Monday, February 18, 2008

Quo Vadis vs. The Sign of the Cross

TCM showed Quo Vadis this morning. Based on a 19th century novel by Herman Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis tells the story of Christians in ancient Rome persecuted by the emperor Nero. If this sounds familiar, it's because the story is in many ways similar to that of The Sign of the Cross, which was recently recommended in this space. Unfortunately, the later version does not match up to the original.

Much of this has to do with the Production Code, which was still being enforced with some vigor when Quo Vadis was released in 1951: the studio simply couldn't show as much of the vice as Cecil B. DeMille had done 20 years earlier. Sure, Rome burns -- and the burning sequence ia probably better in Quo Vadis since 1950s moviemakers had much better Technicolor to show such a spectacle in all its glory. And by 1951, it wasn't nearly as expensive to go on location to shoot, so MGM were able to go to the Cinecittà studios in Rome to get authentic Italian backgrounds for many of the scenes. But they couldn't have Claudette Colbert, or her 1950s equivalent, bathing naked in goat's milk. Also, there's no lesbian dancing of the sort poor Elissa Landi had to put up with. And although Quo Vadis has the Christian sacrifices at the arena, here again we don't get the detail we were treated to in the arena. There are some lions, but they don't seem nearly as menacing, or as vicious, as the assorted beasts in The Sign of the Cross.

But it's not just the Production Code that is at fault here. The cast is just not as up to the job as what Cecil B. DeMille assembled two decades previously. Nobody could replace Claudette Colbert as Poppeia, and MGM only got some no-name (Patricia Laffan?). Robert Taylor, who plays the Roman prefect, might be the one bright spot in Quo Vadis, as he seems more fit to the role than Fredric March had in The Sign of the Cross. Peter Ustinov plays the Emperor Nero, and where Charles Laughton was delightfully depraved, Ustinov is simply campy, and irritating. Every time he showed up on screen, I wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck and say, "Get out of here so we can see the sex and violence!" Finally, they cast the virtuous Christian all wrong. Elissa Landi was pretty, but also gave off the air of an ingenue. In Quo Vadis, however, we get Deborah Kerr as the Christian; as an actress, she was far too genteel to play this role and seems completely unable to shake the aura of sophistication that her British upbringing gave her.

And worse, Quo Vadis goes on, and on, and on. The Sign of the Cross was somewhat long by early 1930s standards, clocking in at just over two hours. But Quo Vadis is nearly two hours and 50 minutes. Quo Vadis is, however, available on DVD, so you can check it out for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

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