Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Leo Genn
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Trailers

To me, "Quo Vadis" has been one of the most anticipated epics to come to DVD. Since the first days of DVD I had hoped for this film to surface, but to no avail. Studio representatives told me that the reason for this film to never make a DVD debut was that the film had deteriorated very severely and that a major restoration would have to be undertaken to save this film. For the past two years, Warner has been working on it and is now presenting it in its entire 174 minutes glory, complete with the original overture and exit music – for the first time in 56 years!

"Quo Vadis" tells the story of legion commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) who falls in love with the Christian girl Lygia (Deborah Kerr). Under the reign of the insane emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) Rome is facing its biggest challenges ever. While Nero is burning down the city in order to make room for his dreams, he is placing the blame for the fire squarely onto the Christians, a relatively young religious sect with ideologies that contradict Roman edict, the Roman population is suddenly fiercely and violently divided. But the madman Nero doesn't stop there yet. To make an example of the Christian subversiveness he has all Christians rounded up and the throws them before the lions in the Circus Maximus. But for Vinicius, who he considers a traitor, and his girlfriend Lygia, the emperor has special plans.

One of the earliest epics that Hollywood created, "Quo Vadis" set in motion the machinery that would later produce films such as "The Ten Commandments," Ben Hur," "El Cid" and many others. With its opulent sets and costumes, the sheer amount of people on the screen in certain shots, and the leanings toward history, it is hardly surprising that"Quo Vadis" became such a trailblazer, especially so shortly after World War II. With the imagery of the Jewish genocide still vividly in people's minds, this story of Christians being suppressed in the same manner, certainly hit home, while the spectacle that is the film itself, served as a wonderful escape for audiences at the time.

While still very enjoyable, the movie has not aged as gracefully as one would expect and hope. I found the acting in particular to be borderline superficial. Hardly any of the dialogues feel natural and their delivery is oftentimes extremely wooden and without conviction. I found only the delivery of Deborah Kerr's Lygia and most notably Peter Ustinov's Nero to be convincing. Ustinov in particular is amazing with his eyes rolling, his stupefied stare that suggests insanity just before boiling over, and his delivery of the most ridiculously illogic thoughts with such conviction are mesmerizing to watch. To me, this part has always been the defining role for Ustinov as an actor – and that so early in his long-lasting career.

Warner is presenting the movie in its original fullframe aspect ratio on this release. As mentioned before, the film underwent significant restoration but unfortunately it is still not perfect. The ravages of time are still evident in countless shots and some rather severe problems pop up in a handful of shots. I am not saying this as criticism, but to state the actual state of the transfer. I am not sure if and how Warner could have fixed these issues because they are inherently technical and nothing you can fix with a simple noise reduction band aid or auto-pilot computer fix. The problem that is most noticeable is the fact that many times the three color film strips that make up the Technicolor process do not line up properly. At its best, this error results in an image that seems slightly out of focus and blurry, at its worst, as evidence on two or three occasions, it creates clearly visible off-color ghost images and halos.
As a result of these problems purists may dismiss this transfer, but fortunately I do not count my self in that category. While I found the problems noticeable they did not diminish my joy and pleasure in finally seeing this landmark film on DVD. To me it is one thing to judge the image quality of the latest super-polished blockbuster and the transfer of a movie that was on the brink of destruction, threatened to be lost forever, only to be brought back to glory for everyone to behold. I am certain Warner has done all within their power to make this presentation as good as they could and I will be the last to discredit their efforts.

The film also comes with a restored audio track also, that offers a clean presentation, free of distortion or hiss. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the audio track and its overall clarity. While the sound elements have a bit of a narrow frequency response, the remastering makes sure they never sound overly harsh or unpleasant.

As extras the release contains a commentary track by film historian F.X. Feeney, who offers up a wealth of information on this classic. There sure is plenty to say about this film and Feeney uses up all of the 74 minutes to relay production information and other anecdotes surrounding the film, its cast, its production and its legacy.

Also included on the release is the featurette "In The Beginning: Quo Vadis and the Genesis of the Biblical Epic." It covers mostly the impact the film had on Hollywood at the time. From the ground-breaking special effects it employed to the interest in biblical themes for epic movies, the featurette is filled with great information and interviews.

I cannot express my gratitude to Warner to bring this film finally to DVD. "Quo Vadis" was one of the last films on my list of movies yet to make it to DVD, and quite an entrance it is. Frankly I do not think that 10 years ago, in the infant years of DVD and relatively-early transfer and digital encoding technologies, this film would have managed to live up to expectations. But now with all the right tools at hand, I am glad to say that "Quo Vadis" is a thoroughly welcome addition, even with its minor imperfections. So, how about "Jack the Ripper," the TV mini series now, Warner? That would be the last title on my personal waiting-to-be-released list…