Robert Taylor's appeal. He is as wooden as can be and never seems to actually act. His lines whether he's content, pissed or in love always come out the same...monotone in his already deep, flat voice. Unfortunately for me, Taylor was in many westerns, war and adventure movies that appeal to me. He isn't always bad -- Bataan is a classic -- but I've rarely come away from one of these movies thinking highly of his performance.
One of his more wooden parts comes in the 1951's Quo Vadis, one of the first Technicolor historical epics that include Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Fall of the Roman Empire and many more. This is a BIG movie with a cast of thousands, gigantic sets, and an appropriately large story involving the growth of Christianity in the years following Jesus' death and resurrection. But with all those positives going for the movie, Taylor is cast as the lead. I don't believe he was the right actor to carry such a big production. His stiff performance is the movie's weakest element in an otherwise enjoyable epic.
After a 3-year campaign, Roman legion commander Marcus Vinicius (Taylor) returns home to Rome triumphantly at the head of his army. Staying at the home of a former general, Marcus is struck by the beauty of the general's adopted daughter, Lygia (Deborah Kerr). He does everything he can to win her over but ends up driving her further away with his boorish, violent ways. Somehow, Lygia does fall for Marcus but her Christian beliefs confuse him. As he tries to win her back, Roman emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) goes about ruling his empire, always teetering on the brink of insanity. Looking for inspiration, he orders Rome to be burned down, forcing Marcus to find Lygia and her family before the city is destroyed.
Stories set in ancient times have a romantic feel to them that is nearly impossible to ruin in movie-form. Almost three-hours long, 'Quo Vadis' was a big-budget success that audiences flocked to. Made in Italy, it is a beautifully shot movie whether the scenes are on the elaborate sets built for the movie or the quiet scenes set in the Italian countryside. It's a very professional movie without a ton of heart, but so often these epics were about the spectacle. No CGI in the 1950s so all those scenes of enormous crowds were actually filmed. I've said it before, but there's always something appealing about a director actually filming something as opposed to creating it on a computer.
Other than Taylor's struggles in the lead, the cast is top notch if not instantly recognizable. Kerr as the object of Marcus' affections is very good as Lygia. Her character is a Christian and basically is given no flaws, making her feelings for Taylor's Marcus all that much harder to comprehend. He basically forces himself on her, and when that doesn't work buys her. All the while, he doesn't understand why she won't have him. Other cast members making a strong impression include Leo Genn as Petronius, Marcus' uncle and one of Nero's closest adviser, Patricia Laffan as Poppea, Nero's slutty wife, and Buddy Baer as Ursus, a giant of a man devoted to keeping Lygia safe from trouble in whatever form it comes.
The romance storyline has its awkward moments but is decent enough when looked at as a whole. The highlight of the movie though is Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero, a role which earned him an Oscar nomination for a supporting role (Genn was nominated too but neither won). Ustinov's Nero is often petty and childlike with a vindictive streak that has no bounds. He is almost cartoonish in his performance of an emperor who fancies himself a demi-god and a portal through which the Roman gods speak to the people. His performance is mesmerizing, both funny and frightening all at once, and the main reason to watch this movie. You almost want to feel bad for him at times because he's so easily manipulated, but this is one crazy dude.
Another interesting sub-plot revolves around the growth of Christianity with the story beginning some 30 years after Jesus' death. His apostle Peter (Finlay Currie) plays a key part in the story when being a Christian was forbidden and punishable by death. Keeping their faith under wraps, the Christians meet secretly at night in some of the movie's best sequences. In the finale Nero realizes his burning of Rome did not go over as planned -- who would have thought that? -- and blames this new fledgling religion. They are burned alive and eaten by lions in the Colisseum in a remarkable sequence late. It all makes for an interesting subplot when the love angle gets a little dull.
Not the best of the historical studio epics, but one still worth watching, especially for Peter Ustinov's performance as Nero. I'd recommend watching this one on the TV, but it is available to watch on Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 22. Get a comfortable chair before you sit down for three hours at the computer.
Quo Vadis <-----trailer (1951): ** 1/2 /****