top of page

Quo Vadis (1951) - the 70th Anniversary

Director Mervyn Le Roy and producer Sam Zimbalist's hugely ambitious Quo Vadis (1951) must rank as one of the most multinational movie projects of its time.

A fuller piece on the movie, which premiered in November 1951 is here.

The movie was inspired by Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz's 19th century novel of the same name. Writer Mikołaj Gliński in his piece The Man Behind Quo Vadis lovingly traces Sienkiewicz's back story - Poland declared 2016 the Year of Sienkiewicz! If you're interested, David Matual's fascinating piece in the International Fiction Review from a while back, explores the role of Jews in Sienkiewicz’s story.

November 2021 marks Sienkiewicz's 105th death anniversary.

After years in studio-hell, the script saw California-born director Le Roy, renowned for producing the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, team up with Ukrainian-born producer Sam Zimbalist, who later went on to produce Ben Hur (1959).

Zimbalist and his team shot in both Italy and the US but much of Quo Vadis was shot in Rome. As it happened, years later, Zimbalist died in Rome.

Budapest-born Hungarian composer, Miklós Rózsa, scored the music. Rozsa's other soundtracks include Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), Madam Bovary (1949), Ivanhoe (1952), Knights of the Round Table (1953), Bhowani Junction (9156) and of course Ben Hur (1959). Over his career, Rozsa had stacked up 17 Academy Award nominations, including three Oscars.

Canada-born Ralph E Winters who edited the movie is known for his work on Gaslight (1944), King Solomon's Mines (1950), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Ben Hur (1959), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Pink Panther (1963).

Zimbalist and Le Roy used a narrator to fill audiences in on a lot of the socio-historical context - Canadian-American Walter Pidgeon, renowned for his starring role in How Green Was My Valley (1941).

Russian-born Sonya Levien wrote the screenplay with Russian-born Sam Behrman and Illinois-born John Lee Mahin.

The cast of Quo Vadis? Otherwise irredeemably English Peter Ustinov was of Russian-European descent, Leo Genn English, Deborah Kerr Scottish. Robert Taylor was born in Nebraska.

The movie featured several Italian actors, but evangelist St. Paul was played by Burmese-born British actor Abraham Isaac Sofaer and St. Peter by Scottish actor Finlay Currie, who'd return years later to play Balthazar in Zimbalist's Ben Hur.

Years later, Ustinov, who won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, wrote about Nero and the movie's portrayal: "At the time I thought it a preposterous assessment, but a little later I was not so sure. It was a profundity at its most workaday level, and it led me to the eventual conviction that no nation can make Roman pictures as well as the Americans...The inevitable vulgarities of the script contributed as much to its authenticity as its rare felicities. I felt then as I feel today, in spite of the carping of critical voices, that Quo Vadis, good or bad according to taste, was an extraordinarily authentic film, and the nonsense Nero was sometimes made to speak was very much like the nonsense Nero probably did speak."

It's hard to say if Ustinov was being typically mischievous, but the 21st century reassures us that narcissistic leaders like Nero are far from extinct. They don't burn cities anymore. With the scale of their callousness and cruelty toward those they lead, do they need to?

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz


bottom of page