Quo Vadis (1951 film)

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Quo Vadis
Poster - Quo Vadis (1951) 01.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Produced by Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay by S. N. Behrman
Sonya Levien
John Lee Mahin
Based on Quo Vadis
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Starring Robert Taylor
Deborah Kerr
Leo Genn
Peter Ustinov
Narrated by Walter Pidgeon
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography Robert Surtees
William V. Skall
Edited by Ralph E. Winters
Distributed by Loew's, Inc.
Release date
  • November 8, 1951 (1951-11-08)
Running time
171 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$7.6 million [1]
Box office$21 million

Quo Vadis (Latin for "Where are you going?") is a 1951 American epic historical drama film made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in Technicolor. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and produced by Sam Zimbalist, from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman, and Sonya Levien, adapted from the novel Quo Vadis (1896) by the Polish Nobel Laureate author Henryk Sienkiewicz. The score is by Miklós Rózsa and the cinematography by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The title refers to an incident in the apocryphal Acts of Peter. [2]


The film stars Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, and Peter Ustinov, and features Patricia Laffan, Finlay Currie, Abraham Sofaer, Marina Berti, Buddy Baer, and Felix Aylmer. Anthony Mann worked on the film for four weeks as an uncredited second-unit director. Sergio Leone was an uncredited assistant director of Italian extras. Future Italian stars Sophia Loren and Bud Spencer appeared as uncredited extras. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards (though it won none), and it was such a huge box office success that it was credited with single-handedly rescuing MGM from the brink of bankruptcy.

The story, set in ancient Rome during the final years of Emperor Nero's reign, AD 64–68, combines both historical and fictional events and characters, and compresses the key events of that period into the space of only a few weeks. Its main theme is the Roman Empire’s conflict with Christianity and persecution of Christians in the final years of the Julio-Claudian line. Unlike his illustrious and powerful predecessor, Emperor Claudius, Nero proved corrupt and destructive, and his actions eventually threatened to destroy Rome's previously peaceful social order.


Marcus Vinicius is a Roman military commander and the legate of the XIV Gemina. Returning from wars in Britain and Gaul, he falls in love with Lygia, a devout Christian; in spite of this, he continually tries to win her affections. Though she grew up as the foster daughter of Aulus Plautius, a retired Roman general, Lygia is legally a Lygian hostage of Rome in the old general's care. Petronius, Marcus' uncle, persuades Nero to give her to his nephew as a reward for his services. Lygia resents this arrangement, but eventually falls in love with Marcus.

Screenshot of Deborah Kerr from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis Deborah Kerr 5.jpg
Screenshot of Deborah Kerr from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

Meanwhile, Nero's atrocities become increasingly outrageous and his behavior more irrational. After Nero burns Rome and blames the Christians, Marcus sets out to rescue Lygia and her family. Nero arrests them, along with all the other Christians, and condemns them to be slaughtered in his Circus; some are killed by lions. Petronius, Nero's most trusted advisor, warns him that the Christians will be celebrated as martyrs, but he cannot change the emperor's mind. Then, tired of Nero's insanity and suspecting that he may be about to turn on him, too, Petronius composes a letter to Nero expressing his derision for the emperor (which he previously had concealed to avoid being murdered by him) and commits suicide by severing an artery in his wrist. His slavegirl Eunice (who has fallen in love with him) elects to die with him, despite being freed. The Christian apostle Peter has also been arrested after returning to Rome in response to a sign from the Lord, and he marries Marcus and Lygia in the Circus prisons. Peter is later crucified upside-down, a form of execution conceived by Nero's Praetorian Guard as an expression of mockery.

Screenshot of Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis Leo Genn.jpg
Screenshot of Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

Poppaea, Nero's wife, who lusts after Marcus, devises a diabolical revenge for his rejection of her. Lygia is tied to a stake in the Circus and a wild bull is released into the arena. Lygia's bodyguard Ursus must attempt to kill the bull with his bare hands to save Lygia from being gored to death. Marcus is taken to the emperor's box and forced to watch, to the outrage of his officers, who are among the spectators. Ursus is able to topple the bull, though, and break its neck. Massively impressed by Ursus's victory, the crowd exhorts Nero to spare the couple. He refuses to do so, even after four of his courtiers, Seneca, architect Phaon, poet Lucan, and musician Terpnos add their endorsement of the mob's demands. Marcus then breaks free of his bonds, leaps into the arena, and frees Lygia with the help of the loyal troops from his own legion. Marcus accuses Nero of burning Rome and announces that General Galba is at that moment marching on the city, intent on replacing Nero, and hails him as new Emperor of Rome.

Ringling Museum Sarasota, Florida: Bronze statue of Lygea tied to the bull by Giuseppe Moretti Ringling Museum Lygea tied to the bull by Giuseppe Moretti Sarasota Florida.jpg
Ringling Museum Sarasota, Florida: Bronze statue of Lygea tied to the bull by Giuseppe Moretti

The crowd revolts, now firmly believing that Nero, not the Christians, is responsible for the burning of Rome. Nero flees to his palace, where he strangles Poppaea, blaming her for inciting him to scapegoat the Christians. Then Acte, Nero's discarded mistress who is still in love with him, appears and offers him a dagger to end his own life before the mob storming the palace kills him. Nero cannot do it, so Acte helps him to push the dagger into his chest, and he dies.

Marcus, Lygia, and Ursus are now free, and they leave Rome for Marcus' estate in Sicily. By the roadside, Peter's crook, which he had left behind when he returned to Rome, has sprouted blossoms. A radiant light appears and a chorus intones, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," words reported to have been spoken by Jesus (John 14:6, New Testament).


Publicity photo of Marina Berti for Quo Vadis Marina Berti (Quo Vadis).jpg
Publicity photo of Marina Berti for Quo Vadis

Notable uncredited cast


Scene from Quo Vadis Quo Vadis (1951) trailer 8.jpg
Scene from Quo Vadis

The music score by Miklós Rózsa [4] is notable for its historical authenticity. Since no Ancient Roman music had survived, Rozsa incorporated a number of fragments of Ancient Greek and Jewish melodies into his own choral-orchestral score. [5]

At the end of the film, a triumphal march heralds the success of the armies of the new emperor, Galba. This theme would be reused by Rózsa in Ben-Hur (1959) as the brief "Bread and Circuses March" preceding "The Parade of the Charioteers", prior to the famous chariot race. [11]

In his 1982 autobiography, Miklos Rozsa expressed his regret at the way his score was handled by producer Sam Zimbalist, 'a dear personal friend': "[He] didn't use the music in any way as effectively as he might have done. After all the trouble I went to, much of my work was swamped by sound effects, or played at such a low level as to be indistinguishable ... It was a great disappointment to me." However, he was mistaken when he wrote: "Quo Vadis, because it was produced abroad, was completely boycotted by Hollywood and received no Academy nominations." [5] Although it did not win any Academy Awards, it did, in fact, receive eight nominations – including one for Rozsa's score. [12]

Rozsa's love theme for Lygia ("Lygia") was set to words by Paul Francis Webster and Mario Lanza sang it for the first time on his radio show broadcast of January 1952.

Production notes

Screenshot of Peter Ustinov from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis Peter Ustinov 2.jpg
Screenshot of Peter Ustinov from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis
Screenshot of Patricia Laffan from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis Patricia Laffan.jpg
Screenshot of Patricia Laffan from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis


Box-office performance

The 1953 Japanese theatrical release poster Quovadis-sept1953-movieposter-jpnmag.jpg
The 1953 Japanese theatrical release poster

The film was a commercial success. According to MGM's records, during its initial theatrical release, it earned $11,143,000 in the U.S. and Canada and $9,894,000 elsewhere, making it the highest-grossing film of 1951, and resulting in a profit to the studio of $5,440,000.

Critical reaction

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote in a mixed review, "Here is a staggering combination of cinema brilliance and sheer banality, of visual excitement and verbal boredom, of historical pretentiousness and sex." Crowther thought that even Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross "had nothing to match the horrendous and morbid spectacles of human brutality and destruction that Director Mervyn LeRoy has got in this. But within and around these visual triumph and rich imagistic displays is tediously twined a hackneyed romance that threatens to set your teeth on edge." [26] Variety wrote that the film was "right up there with Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind for box-office performance. It has size, scope, splash, and dash, giving for the first time in a long while credence to the now-clichéd 'super-colossal' term. This is a super-spectacle in all its meaning." [27] Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times declared it "one of the most tremendous if not the greatest pictures ever made ... Its pictorial lavishness has never been equaled in any other production." [28] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called it "a fabulously entertaining movie. Though the expansive, expensive film from the celebrated novel runs over three hours on the Palace screen, you won't believe you've been there nearly that long." [29] Harrison's Reports declared, "For sheer opulence, massiveness of sets, size of cast, and beauty of Technicolor photography, no picture ever produced matches 'Quo Vadis'. It is a super-collosal [sic] spectacle in every sense of the meaning, and on that score alone it is worth a premium price of admission." [30] The Monthly Film Bulletin was negative, writing that the film "demonstrates how inordinately boring the convention of size and spectacle can be, when divorced from taste, feeling, and, to a surprising extent, creative talent. The film is unimaginatively directed, at a very slow pace in keeping with the general larger than life proportions, and its technical qualities are not impressive." [31]

The film holds a score of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 16 reviews. [32]

Awards and nominations

Screenshot of Marina Berti & Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis Marina Berti-Leo Genn in Quo Vadis trailer.jpg
Screenshot of Marina Berti & Leo Genn from the trailer for the film Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis was nominated for eight Academy Awards: twice for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov as Nero), and for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Hugh Hunt), Best Cinematography, Color, Best Costume Design, Color, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Picture. However, the movie did not win in any categories. [33]

Peter Ustinov won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. The Golden Globe for Best Cinematography was won by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

Mervyn LeRoy was nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement by the Screen Directors Guild.

Home media

Comic-book adaptation

See also

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