Although a cinematic classic, and a technical marvel of its time, the Quo Vadis that we know today is actually the fourth attempt at bringing this story of Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians to the big screen. Based on the best-selling novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis was actually produced in three different silent films before the storied production dramas and delays of this more modern version began.
Quo Vadis – which is Latin for "Where are you going?", and alludes to a story of St. Peter meeting a vision of Jesus while fleeing his own crucifixion – intertwines the infamous story of Emperor Nero's (Peter Ustinov) reign over Rome during the first century A.D., with a love story between a Roman general, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) and a Christian servant girl Lygia (Deborah Kerr). At this early point in history, Christianity is still an underground movement, its teachings at a strong opposition to Rome's deification of the Emperor and practice of slavery. Marcus's attraction to Lygia draws him into this new world of beliefs, and eventually he has to choose between the woman he loves and the Rome he has sworn to obey, even in spite of his Emperor's increasingly cruel treatment of the people.
The movie is an "epic", both in scope (it is estimated that up to 30,000 extras were used in all) and length (you'll need to set aside three hours for this one). Fortunately there is a good story and some very strong performances to help you through. Peter Ustinov as Nero is the obvious highlight. His commanding interpretation of Nero is not to be missed, imbuing the role with a personality between egomaniacal recklessness and childish arrested development. Petronius, Nero's closest counselor, is played with an effective cool reserve by Leo Genn. Unfortunately, Robert Taylor in the lead role of Marcus Vinicius is the weakest acting link. He gives a rather wooden performance which drags down the effectiveness of the rest of the cast at points. It's not enough to drag down the entire movie, but it does keep it from being a true "classic". The movie is huge, melodramatic and all the things we might expect from the beginning of Hollywood's obsession with Biblical epic tales.
Technically, the film looks very impressive. The rich Technicolor transfers very well to hi-def, and the highly varied color palette of the sets and costumes makes for a visually sumptuous feast. The detail is very sharp, and for the most part they execute an impressive transfer. However, there are spots where you notice visual debris on the print, as well as a couple of points where color separation makes a quick showing. It's obvious that this is more a careful transfer than it is a proper restoration. Hopefully a restoration will come at some point in the future – and if the history of Blu-ray begins to match that of the DVD format, we could be in for several future editions of classic movies.
The audio is nothing to get terribly excited about, unfortunately, as they only have the original mono soundtrack to work from. This is a shame, because Miklos Rozsa's score is epic in its own right, but given the limitations of the source it's hard to ask for much more than what's delivered. Although some might wish for something uncompressed instead of the Dolby Digital 1.0 mix provided, I honestly think it would still be a disappointing improvement.
Although not overwhelming in the bonus features department, Quo Vadis nonetheless includes very worthy supplements. The first main feature is a commentary track by F.X. Feeney, who details much of the history around both the making of the film and notes from this period in history around Nero's reign as emperor. His insights are numerous, with a continual wealth of information that really does enhance the experience of the film. It's one of the better and more enlightening commentary tracks I have heard.
The other major bonus item is a featurette about the making of the film. Because of its storied past, this actually makes for an interesting watch. It's mostly populated by current personalities reflecting on the significance and production aspects of the movie, but is still enlightening. And at roughtly forty-three minutes, it's generous as well. Finally, we have the original theatrical trailer for the film. Normally the inclusion of the trailer would be of casual note at best, but this one in particular is a much more interesting example of the grand trailers from epic films during Hollywood's golden years. At five minutes in length, it is much more lavish and explanatory than the trailers we are used to, and is actually a rather fascinating item to include.
Overall, this release of Quo Vadis is easily the most worthy to come along. The video transfer lives up to the lavish production of the film, and although a bit dated, strong performances and a capable script still make this an enjoyable experience.