‘Quo Vadis’, the movie that changed Hollywood

In 1951, the year it was released Quo Vadis, an event occurred that would mark Hollywood cinema during that decade: CBS made the first public broadcast of color television in New York. In this way, the threat that the expansion of television receivers among the population already posed for large studios, thanks to their cheapening after the Second World War, was now joined by a technical advance that had been one of the main claims of the film industry – the brilliant Technicolor – to massively attract audiences to theaters.

Quo Vadis emerged in response to that threat. The powerful Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer invested some 7.5 million dollars in the production of the film, the most expensive until that moment. About 30,000 extras were employed, the costume department made 32,000 costumes (a figure never exceeded) and gigantic sets were erected in Cinecittà, the studios that Mussolini had paradoxically built in 1937 to compete with Hollywood cinema. It was the birth of the so-called “Hollywood of the Tiber”, where other super-productions of historical-biblical cinema would be filmed, such as Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) or The fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Quo Vadis It was a huge success, the highest grossing film of the year and the studio itself since gone With the Wind (1939). It received eight Oscar nominations (curiously, it was won by another MGM film, An american in paris, where the spectacularity of its production also prevailed) and revitalized the subgenre of biblical blockbusters that had had its peak during the silent period.

Blockbusters like The sacred robe (1953), The ten Commandments (1956) or the aforementioned Ben Hur were born in the heat of the impact generated by the film directed by the diligent craftsman Mervyn LeRoy, a now somewhat forgotten director, responsible for other MGM successes such as the excellent Waterloo bridge (1940), Thirty seconds over Tokyo (1944) or Little women (1949).

Film director Mervyn LeRoy.

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A success since the 19th century

The good popular reception it had Quo Vadis it was nothing new. The novel on which it is based, published in 1895 by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, became one of the first modern bestsellers. The work quickly crossed the borders of Poland, where it had originally been published (historical and sentimental borders, since the country had not existed for a century), and spread around the world like fire in Rome burned by Nero.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Quo Vadis it had been translated into more than thirty languages, with an extraordinary impact in the Anglo-Saxon sphere. As a culmination of this success, in 1905 Sienkiewicz received the Nobel Prize, an award established four years earlier. The author, who had already achieved great popularity thanks to his trilogy on the history of Poland –To blood and fire (1884), The flood (1886) and A polish hero (1888) -, was awarded by the Swedish academy “for his outstanding merits as an epic writer.”

Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz.

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The repercussion of Quo Vadis He did a great deal to boost readers’ interest in the Roman-Christian-themed historical novel genre, which was still very much alive thanks to another recent smash hit, Ben Hur (Lewis Wallace, 1880). From a stylistic point of view, the novel also served as a bridge between romanticism (The last days of Pompeii, Fabiola) and modern historical fiction, represented by such popular novels as I, Claudio (Robert Graves, 1934) or Memories of Hadrian (Marguerite Yourcenar, 1951).

Of course, the film adaptations did not wait. Quo Vadis was born the same year as the cinema. Until 1927, when the sound appeared, no less than seven versions of the novel were made, most of them French and Italian, and some now missing. To highlight the one from 1913, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, for being one of the first blockbusters in the history of cinema; and that of 1924 (below), produced in fascist Italy and directed by Gabriellino D’Annunzio, the son of the famous decadentist poet.

Sienkiewicz’s novel tells the story of the persecution of the early Christians in Nero’s Rome. In addition to the many poetic licenses that he takes with respect to historical facts, the Polish writer, a fervent nationalist, slipped a political metaphor about the subjugation of his people by Germans, Russians and Austrians, who had divided the country in 1795.

According to this allegory, the ancient Christians would be the Polish Catholics of the 19th century – persecuted by Protestants (Germans), Orthodox (Russians) and “Josephite” Catholics (Austrians) – and the despotic Nero, an imitation of the Russian tsars. This symbolism, confessed by Sienkiewicz himself, is very evident in some details of the novel. For example, in the “nationality” of two of the protagonists: Ligia and the giant Urso, descendants of the Ligians, or lugii, a town that lived between the Oder and Vistula rivers, in present-day Poland.

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Marble bust of Nero from the Capitoline Museums in Rome, in the exhibition on the emperor at the British Museum, May 2021

Also very significant is the choice of the apocryphal event of the appearance of Christ to the apostle Peter, where he asks the famous question that gives the novel its title: “Domine, quo vadis?”(“ Lord, where are you going? ”). According to tradition, that encounter – which made Peter assume his own martyrdom by returning to Rome to be arrested and crucified – took place where the Santa Maria delle Piante church is located, better known today as the Domine Quo Vadis church.

The interesting thing is that this temple was, during the 19th century, the meeting place of the so-called “resurrectionists”, a congregation of Polish exiles, very numerous in Rome at the time, united by the Catholic faith and the hope for an early “Resurrection” of the missing homeland.

Church of the Domine Quo Vadis.

Domine Quo Vadis Church in Rome in a 19th century work.

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This nationalist discourse, barely hidden between bacchanalia and circus shows, was adapted in the Hollywood film to the context of the time. We are in the postwar period, so it is not difficult to draw a parallel between the imperial Rome of the film and Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, between Nero and Hitler or Mussolini, between Tigelino’s Praetorian Guard and the SS squads or the black shirts, and between the persecution of Christians, who are blamed for the burning of Rome, and that of the Jews by the Nazis. An interpretation also favored by the Jewish origin of Mervyn LeRoy and two of the film’s screenwriters.

The legacy of ‘Quo Vadis’

The success of Quo Vadis Not only did he promote the genre of super-productions with a historical-religious theme and the series B peplum (the character of Urso had his own film saga turned into the strong-willed Ursus), but he also contributed to the survival of expressions and topics associated with the film, of myths about imperial Rome that have endured to the present day.

An example is Nero. Played with brilliant histrionics (and a lack of historical rigor, as there is no evidence that he ordered the burning of Rome or of his tyrannical behavior) by British Peter Ustinov, the character became a role model for later film Nero and, by extension , for any Roman emperor who wanted to be characterized as corrupt and depraved, as a representative of Roman imperial decadence (Caligula would be the prime example).

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Another is the catacombs. Due to the prominence in the film, they were forever associated with the secrecy and resistance of the first Christians, despite the fact that it was already known from the investigations of the archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi in the middle of the 19th century that they only served as a place of burial, not for rites or secret meetings. In fact, it is not even clear the persecution of Christians by Nero, at a time when they were still very minority.

Apart from the historicist clichés, a final aspect of the film that has endured is the Latin expression of its title. “Quo vadis”Has passed into popular culture in the form of a trademark, as the title of books, articles, movies, songs, board games, video games … and even the name of a group heavy; and as a way of expressing doubts or concerns about the path taken by a country, company or politician.

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‘Quo Vadis’, the movie that changed Hollywood

Hank Gilbert