Why 'Quo Vadis?' Movie fans hungry for classics in 1080p have heatedly debated that question ever since Warner Home Video announced MGM's 1951 Roman epic would be coming to Blu-ray. With so many better known and better loved classics lying around in its vault, the argument went, why would Warner choose this largely forgotten chronicle of Christianity's rise during the warped reign of Nero for a high-def release? I admit, I wondered as much myself, but unlike many of the vociferous skeptics, I had actually seen 'Quo Vadis' years ago on TV, and while its spectacle and pageantry make it a Blu-ray natural, its drama always seemed a bit stuffy and stilted to me. Well, after viewing the film in 1080p, I feel like the story's hero, Marcus Vinicius; though it may have taken me a while to come around, I'm now a 'Quo Vadis' convert, and can't praise this disc highly enough. How fervently the public will embrace it remains to be seen, but anyone who buys or rents it will be dazzled not only by the impeccable picture quality, but also the stirring story and meticulous production values. In short, this is some movie, and with Warner's terrific high-def treatment, it's easy to see why at the time of its release 'Quo Vadis' raked in more money for MGM than any other film in its history, except 'Gone with the Wind.'
'Quo Vadis' certainly wasn't Hollywood's first biblical epic, but it spawned a decade-long wave of big-budget, religious-themed sagas that lured audiences away from their newly minted TV sets and back into theaters. Based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz, director Mervyn LeRoy's screen adaptation weaves together several stories as it details Rome's decay under Emperor Nero and the persecution of fledgling Christians. In 64 A.D., devout Roman warrior Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) returns home after a lengthy campaign and encounters the lovely Lygia (Deborah Kerr), who espouses a new, secret religion based on the teachings of a dead heretic known as Jesus Christ. The pompous Marcus doesn't share her beliefs, but he's entranced by her beauty, and though Lygia is smitten, too, she disapproves of Marcus' decadent lifestyle and low regard for humanity.
Meanwhile, Marcus' cynical friend Petronius (Leo Genn) lives a pampered yet unfulfilling life as one of the most trusted advisors of Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov in a career-making role). Petronius privately despises the emperor and loathes his own role as one of several lapdogs who rubberstamp Nero's bizarre whims, but he maintains his stature and influence, and avoids falling out of favor by shrouding his views in droll sarcasm. Yet with no one to rein Nero in, and with his evil empress, Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), spurring him on, the unbalanced ruler indulges his deranged fantasies, which leads to both the burning of Rome and the feeding of noble, martyred Christians to the lions.
Sienkiewicz's brilliant novel is one of my favorites (yes, I've actually read the book), and though LeRoy's film may not completely do it justice, it beautifully captures its lyrical tone. The talky yet literate script adroitly juggles such diverse elements as political debate, religious sermons, anguished soliloquies, and romantic billing and cooing with only occasional stagy or pretentious moments. Most importantly, it examines Christianity without directly promoting it or adopting a superior moral stance that would diminish other faiths. If 'Quo Vadis' preaches anything, it's merely the power of love, which was a foreign emotion in a lusty, depraved Roman society that viewed people as property and devalued human life.
MGM shot the film on location in Rome, so there's plenty of Italian flavor, and the studio spared no expense recreating the majestic period trappings. Sets and costumes possess astonishing levels of detail, and the lush Technicolor photography – and Blu-ray's enhanced clarity – heightens its impact. LeRoy packs each frame with so much visual information, even as the film drags a bit during its middle stage, it's never dull, because there's always something to please and stimulate the eye.
Of course, any epic worth its salt lives and dies by its spectacle, and 'Quo Vadis' delivers a host of grandiose scenes that still thrill the senses today. MGM has always loved a good fire, and not since the burning of Atlanta in 'Gone with the Wind' had the screen seen such a widespread, raging inferno. Not to be outdone, the Coliseum sequences teem with excitement, aided by thousands upon thousands of blood-hungry extras and packs of prowling lions, while Nero's sumptuous feasts and triumphant military marches explode with ceremonial grandeur. Though at times 'Quo Vadis' cries out for a widescreen treatment, its standard Academy ratio provides a marvelous intimacy its fellow biblical blockbusters lack. Many Cinemascope efforts possess such a severe aspect ratio they often seem remote when viewed at home (even on a large widescreen TV), but 'Quo Vadis' feels immediate, vital, and not at all like a musty museum relic.
At 40, Taylor is clearly too old to play Marcus, and his wooden acting often diminishes the impact of several key scenes, but he's a strong, swaggering presence and nicely embodies the selfish, arrogant attitude that pervaded Nero's Rome. (Gregory Peck was originally cast in the part, and would have undoubtedly infused it with more depth and feeling.) Kerr brings an appealing purity and sincerity to Lygia, but she's required to do little except gaze dewily at Taylor or look frightened by an encroaching bull. The film's best performances come from the jaded, sarcastic Genn and scenery-chewing Ustinov, both of whom snagged Oscar nods for their memorable portrayals. In all, this mammoth production received eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.
'Quo Vadis' may lie squarely in the shadow of such iconic Roman sagas as 'Ben-Hur' and 'Spartacus,' but hopefully this beautiful Blu-ray release will revive interest in MGM's exciting, eye-filling epic and introduce it to a new generation. LeRoy's film may never attain the same lofty level of respect and popularity, but it deserves its place alongside those cinema giants and to be appreciated for its scope, passion, and splendor.
When Warner Home Video released 'Quo Vadis' on standard DVD last fall, many felt the restored transfer didn't do the film justice. I bypassed that disc, preferring to wait for its Blu-ray counterpart instead, and I'm glad I did, for I can't imagine a better rendering of this quintessentially epic movie. The image is bright, clean, and bursting with the luxuriant, vibrant hues of three-strip Technicolor. It also exhibits a lovely film-like feel, thanks to a grain structure that lends the picture texture and depth, but never distracts or diminishes clarity. Though not every speck and nick has been removed, those that remain are almost imperceptible, except during the opening title sequence.
Colors are simply delicious. It's easy for Technicolor to look garish and fake, but Warner's 1080p/VC-1 transfer takes special care to keep the palette in check without sacrificing the saturated tones we expect. Nero's purple robe, Lygia's flaming red hair, and the glistening gold goblets and breast plates all grab attention, but not at the expense of the image as a whole. Even when relegated to the background, colors burst forth, and when they are showcased, such as when Nero and Poppaea peer through tinted glasses to spy on their guests during a lavish party, the effect is breathtaking.
Some of the close-ups look a bit soft, but that was the style of filming in those days, and the lushness we get instead lends the images an irresistible warmth. Rest assured, though, there's plenty of high-def clarity in this transfer. Fine details are excellent, such as the bristles on Taylor's red brush helmet, and the accents on various costumes and set pieces really make us appreciate the production's meticulous craftsmanship. During the burning of Rome, the image is so crisp, at times the flames appear to cascade through the screen. In fact, 'Quo Vadis' flaunts more isolated bits of 3-D pop than many newer releases.
Inky blacks lend depth to nocturnal scenes, but shadow detail is never obscured, and the perfect lighting enhances contrast, so the image always looks vital. Thankfully, processed shots are used sparingly, because annoying blue lines form around the actors in the foreground, making them resemble cut-out characters. At times, backdrops and mattes look a little obvious, but no banding, edge halos, or digital noise reduction has been applied.
This is a superb effort from Warner that once again proves how fabulous classic films can look in 1080p. Like the best video experiences, 'Quo Vadis' really transports you to another time; to ancient Rome, to vintage Hollywood – take your pick. And it makes us appreciate this glorious Blu-ray technology not only for what it can do for the present and future, but also for the past.
'Quo Vadis' was mastered for Blu-ray before Warner Home Video pledged to include Dolby TrueHD tracks on all its high-def catalog releases, so only the original monaural audio is offered on the disc. Technicians have done a good job restoring and refurbishing this sonic relic, removing all age-related pops and crackles. A faint touch of hiss remains, but it's only noticeable during moments of extreme quiet, and even then you really have to listen closely to pick it up. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, but occasionally sounds a bit hollow, while effects such as the roars of lions and crackles of flames benefit from fine presence and realistic detail.
Miklos Rozsa's majestic score, however, doesn't fare as well, and it's here that the source limitations become evident. The upper register exhibits a tinny shrillness that, at times, resembles nails on a chalkboard, and some distortion creeps in during heavy crescendos. Though the lows are more stable, they never elicit the warmth and robust fullness necessary for a film of this sort. Such deficiencies are most evident during the overture and exit music – which have been reinserted into the print for the first time in 56 years – as well as during moments of high drama, such as the burning of Rome.
Still, for such an aged motion picture, 'Quo Vadis' sounds as good as it probably can, and better than most productions of this period.
Only a few supplements are included, and all are ported over from last fall's DVD release. As per usual with Warner catalog releases, especially classics, the material is of high quality and well worth exploring.
'Quo Vadis' originated and defined the modern Hollywood epic, and this marvelous Blu-ray release from Warner puts the film back on its rightful pedestal. Spectacle and pageantry abound in this bold historical drama that also features thoughtful ideas and wonderful performances by a solid international cast. The breathtaking video quality brings it all to life, and a fine array of supplements enhances the experience. Classics fans will definitely want to pick this one up, and everyone else should strongly consider taking a good, long look at 'Quo Vadis.'