least two silent versions of Quo Vadis.Indeed the first version of 1912, followed by The Last Days of Pompeii and Cabiria, all made in Italy, can be credited with establishing the cinema as a serious art form. But with the advent of the talkies the popularity of the genre started to wane. Cecil B. deMille attempted to revive it in the early 30s with The Sign of the Cross (the storyline of which closely resembles that of Quo Vadis)and his risible Cleopatra and the team at RKO who gave us King Kong had another stab at The Last Days of Pompeii in 1935, but these movies enjoyed only limited success and after them the genre was pretty much stone dead. A revival started in the late 40s, first with Fabiola, a Franco-Italian production, and then in Hollywood with deMille's Sampson and Delilah. MGM had had Quo Vadis on the back-burner for a number of years and it was probably the success of Samson and Delilah that spurred MGM on to have another bash at it in 1951 with no expense spared, and the result was a lavish, jaw-dropping spectacle which even in our age of CGI effects has few equals. The movie in fact was made in Rome, MGM figuring they could get double the value for their dollars in impoverished post-war Italy - hence the cast of thousands. The success of this blockbuster led to another 15 years of epic productions (and not-so-epic in the case of Italian sword-and-sandal productions of the 50s and early 60s) before once again fashions changed and the genre fizzled out until Gladiator inspired a brief revival in the late 20th century.
The movie holds up remarkably well. The production values, the musical score by Miklos Rozsa and the casting are all superb (only Robert Taylor as the hero Marcus Vinicius is perhaps a tad too old and stodgy for the part). The one actor who leaves an indelible impression is of course Peter Ustinov at the beginning of his career who gives an enjoyably OTT performance as Nero, both hilarious in his deluded belief that he is a great musician and fatally susceptible to the malign influence of his empress Poppaea (the fabulous Patricia Laffan) and the flattery of his suave courtier Petronius (the uncle of Marcus played by Leo Genn. Petronius and Poppaea are based on real historical characters.)
The technical quality of this 2-disc release is excellent, the digital remastering has resulted in a crisp picture with vibrant colour and Rozsa's brassy score sounds wonderfully sonorous. Some nice extras too including a documentary on the making of Quo Vadis from which I learned that at an early stage MGM were eying up Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich(presumably to play Nero and his feline empress) and rather more seriously considered Gregory Peck for the part of Marcus Vinicius (another stolid actor like Bob Taylor, but he might have looked fresher and younger.) The documentary also gives an insight into how those monumental sets of imperial Rome and Nero's circus were achieved. A highly recommendable release then and the Amazon price makes it a bargain.
There are two other versions of Quo Vadis you can consider. "It was longer than Quo Vadis" was an Aussie joke I once heard, the reference being to the MGM version. The 1980s TV mini-series, in which Klaus-Maria Brandauer gives an outstanding performance as Nero, actually manages to be twice as long, has none of the great dollops of spectacle and over-the-top performances that fitfully enliven the MGM version, and it's slow moving and a tad cerebral, one might almost call it an "arthouse" Quo Vadis. Hence this production often receives a rather negative critical reaction but unfairly so in my opinion. Its recreation of the Roman world is more authentic than MGM's and historically it's more accurate with the writers skilfully weaving into the plot of Sienciewicz's novel additional material from the ancient historians. The empress Poppaea is also correctly portrayed as a hapless victim of Nero's brutality rather than, as in the MGM version, his evil genius. Brandauer portrays Nero as a slimey psychopath, you don't dare laugh at this guy as you do at Ustinov's Nero.
Rather closer to the MGM version is the recent Polish production which you may find difficult to track down with subtitles but if like me you persevere you'll be rewarded. It's a mighty impressive production and the final scenes in the amphitheatre are as impressive as anything you'll see in the MGM version or the more recent Gladiator. It suffers from a rather underpowered Nero but of the three versions it has the best-looking Marcus Vinicius and Lygia. In my opinion all three versions are worth watching, but maybe not one after the other.
Finally, you may care to take a peek at the Sign of the Cross from 1932 which is available in the deMille collection (also reviewed by me.) Wilson Barrett's play, which he later turned into a novel, appeared almost at the same time as Quo Vadis was published circa 1896 and has a remarkably similar storyline, but the suspicion has to be that he engaged in a bit of nifty plagiarism. DeMille turned it into one of his most impressive movies with Charles Laughton giving a splendid performance as a pampered and blubbery Nero, likewise Claudette Colbert as a mean and evil Poppaea, and the climactic bloodbath in the amphitheatre is even gorier than MGM dared to attempt 20 years later.