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Quo Vadis is an epic 1951 film made by MGM. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and produced by Sam Zimbalist, from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S. N. Behrman and Sonya Levien, adapted from the classic 1895 novel Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The music score was by Miklós Rózsa and the cinematography by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall.

The film stars Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov, with Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer and Abraham Sofaer.


Latin, meaning "Where are you going?" and refers to the apocryphal encounter between St Peter and Jesus Christ on the Appian Way. According to the Acts of Peter, Peter, fleeing from the persecutions of the Emperor Nero had a vision of Christ whom he asked "Domine, quo vadis?" (Lord, whither goest thou?). Jesus answered him, "Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards" (John 13:36). Peter understood this to mean that he would die a similar death as his Lord. Peter ultimately returned to Rome and was crucified at the foot of the Vatican Hill where St Peter's Basilica stands today.


The action takes place in ancient Romefrom 64-68 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Nero. The subject is the conflict between Christianity and the corruption of the Roman Empire, especially in the last period of the Julio-Claudian line. The characters and events depicted are a mixture of actual historical figures and situations and fictionalized ones.

The film tells the story of a Roman military commander, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor), returning from the wars, who falls in love with a devout Christian, Lygia (Deborah Kerr). Commander Vinicius becomes intrigued by her and her religion. Their love story is told against the broader historical background of early Christianity and its persecution by Nero (Peter Ustinov). Though she grew up Roman as the adopted daughter of a retired general, Lygia is technically a hostage of Rome. Marcus persuades Nero to give her to him for services rendered. Lygia resents this, but still falls in love with Marcus.

Meanwhile, Nero's atrocities become increasingly more outrageous and his acts more insane. When he burns Rome and blames the Christians, Marcus goes off to save Lygia and her family. Nero captures them and all the Christians, and condemns them to be killed in the arena. Marcus is also arrested for trying to save Lygia. In prison, Peter (Finlay Currie), who has also been arrested, marries the couple; eventually, Peter is crucified upside-down, implicitly at his own request ("To die as Our Lord did is more than I deserve'," he says, and the Praetorian guard sneeringly answers, "We can change that").

Poppaea, Nero's wife, who lusts after Marcus, devises a diabolical revenge for his rejection of her. Lygia is tied to a wooden stake in the arena. A wild bull is also placed there, and Lygia's bodyguard giant, Ursus (Buddy Baer) must try to kill it with his bare hands, otherwise Lygia will be gored to death. Marcus is tied to the spectator's box and forced to watch, much to the horror of his officers, who also attend the spectacle. When all seems hopeless, Marcus exclaims "Christ, give him strength!", whereupon Ursus is able to break the bull's neck. Hugely impressed by Ursus' courage, the crowd exhorts Nero to spare them, which the emperor is not willing to do. However, Nero's four court retainers Seneca (Nicholas Hannen), architect Phaon (D.A. Clarke-Smith), Lucan (Alfredo Varelli), and Terpnos (Geoffrey Dunn) vouch for the mob's demands by putting their thumbs up as well. Marcus then breaks free of his bonds, leaps into the arena, frees Lygia with the help of his loyal troops, and announces that General Galba is at that moment marching on Rome, intent on replacing Nero.

The crowd, now firmly believing that Nero, and not the Christians, is responsible for the burning of Rome, revolts. Nero flees to his palace, where he strangles Poppaea to death, blaming her for forcing him to make martyrs of the Christians. Then Acte, a Christian woman who was once in unrequited love with Nero, appears. Because he lived like a monster, she begs him to die like an emperor by committing suicide before the mob storms the palace. The cowardly Nero cannot bring himself to do it, so Acte drives the dagger into his chest.

Marcus, Lygia and Ursus are now free and leave Rome. By the roadside, Peter's crook has miraculously sprouted flowers. The radiant light intones, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."


Deborah Kerr as Lygia


  • The film was originally cast in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor as Lygia and Gregory Peck as Marcus Vinicius. When the production changed hands the following year, the roles went to Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor was also Christian prisoner in arena but uncredited.

  • The film holds a record for the most costumes used in one movie; 32,000.

  • Peter Ustinov relates in his autobiography, Dear Me, that director Mervyn Leroy summarized the manner in which he envisioned Ustinov should play the Emperor Nero, very salaciously, as "Nero...He plays with himself, nights." Ustinov, getting the director's gist, thereafter notes that this depraved manner was the basis of his creation of the character of Nero for the film.

  • At one point in the film Nero shows his court a scale model illustrating his plans for rebuilding Rome. This model was originally constructed by Mussolini's government for a 1937 exhibition of Roman architecture--the film's producers borrowed it from the postwar Italian government.

  • A 2-Disc Special Edition of the movie was released on DVD in the US on November 11th 2008 after a long photochemical restoration process. A high definition Blu-Ray version was released March 17, 2009.

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards

Quo Vadis was nominated for eight Academy Awards: twice for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov as Nero), and also for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Hugh Hunt), Best Cinematography, Color, Best Costume Design, Color, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Picture. However, the movie did not win a single Academy Award.

Golden Globe Awards

Peter Ustinov won the Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actor. The Golden Globe for Best Cinematography was won by Robert Surtees and William V. Skall. The film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture - Drama

Worldwide release dates

See also



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