Quo Vadis (1951): MGM Historical Epic, Starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr

Henryk Sienkiewicz’s best-selling novel was published in 1896 and was made into a silent picture in 1913.

In 1951, MGM allocated its biggest budget to date (around $7 million) for Mervyn LeRoy’s new epic version, starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr in lead roles and Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov in supporting ones.

Shot in Rome’s famous studio, Cinecitta Studio, the film was in production close to a whole year, with extra-attention paid to the spectacular set-pieces.

Inevitable comparisons were made between “Quo Vadis” and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 “The Sign of the Cross,” which deals with similar topic.

The 171-minute-long movie was released in prime season, November 8, in time for serious Oscar considerations.

In this version, scripted by John Lee Mahin, S. N. Behrman, and Sonya Levien, the devout Christian Ligia (Kerr) is in love with Marcus Vinicius (Taylor), the Roman leader, but religious matters and court intrigues present obstacles.

In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Ligia is saved from the palace orgies by her strong servant Ursus (Buddy Baer), who also protects her from the initial sexual pursuits of Vinicius.

Later, when Vinicius is wounded, he is taken care of by the Christians. When Nero’s empress Poppaea (Laffan) finds out of his bond with Ligia, she gets jealous and vindictive.

In the end, the soldiers revolt and free Ligia and Vinicius. Confronted with the prospects of a revolution and scared for his life, Nero then commits suicide in his palace with the help of a handmaiden he had formerly exiled, but who comes back to help him kill himself!

At the time, the critics praised the movie’s big set-pieces, the arena sequences (with Ligia thrown into the lions, a wild bull attack) with masses of extras, and the magnificent costumes, but faulted the film for lack of dramatic interest. (In 1959, MGM would combine epic and spectacle values in William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur,” a better picture).

The two secondary actors, Genn and Ustinov, upstaged the two stars, and went on to receive Best Supporting Actor nominations. (See Below).

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Sam Zimbalist
Supporting Actor: Leo Genn
Supporting Actor: Peter Ustinov
Cinematography (color): Robert Surtees and William V. Skall
Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color): William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons, and Edward Carfagno; Hugh Hunt
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Costume Design (color): Herschel McCoy
Scoring (Dramatic): Miklos Rozsa

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1951, “Quo Vadis” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “An American in Paris,” which won, “Decision Before Dawn,” “A Place in the Sun,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The Best Actor Oscar went to Humphrey Bogart for “The African Queen,” the Best Actress to Vivien Leigh for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which also garnered the Supporting Oscar awards to Karl Malden and Kim Stanley.

“A Place in the Sun” won the Scoring Oscar for Franz Waxman and the Editing award to William Hornbeck.


Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor)
Ligia (Deborah Kerr)
Petronius (Leo Genn)
Nero (Peter Ustinov)
Poppaea (Patricia Laffan)
Peter (Finlay Currie)
Paul (Abraham Sofaer)
Eunice (Marina Berti)

With Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor as guest extras.