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12.10.08

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Phaedra

Quo Vadis

Two discs; Warner Home Video; $20.97

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


The coming of TV spooked Hollywood big time. To lure audiences back to the movie palaces, the industry experimented with spectacle, producing a decade's worth of biblical/Roman epics, until Cleopatra broke the bank. The first of these canny combinations of fleshy desire and spiritual redemption was 1951's Quo Vadis, which hit theaters complete with a Roadshow Overture and Exit Music. This was the fourth screen adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1895 bestseller, set in the reign of Nero. A proud Roman soldier, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), falls for a Christian girl (Deborah Kerr) and eventually sees the light and converts. Meanwhile, Peter Ustinov's porcine Nero mewls, pouts and composes bad verse while his "suave and ironical" court satirist, Petronius (Leon Glenn), tries to contain his disgust. The climax arrives when Nero, "history's evil genius," embarks on an ambitious program of urban redevelopment by burning down Rome. The special effects consciously recall the burning of Atlanta sequence from Gone With the Wind, with lurid incendiary colors. Unfortunately, Vinicius' chariot ride to the rescue is a glaring bit of back projection. Stiffness abounds in the scenes of Peter and Paul preaching the new doctrine to the oppressed true believers. On the other hand: wild orgy dancing at the palace. That's the beauty of these period epics—you can have your cheesecake and eat it, too. This special edition comes with a fascinating background documentary. The project was initiated before World War II, with such names as Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich in the casting mix. Eventually, the original choice, Taylor, got the nod. The demise of Nero, when he cries out, "Is this the end of Nero?" echoes the famous finale to Little Caesar: "Is this the end of Rico?" The ad campaign modestly proclaimed Quo Vadis to be "the most genuinely colossal movie you are likely to see for the rest of your lives." That's debatable, but the film did well enough at the box office to spur such successors as The Robe and Ben-Hur. At nearly three hours, it's a long haul, but perhaps worth it for one marvelous line of dialogue as Kerr's character is forced to join the emperor's seraglio: "Welcome to Nero's House of Women!"


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