I rarely watch television myself. However, Mrs. Moonbones sometimes does, since she is a fan of Survivor, American Idol, and Star Search, and a few other shows. So last night as we were preparing to retire our collective ossicles for the night, she had the television in the bedroom turned on and was flipping through the channels. To my surprise, the PBS television station out of Spokane, Washington, station KSPS to be exact, was broadcasting an old movie. That by itself is not unusual, since they often broadcast old movies late at night. What was unusual was that the old movie was none other than Quo Vadis. Yes, it was the Technicolor™ Quo Vadis (1951), starring the raven-haired and debonair Robert Taylor, the ravishing young redhead Deborah Kerr, and the young, roly-poly, hyper-histrionic Peter Ustinov. “Quo Vadis on public television? This is out of the ordinary!” I said to myself. So I went out to the living room and watched it on the other television, beginning roughly about in the middle of the film. Mrs. Moonbones on the other hand wasn’t interested and instead went to sleep.
There are several things that strike me as remarkable about Quo Vadis. First of all, I didn’t realize until the closing credits that the heroine, Lygia, was played by Deborah Kerr. Up until then I remembered only that she played a singing role opposite Yul Brenner in the movie rendition of Roger and Hammerstein’s The King and I, back in the Fifties as I recall. But in Quo Vadis she was young enough that I didn’t immediately recognize her. And though his face looked vaguely familiar, all the time I was watching the movie I kept wondering who was playing Marcus, the Roman centurian with major hots for the Xtian Lygia. Marcus turned out to be Robert Taylor.
Secondly, Peter Ustinov’s super-thespian rendition of the worse-than-decadent and laughably degenerate Nero was so over-the-top, so hyperbolic, and so dripping with self-conscious irony, that it verged on eclipsing the rest of the story in the movie. I would go so far as to say that nowdays when most people think of Nero they will picture in their minds something very close to Ustinov’s depiction of him.
Also, there were often scenes in Quo Vadis that were very much charged with erotic undertones. But what is remarkable is that the film incorporated them without so much as having anybody take their clothes off.
The movie ended with most everyone dead, except for Marcus and his new bride Lygia—who were married by the apostle Peter himself while they were waiting in the dungeon to be dispatched. (Peter was crucified shortly thereafter. Upside down, of course.) But later they barely managed to escape martyrdom by a fortuitous Roman military coup d’etat against Nero, who later committed suicide, bemoaning the world's under-appreciation of his artistic talents.
But finally, what was most amazing to me was that Quo Vadis actually cast Xtians in a somewhat favorable light. When was the last time PBS ever did that? When was the last time Hollywood ever did that? In any case, I think I can confidently predict that Hollywood will never do a remake of Quo Vadis. It would be just too “politically incorrect” nowadays.