Monday, November 7, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Quo Vadis" (1951)

I didn't care for "Quo Vadis" much at all. It's a slow-moving bison of a movie, waddling through its nearly three-hour run time with no apparent sense of haste, or inspiration. Despite its epic scale -- it still holds the record for most costumes used on a movie: 32,000 -- it's often cheap-looking and fake, like the obvious matte paintings to depict ancient Rome.

Really, there are only two things about it that (somewhat) redeem it: Peter Ustinov's vamping portrayal of Emperor Nero, and the shifting perspectives of the numerous characters.

Ustinov was 30 years old and already an accomplished writer, playwright, screenwriter and director. But as an actor he'd mostly had bit parts in movies, often uncredited. Really, his only significant screen role was the titular one in "Private Angelo," a little 1949 war comedy that he also co-directed.

But director Mervyn LeRoy ("Mister Roberts") recognized the oddball charisma in Ustinov, and saw a good match with this over-the-top conception of Nero. The script, adapted by John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien from the historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, portrays Nero as a narcissistic adolescent sociopath, the "supreme artist" who literally sees the whole world as as the plaything for his whims, which shift mercurially between creation and destruction.

Ustinov is a sheer delight every time he's onscreen, with his velvety whine of a voice and googled eyes. Nero insists that his various hangers-on address him as "Divinity," and listen to his unceasing, awful compositions. He's pure malevolence, but in a less sinister way than a Hitler: he's simply unassociated with the concept of goodness. Anything or anyone that does not exalt him, he must deride and smash.

Think Donald Trump, but with better hair.

Hating the stench and squalor of the common folk of Rome, Nero comes up with a grand vision to rebuild the city in vaulting columns of marble. (Interesting footnote: the massive model Nero displays of his plans for Rome was a real one created by Mussolini; the studio borrowed it from a museum.)

Only one problem: the old Rome is still there. So Nero orders it razed with fire, people and all. Then he plucks his lyre from on high and composes a warbling sonnet dedicated to the greatness of the destruction he has wrought.

Thus we got the phrase, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned." It's become a metaphor for poor leadership, though the historical record is sufficiently muddied that it's hard to say what really happened. It may well be the fire was truly accidental, and Nero's government was simply ineffectual at preventing or stopping it.

The movie is unequivocal, depicting Nero intentionally setting Rome ablaze and then blaming it on the nascent "cult of Christians." This leads to Nero famously introducing them to some hungry lions in the Colosseum. Perched in his high seat, Nero titters at the dying pacifists and screeches at them for singing a hymn instead of begging for mercy.

Ustinov deservedly earned the first of his four Oscar nominations for his turn. The next two, also for Supporting Actor, he won both times, including a somewhat similar role in another sword-and-sandals epic, "Spartacus." He also got a screenwriting nomination for 1968's "Millions."

So whatever else the film's limitations, I think it's fair to say that "Quo Vadis" marked Ustinov's breakout.

The other thing I found interesting while watching it was the surfeit of characters, and how each of them holds the spotlight for a time. At its essence the story is about the excesses of the Roman Empire under Nero and its conflict with the rising church of Christ. Saint Peter (Finlay Currie) shows up about halfway through, and would seem to be the logical counterpoint to Nero, opposing him through a message of love in the face of cruel persecution, leading up to his infamous upside-down crucifixion.

(Currie's stunt double on the cross is quite obviously decades younger and dozens of pounds lighter.)

Thought it got a little "too much Jesus" for my taste, the film's emphasis on the plight of the Christians in the days after the fall and resurrection is not something you see a lot of at the movies. You could quite easily switch things around so Peter is the protagonist.

Or you could choose Petronius, the sardonic senator played by Leo Genn, who also earned a Supporting Actor Oscar nod -- a rare feat for two actors from a movie to be nominated in the same category. Petronius is Nero's chief friend and flatterer, who takes his sport from acting like a lickspittle while subtly mocking his patron.

Petronius is a fascinating, well-rounded character. He's a man of great intellect and ethics who threw it all away to be a cynical side player. He alone opposes Nero when he proposes to blame the Christians for his inferno, losing his status and, eventually, his life. He owns a beautiful Spanish slave (the stunning Marina Berti) who inexplicably falls in love with him, even after he has her (lightly) lashed for disobedience. He ends up returning her feelings, and the two embrace in a Romeo-and-Juliet type of death.

But it's actually Petronius' nephew who is the purported hero of this story. Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinicius, an army commander who has recently returned to Rome in triumph after three years at war. Taylor -- who was only six years younger than the man playing his uncle -- is a horrible stiff, a weak-chinned excuse for a main character.

He starts out arrogant and martial, and slowly and inevitably softens to the Christians' message of peace and tolerance. This is helped along by Lygia (Deborah Kerr), a Roman hostage raised from childhood by a retired general (Felix Aylmer) and his wife, who converted to Christianity. Vinicius first tries to conquer her with his manly charms, and is rebuffed, and then arranges to have Nero grant her to him as his hostage/wife. The moment he gives up, though, she falls into his arms gratefully.

Kerr, of course, was one of the Golden Age's great talents. But even she can't rescue the plodding dialogue and bewildering character motivations.

Patricia Laffan plays Poppaea, Nero's conniving second wife -- he killed the first one, along with his own mother. Like Petronius, she carefully negotiates a dance of solicitude and manipulation with Nero. It's intimated that she feeds his nightly parade of bizarre sexual proclivities, while pursuing plenty of her own on the side. She lusts after Vinicius, and when he scorns her the empress vows revenge.

Again, it would've been fascinating to see this story play out from her perspective, instead of the one we do.

Finally, there's Ursus, the hulk-like bodyguard to Lygia played by boxer/actor Buddy Baer. He has very little dialogue, but he's often hanging around in the background of pivotal scenes, so you could easily make him the focal character. It's notable that in the culminating fight sequence in the Colosseum, where Lygia is tied to a stake and threatened by a massive bull, it is Ursus rather than Vinicius who protects her.

LeRoy lets the camera linger over Ursus' stone-hard face in close-up, and we are sucked into his peril. Wrestling the mighty beast bare-handed, he pins it to the ground and snaps its neck. Along with Ustinov crooning atonally as Rome burns, these are probably the best-remembered scenes from the film.

Baer's physique, which is much commented upon during the movie, is emblematic of sportsmen of this age. He's broad-chested with a thick waist, bull neck and arms that, while large, aren't bulging and veiny like you see in cinematic strongmen of recent vintage. At 6'7", Baer was the kid brother of heavyweight champ Max Baer, and when his own talent in the ring didn't measure up -- Joe Louis bested him twice -- he switched to movies, working steadily for nearly two decades.

 Like a lot of botched movies, there's a good one somewhere inside "Quo Vadis," a title that roughly translates as, "Where are you going?" -- a biblical reference to Peter meeting a resurrected Jesus along the road. The movie goes awry in its own journey, choosing a flat, generic romantic couple as the centerpiece of a story that has many much better routes it could have taken.

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