When first released in 1951, MGM trailers proclaimed Quo Vadis as the most lavish screen spectacle to ever reach the big screen. Arriving in theaters over five years prior to The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, MGM wasn't exaggerating. Shot with a cast of thousands in and around Rome, director Mervyn LeRoy's adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel presents early beginnings of Christianity during the last year of Nero's reign. Although weighed down by a pedantic opening narration, pedestrian dialogue, and wooden performances by its lead actors, never before has such a movie extravaganza been saved more spectacularly by a supporting character. Peter Ustinov's over the top rendition of Nero forever preserves that Emperor's persona, whether historically accurate or not.
Despite impressive set pieces featuring large gatherings of people surrounding the palace, hundreds of peasants running through fiery streets and charging Palatine Hill (a crane shot to make the people appear like cockroaches swarming over the last breadcrumb), and the Circus Maximus slaughterhouse, the most memorable scenes involve Ustinov. His pudgy Nero sulks and pouts and continually seeks assurance from his "yes" men about his artistic genius, whether this refers to killing his sister and mother to marry a prominent court whore, writing bad verse to equally horrendous lyre music and off-key singing, or planning architecture for a new Rome (requiring burning the old). Of course everyone praises him to his face; better to lie than face execution. But Nero's most trusted advisor, Petronius (Leo Genn), praises most intelligently—either to manipulate the egocentric Emperor or non-descriptively flatter with double entendre. Note his disgusted remark as the oblivious Nero gazes at Rome in flames: "You will be worthy of the spectacle—as the spectacle is worthy of you."
Offsetting the entertaining Nero portions is the banal main story, that features General Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) returning after a successful three year campaign in Britannia, and falling instantly for red-haired beauty Lygia (Deborah Kerr), the adopted daughter of a former Roman general that has secretly converted to Christianity. For unknown reasons (certainly not for his "paint by numbers" acting), Lygia is physically attracted to Vinicius but simultaneously repulsed by his military exploits and machismo attitude. With more development, this love story would be more believable, but the screenwriting committee sticks with formula plot devices instead of looking inside their characters, so their scenes are very staged. Taylor, especially symbolizes his wooden performance with especially mechanical anger when he breaks Lygia's Christian cross in two and deliberately throws it on the floor.
Although the title literally translates into the question "where are you going," the destination is never a mystery. Contrasts between good and evil are so overt with the opulent, corrupt lifestyle of the Roman Emperor differing vastly from the simple spiritual values of the Christians. To enter this spiritually based future kingdom requires Vinicius to abandon Roman decorum, disguising himself as a peasant to enter the catacombs, herding the fleeing Christians into the sewers to escape the fires, and submitting to arrest and imprisonment. The love story unfolds predictably, and the fate of the principles is never in doubt, especially during the anti-climatic bull wrestling scene devised by jealous Empress Poppaea (Patricia Laffan, silently caricaturing the Wicked Witch of the West), who lustfully competes for Vinicius. Lacking suspense, the plot structure provides no surprises and would plod towards the forgettable junk heaps of Biblical epics were it not for some delightful details and Ustinov's delivery.
Nice touches include scenes of "rabbi" Paul of Tarsus visiting Lygia's family to relate "philosophy," Peter narrating his account of denying Christ, and Peter's arrest and upside down crucifixion on Vatican Hill. But the main reason to watch three hours of Quo Vadis remains Peter Ustinov's striking contribution to Nero lore. Images of the neurotic, wimpy Emperor warbling wretched verses over Rome in conflagration, and then seeking a scapegoat to preserve his pitiful life have been indelibly preserved on celluloid for all ages. Historians have penned more accurate accounts, but Ustinov's rendition will be forever fixed in public consciousness. As Petronius states, "Now indeed, Nero has his place in history."