Quo Vadis: Two-Disc Special Edition
Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Leo Genn, Patricia Laffan, Finlay Currie, Abraham Sofaer, Felix Aylmer
With respect to the classic MGM library on DVD, Quo Vadis has been arguably the most conspicuous MIA title for a number of years now. The blockbuster epic was a big commercial success at a time when the studio needed it to survive, and was also the last big hit to be green-lit by Louis B. Mayer. The wait is over as of November 11th, and the DVD is reportedly the beneficiary of a significant film-based restoration effort.
Quo Vadis tells a story of the early days of Christianity during the reign of Emperor Nero in Rome. General Marcus Vinicius (Taylor) returns victorious to Rome after years of campaigning with his Army regiment. While residing with a retired general, Plautius (Aylmer), he falls for Lygia, a Lygian hostage adopted by Plautius as his daughter. Despite their mutual attraction, Marcus is baffled by her Christian faith. Marcus' fascination with Lygia brings him in contact with early Christian teachers including Paul (Sofaer) and first Apostle Peter (Currie). As these events transpire, mad Emperor Nero (Ustinov) conceives a plan to raze the city of Rome and rebuild it to his own specifications. Nero conceals his plan from one of his top advisors, Marcus' Uncle Polonious (Genn), until Rome is already aflame. The citizens of Rome prove less than understanding of Nero's intent. At the urging of his empress Poppaea (Laffan), who is secretly jealous of Marcus' romantic interest in Lygia, and in the interest of quelling a rebellion, Nero decides to scapegoat the Christians, stirring up prejudice against their fledgling religion, and sending scores of them to their deaths.
The original cinematic rendering of Quo Vadis from 1902 was the progenitor of all subsequent biblical epics. MGM's 1951 remake served a similar purpose by rebooting the dormant genre as a vehicle for big-screen spectacle at a time when films were struggling to compete with television. The tremendous commercial success of Quo Vadis would lead to a resurgence of the genre that would extend well into the 1960s. MGM was struggling as a studio since the late 1940s, and Quo Vadis has been portrayed by historians as both the last blast of Louis B. Mayer, who had presided over the picture's difficult genesis going back to before World War II, and the first blast of Dore Schary, who replaced Mayer as MGM president shortly before it was released. It is much more the former than the latter, although it does serve as something of a hybrid of the cinematic preferences of both men. It is certainly a high-class grand spectacle in the Mayer tradition, but it also has more then enough subtext to be read as a "message picture" in the Schary vein. Stories abound about Mayer rebuffing the desires of Schary and original slated director John Huston to make the parallels between Nero's Rome and Hitler's Germany more explicit. I will leave interpretations of the significance of the film's prominent presentation of Christians being devoured by the beast symbolic of the MGM studio as an exercise for my readers.
In any event, the resulting film is a sprawling epic with an emphasis on big screen spectacle. The film was produced largely at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, and almost no expense was spared. It features a literal cast of thousands, opulent production design, top of the line special effects, amazing set-pieces, a lavish and memorable Miklós Rózsa score, an affirmation of basic Christian values general enough to appeal to non-Christian filmgoers, violence severe enough to result in "not for children" labels on posters and censorship in the UK, and, of course, a little sex. While it at times seems a bit plodding to modern eyes, the film becomes more interesting as the size of the screen on which it is viewed increases.
Robert Taylor gives his typical stiff yet sturdy lead performance, but is hamstrung somewhat by playing a man who is supposed to be a great warrior in a script that more or less makes him a passive hero. Other than a chariot race on the road to Rome in the middle of the film, Marcus Vinicius is kept on the sidelines for all of the film's major action set pieces. Taylor was a versatile old-Hollywood leading man whose stagey acting style would normally seem ideally suited for a lead role in such historical/biblical epics. By giving Taylor so little to do physically, though, the task of conveying Marcus Vinicius' philosophical and spiritual progress throughout the film must be accomplished through variations in tone and expression. This requires a type of nuanced performance which is far from Taylor's strong suit. This also somewhat undermines the chemistry between Taylor and Kerr. Kerr gives a wonderfully expressive performance as Lygia in which her eyes frequently sell her attraction to Marcus Vinicius even when she is verbally rebuffing him, but it sometimes feels like she is playing against a brick wall.
That being said, the performances in this movie that register most strongly are those of Ustinov and Genn. Appearing in his first major Hollywood production, Ustinov gives a career-making performance. His Nero is a strangely sympathetic nightmare of absolute power and complete self-absorption. He commands the viewer's attention whenever he is on screen not simply because he is attired as an emperor, but also because Ustinov conveys an inherently suspenseful sense of capricious insanity that leaves viewers simultaneously fascinated and frightened about where his unchecked ego will take him next. He is quite convincing as a man who could almost literally do anything. As Petronious, Genn is a perfect foil, portraying an extremely self-aware man of keen intellect who has made an art of manipulating his mad emperor through left-handed flattery. Genn gets most of the film's best lines and arguably the best exit, but far from coasting on the strength of the material, he truly seems to revel in the opportunity to play such a character.
The film is appropriately presented at a 4:3 aspect ratio, and its nearly three hour running time (inclusive of first time on video Overture and Exit Music which play over simple graphics consistent with the film's titles) is spread across two discs. This proves to be a good choice, as much of the film's impact depends on visual detail. The color scheme at times seems a bit tilted towards the yellow end of things, with crimson plumes in centurion helmets looking a bit orange and flesh tones a bit too bronze, but it is not as severe as the "brown out" that was applied to Warner's DVD of Rio Bravo.
The back of the disc case indicates that the film received an Ultra-Resolution restoration while all previous press materials indicated a "meticulous photochemical restoration". While it is my understanding that the latter is the more accurate description, the important thing is that it looks terrific. There is very little visible film damage, near-perfect registration, very good contrast and shadow detail, natural film-like grain rendered acceptably by high bitrate encoding, and no significant signs of ringing along high contrast edges. From a source element standpoint, aside from very minor speckles, there are a handful of scenes which exhibit a mild pulsing in density, but those are about the only flaws I noticed.
Audio is provided via a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track which appears to have been transferred carefully to disc. While pops and scratches have been eliminated, the Warner Bros. audio folks were unusually light handed with the noise reduction. This results in slightly higher background noise/hiss, but improved fidelity due to the relative absence of audible noise reduction artifacts. Source limitations are evident, with somewhat limited dynamic and frequency range, but it is a solid track overall and nothing harmful appears to have been done to it in the digital domain. A Dolby Digital 1.0 French dub is also presented and is of comparable quality to the English track in terms of music and effects.
A Commentary from F.X. Feeney spans the film on both discs. This is a very well researched commentary, and critic/filmmaker Feeney delivers his information in a very listenable and well-prepared manner. Feeney covers a broad range of topics relating to the film, MGM, the filmmakers, and the source novel. He never seems to be rushing to get information in, and also he never seems to be talking simply to fill in space. As hard as this may seem to believe, this track is definitely worth the two hours and fifty minutes it takes to listen to it.
The Theatrical Trailer (5:10) starts off with a silent text notice to theatrical patrons declaring the film to be universally acclaimed as "the Greatest Motion Picture of our lifetime", and the hyperbole only ramps up from there. My favorite bit of voiceover refers to Robert Taylor: "Through a performance of masterful artistry, he will have lost his own identity and become Marcus Vinicius...". Another good one refers to a quote from Life magazine, also used in the Teaser Trailer, calling Quo Vadis "The most genuinely colossal movie you are likely to see for the rest of your lives." This is a great trailer for fans of vintage Hollywood marketing chutzpah.
Teaser Trailer (1:01) Attempts to pique audience interest multimedia-style by referring to a production photograph that was published in "Life" magazine and then revealing a snippet of the massive Roman parade scene that was the subject of the still photo.
In the Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic (16:9 enhanced video - 43:51) - Aside from the continued commentary, the only extra on Disc Two is this retrospective documentary. It is an above average talking heads, film clips, and behind the scenes photo montage assemblage that provides a nice overview of the film. Topics covered included the appeal of biblical and Roman Empire stories to Hollywood, Henryk Sienkiewiez's Nobel prize winning source novel, the popularity and influence of previous adaptations, the long pre-production history of the MGM film, Hollywood's fondness for British actors in Roman epics, background information on Mervyn LeRoy, the matte paintings and special effects of Harrison Ellenshaw, the music of Miklós Rózsa, the promotion of the film, the film's commercial success, awards nominations, and the film's influence and legacy. On camera interview participants include University College London Professor Dr. Maria Wyke, Gladiator writer/producer David Franzonio, critic/filmmaker F.X. Feeney, USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor Dr. Drew Casper, London Royal College of Art Rector Sir Christopher Frayling, the American Film Institute's Patricia King Hanson, Film Critic/Historian Richard Schickel, USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor Dr. Richard Jewell, Son of Matte Artist Peter Ellenshaw Harrison Ellenshaw, motion picture historian Rudy Behlmer, and Epic Films author Gary Smith.
While few in number, these extras are high in quality and assembled thoughtfully. While there is some unavoidable overlap between Feeney's commentary and the documentary featurette, there is a lot less than I expected, and both seem designed to compliment each other nicely with plenty of interesting production anecdotes and information eclusive to each of them.
The film comes packaged in a hard Amaray-sized case with a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs. The cover image is of Taylor behind the reins of a chariot with a somewhat odd "straining to stool" look on his face. I generally prefer DVD covers from original poster art, but to be fair, the original posters for Quo Vadis were actually pretty lame for a film so important to the studio that was marketed so aggressively.
The classic MGM larger than life epic Quo Vadis finally has arrived in convenient five inch disc form. The film is split over two discs with excellent video quality and color timing that seemed noticeably, if not excessively, tilted towards the yellow end of the spectrum. Audio is courtesy of a solid mono track. Extras are limited in number but high in quality, including two trailers, a well-researched commentary from critic/filmmaker F.X. Feeney, and a scholarly retrospective documentary that nicely compliments the commentary track.