Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Quo Vadis (1951)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Quo Vadis (1951)

In director Mervyn LeRoy's and MGM's big budget epic version of Henryk Sienkiewicz's classic 1896 novel about Roman Emperor Nero's Christian persecution - the lengthy movie was MGM's most expensive film of the time period (at $7.6 million); it starred Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor, and featured a score by Miklós Rózsa; there were three other versions of the novel, including two silent historical dramas: Quo Vadis? (1913, It.) and Quo Vadis? (1924, It./Germ.), and Quo Vadis (2001, Poland):

  • the film (with a title translated 'Where are you going?') compressed the historical years of 64–68 CE (combined with other fictional events and characters) to survey the Roman Empire's goal to destroy and persecute followers of the conflicting religion of Christianity
  • the opening voice-over narration (by Walter Pidgeon) described the dominance of Rome: "This is the Appian Way, the most famous road that leads to Rome, as all roads lead to Rome. On this road march her conquering legions. Imperial Rome is the center of the empire and undisputed master of the world. But with this power inevitably comes corruption. No man is sure of his life. The individual is at the mercy of the state. Murder replaces justice. Rulers of conquered nations surrender their helpless subjects to bondage. High and low alike become Roman slaves, Roman hostages. There is no escape from the whip and the sword. That any force on Earth can shake the foundations of this pyramid of power and corruption of human misery and slavery, seems inconceivable"; the narration ended with the brief mention of Jesus' crucifixion and miraculous resurrection 30 years earlier
  • the plot began in the summer of 64 AD outside Rome on the Appian Way, "in the reign of the Antichrist known to history as the Emperor Nero"; General Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) commanded the victorious 14th legion on its way back to Rome after three years of "brilliant victories" on the battlefield (fighting in Britain and Gaul); when told to camp outside Rome, Marcus personally confronted the tyrannical Divine Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) to complain, and with the aid of his uncle Gaius Petronius (Leo Genn), one of Nero's most trusted advisors, he was told that the delay was due to preparations for a triumphant and spectacular homecoming celebration the next day
  • Petronius informed Marcus that the notorious Nero had committed atrocities - he had murdered his wife and mother (Agrippina and Octavia) and married a "harlot" slave named Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), prompting the Senate to consider replacing Nero with General Galba of Tuscany
  • that evening at the country place of retired Roman General Plautius (Felix Aylmer) and his wife Pomponia (Nora Swinburne), Marcus met Plautius' adopted daughter Lygia (Deborah Kerr) (although he first mistook her for a house slave); she was a truly devout young Christian woman who was technically a hostage or ward of the state of Rome after being taken prisoner during a Roman campaign against her father, the King of Lygia); he began to take a romantic interest in her, although she rebuffed his crude advances (she was disturbed by his brutalistic and bloody military background); during his brief visit at the General's home, Marcus was introduced to family friend Paul of Tarsus, a philosopher-rabbi/teacher who spoke of peace, and spreading love and faith; Paul mentioned that apostle Simon Peter, a fisherman who had spoken to Christ, was on his way to Rome during his travels
Marcus' First Encounter with Lygia (Deborah Kerr)
  • later that evening when they spoke privately, Lygia admitted to Marcus that she was attracted to him, but was upset by his "ugly stories of conquests and bloodshed"; she proposed a different, Christian way of life: "Without bloodshed and war. Without slaves and captives bound in chains to your triumphal chariots....Paul speaks of a world where there would be no slaves"; when he proposed buying her if she was a slave, she sharply reprimanded him: "What a way for a conqueror to win a woman. To buy her like an unresisting beast. What false security you must have in your heart and soul"; later that night, she prayed that Marcus would be converted to her faith: ("I pray that one day, he shall feel the joy of your love"); Christianity was signified by the simple symbol of a fish (icthus)
  • at the military celebration held for Marcus' troops the next day that praised the dominance of Rome, the tortured, infamous and slightly-mad Nero complained about the heat, and the demanding, foul-smelling rabble-mob outside his palace, but reluctantly made an appearance

Nero Waving to the Mob from the Balcony

Military Celebrations in Rome Presided Over by Nero

Marcus Lauded in a Military Parade
  • although Petronius's offer of a pretty female Spanish slave named Eunice (Marina Berti) was refused, Marcus' uncle was able to convince Nero to acquire Lygia for Marcus in gratitude and as a reward for his devoted and brave military service; during the festivities, Nero's consort Poppaea became jealous of Marcus' interest in Lygia; while singing and playing the lyre, Nero suggested burning the city of Rome in order to inspire him to create better song lyrics: (Petronius objected: "To burn a city in order to create an epic? That's carrying the principle of art for art's sake too far")

Poppaea Jealous of Marcus' Interest in Lygia

Nero Singing with Lyre

Nero's Contemplation About Burning Rome
  • Lygia was incensed for being treated as Marcus' property: "And there were moments when I thought I could love you....What difference does it make whether I love, now that you own me?"; the empress Poppaea noted Lygia's resistance to Marcus: "You seem to have been having difficulty in proving your ownership"; meanwhile, as Lygia was being escorted by guards to Marcus' residence, she was aided in her escape by her giant bodyguard Ursus (heavy-weight boxer Buddy Baer), a converted Christian
  • after Marcus went to locate Lygia and couldn't find her at General Plautius' home, Petronius told him that Lygia was part of a secret sect devoted to the crucified Jesus: "You picked the cherished egg in a nest of Christians. She's a Christian, and Christians have spirited her away"; according to Petronius, Christians were a threat to Rome and Roman law, and Jesus was considered to be "a rebel against the state, a Jew called Christ, crucified in Palestine... They are a constant worry to Nero and the Senate"
  • Marcus decided to go undercover and with a soothsayer named Chilo (John Ruddock) and a bodyguard named Croton (Arthur Walge), he attended a secret ritualistic baptism ceremony held in cave ruins after dark outside the city, where he spotted Lygia; he listened as apostle Simon Peter addressed the audience about the miracle of Jesus filling his fishing nets, exemplifying the power of the Son of God who had come to establish the kingdom of Heaven on Earth; Simon also confessed that he had denied knowing Jesus three times before his crucifixion at Calvary, but was now committed to dying for him
  • following the night's ceremony, Marcus followed Lygia and fought against her bodyguard Ursus - Chilo ran off as Croton was killed and Marcus suffered a head wound; he was cared for by Lygia, and after recovering, he asked for her hand in marriage - and they passionately kissed; he promised: "I'm willing to accept your God, if it makes you happier"
  • however, he finally understood her whole-hearted devotion to Jesus when he demanded that she choose between her faith and him; jealously disgusted by her answer that she would keep Christ in her heart, he denounced her religion ("A cringing God for slaves, aliens, and outcasts like yourself") and her very deep beliefs: ("You're going to be wife of Commander Marcus Vinicius, not the miserable slave of some crucified carpenter...I'd no more share you with your Christ than I would with other men"); in frustration after she chose Christ, Marcus renounced her, broke their relationship, and departed to Antium where he was tempted to engage in an affair with the lustful Poppaea ("I should like to vanquish you, Marcus") who knew about his failed romance with Lygia
  • meanwhile in his lavish coastal villa at Antium, the despotic, petulant, matricidal and unhinged tyrant Nero ("The world is mine. And mine to end") was contemplating the construction of a "new Rome" known as 'Neropolis' (envisioned in a gigantic architectural model to be built in his own image), to replace the current city of Rome; he had sent a squadron of soldiers led by General Tigellinus (Ralph Truman) to set fire to the city ("Rome is a sea of flames. It burns from rim to rim"); Petronius noted cynically: "Now, indeed, Nero has his place in history"

The Increasingly-Mad and Irrational Nero

Nero's Architectural Model Plans for a "new Rome"

Marcus' First View of the Inferno in the City of Rome
  • although pursued, Marcus rushed back to Rome in a stolen chariot to save Lygia; as Rome burned while Nero played on his lyre, he heard mobs of vengeful Romans entering his palace at Antium and calling him an "incendiary"; Poppaea suggested to Nero that he not blame General Tigellinus for the devastating inferno, but blame the Christian sect instead: ("A group who worship one they say is higher than you. They are the enemies of the human race, and of you"); Nero decided to proclaim that the Christians would be punished in "a spectacle of terror"; Petronius objected and protested, but his words did not sway Nero: "Condemn these Christians and you make martyrs of them and insure their immortality. Condemn them, and in the eyes of history, you'll condemn yourself"
  • together with his uncle Petronius, Marcus signed a letter to replace the "maniac" Nero with General Galba; meanwhile, Nero was arresting and imprisoning Christians, including the family of retired General Plautius and Lygia; Marcus was also seized and ordered to be put "with his Christian friends" - possibly for his part in the rebellion and for slighting Poppaea; in a prison cell, Lygia informed Marcus that they were destined to be slaughtered in the Circus by lions; some of the Christians began to doubt their redeemer, although many retained their faith
  • while leaving Rome and walking along with young orphan Nazarius (Peter Miles) on his way toward Greece, Peter had a vision of God as light shining through a tree - and realized that he must return to Rome; he knew that he would probably be arrested and crucified
  • at a farewell dinner with his closest associates, Petronius liberated his lover Eunice from slavery, and then called for an attending physician to supervise his death by slitting his wrist: ("It is not enough to live well. One must die well"); distraught, Eunice decided to also sacrifice herself with him and cut her own wrist; as they both slowly died, he dictated a memorable farewell letter to Nero - to condemn the Emperor's "mediocre" musical verses: "To be born in your reign is a miscalculation but to die in it is a joy. I can forgive you for murdering your wife and your mother, for burning our beloved Rome, for befouling our fair country with the stench of your crimes. But one thing I cannot forgive - the boredom of having to listen to your verses, your second-rate songs, your mediocre performances. Adhere to your special gifts, Nero - murder and arson, betrayal and terror. Mutilate your subjects if you must; but with my last breath I beg you - do not mutilate the arts. Farewell, but compose no more music. Brutalize the people, but do not bore them, as you have bored to death your friend, the late Gaius Petronius"; although he was at first aggrieved by the news, Nero was incensed after reading the delivered letter from his dead advisor ("Destroy!...Beat his memory into the ground!")
  • in the Circus arena where Christians were about to be devoured by lions, viewed from the podium by Nero and Poppaea, Peter spoke out from amongst the spectators and emboldened the faithful followers (who began to fearless sing) to die in Christ's name ("Give them strength, O savior") - before he was seized and arrested, to join Marcus and Lygia in a holding cell

Marcus and Lygia Imprisoned

The Circus-Arena - Christians to Be Devoured by Lions

Emperor Nero and Empress Poppaea

Lions Readied

Unafraid, Christians Sang Before Their Deaths

Lions Released Within Arena
  • during the mutilations, Poppaea suggested that Nero detain Marcus and Lygia for a "surprise" she had planned for their fate; later that evening, Nero was amazed that many of the bloodied corpses in the arena had smiles on their faces; in their cell, Lygia confessed her love for Marcus (who felt that he had become a Christian), and asked for Peter to officiate a marriage ceremony between them ("Before I die, I want to marry Marcus"); afterwards, for preaching rebellion and blasphemy, Peter was taken and ordered to be crucified upside-down on Vatican Hill
  • back in the arena, while also being mercilessly crucified (and burned to death), retired General Plautius accused Nero of being monstrous: "Rome is ruled by a monster who tells you the Christians burned Rome. But he lies. You lie, Nero. You are the incendiary"; the next day in the arena, Marcus was taken to Nero's viewing platform to watch Lygia tied to a stake as she was attacked by a bull (Poppaea's 'surprise' for Nero); after Ursus protected her by breaking the bull's neck, Marcus freed himself, and jumped into the arena to embrace Lygia; he confronted Nero, and although Nero ruled 'thumbs down,' Marcus was saved by 'thumbs up' from all of Nero's other advisors and rescued by his loyal soldiers; Marcus addressed the spectators, condemned Nero for his brutalities, and announced that General Galba was marching toward Rome to replace him and "rebuild Rome and bring back justice"
In the Arena, Lygia Was Defended Against a Bull by Ursus
  • in the film's conclusion, Nero's bloody tyrannical reign came to an end; in his palace where he had fled from the angry mob, Nero was informed by Poppaea that all of his Praetorian guards were either dead or in revolt; angered and blaming her (his "evil genius") for making martyrs of the Christians that led the people to rebel and cause his downfall ("It was you who turned my people, my faithful subjects against me"), Nero strangled her to death, and then as the mobs surrounded the cowardly Nero in his locked throne-room, he was assisted in stabbing himself to death with a dagger offered by his embittered, banished slave Acte (Rosalie Crutchley) ("You've lived like a monster. Now die like an emperor - by your own hand")

Poppaea Strangled to Death by Nero
Nero Helped by Acte to Stab Himself to Death
  • in the final scene, orphaned boy Nazarius showed Marcus and Lygia the "blessed spot" where the Lord had spoken to Peter on the road leading out of Rome

Emblems of Roman Power Atop Standards

Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor)

Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov)

Marcus with His Uncle Gaius Petronius (Leo Genn) - One of Nero's Most Trusted Advisors

Retired Gen. Plautius and His Wife Pomponia

Family Friend and Rabbi Paul of Tarsus (Abraham Sofaer)

Nero's Consort Empress Poppaea (Patricia Laffan)

Spanish Slave Eunice (Marina Berti) Refused by Marcus - and Later Becoming Petronius' Infatuated Lover

Marcus with Reluctant Hostage Lygia - Nero's Reward to Him

Simon Peter (Finlay Currie) Speaking to Christians During Nighttime Secret Ceremony

Lygia Listening to Peter's Sermon

Lygia Caring for Marcus' Head Wound

Lygia and Marcus Kissing and Showing Their Love For Each Other

After Breaking Up with Lygia, Marcus Was Kissed by Poppaea

Marcus Saving Lygia During the Fire

Nero Playing His Lyre While Rome Burned

Poppaea (with General Tigellinus) Proposing to Blame the Christians for the Destructive Fire

Peter's Vision of God's Light When Leaving Rome

With a Liberated and Freed Eunice, Petronius Committed Suicide - And She Joined Him

In Arena Cell: Lygia to Marcus: "I want to be your wife now"

General Plautius: "You lie, Nero!"

Marcus in Arena With Lygia - Saved


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