This episode we return to the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ with a classic sword and sandal epic, Quo Vadis (1951). This film is available through many streaming platforms and we highly recommend revisiting it.
In Part Two of two episodes on Quo Vadis, we delve into our analysis of the film. If you have not listened to Part One, you might want to check it out for the context.
Special Episode – Quo Vadis (1951) – Part Two
The Wars That Shaped the Movie
Hollywood loves a sure bet and MGM started working on their own adaption after WWII. The legacy of that war can be seen in the depiction of Nero and the Roman people. Nero seems to be a mixture of Mussolini and Hitler, and the use of eagles, fasces and the ‘Roman salute’ must have also dredged up unpleasant memories.
The newly emerging Cold War also had an impact on this movie, with the plot dealing largely with the clash of freedom (Christians) vs tyranny (Romans). The immoral, irreligious Romans could easily be seen as the ‘godless Communists’, whereas the Christians and converts stand for the American way of life. The film was made during the hunt for Communists in Hollywood itself. The first round of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had started in 1947 and round two was destined to begin in 1951. These were dark days for many in the industry.
Black and white portrait photo of Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis.
He sits in a thoughtful pose and appears unhappy about something.
HUAC arrives in Hollywood
The head of MGM (Louis B. Mayer) and the male lead of Quo Vadis (Robert Taylor) were intimately connected with the HUAC hearings. Mayer had testified in 1947. Robert Taylor may not be a familiar name, but he was a massive star for MGM in the 30s and 40s. He was also known for his conservative politics and would be the only prominent Hollywood star to name names in front of the Committee. This might all seem to add up, but his testimony had just as much to do with his loyalty to Mayer, a fellow conservative, and MGM as his anti-communism.
Taylor had been forced by MGM and the Office of War Information to star in Song of Russia (1944), a pro-Russian film designed to promote friendly feelings about wartime alliance. Taylor had been dead against starring in the film in the first place, but he eventually went through with it so that he could be released by the studio to fulfil his military service.
Taylor was asked to testify in closed door sessions in front of HUAC early in 1947. He was quite frank regarding his political views, and Song of Russia might have come up. Taylor did not hold back as he thought this testimony would be kept private. When it was used to bolster the presence of HUAC, Taylor was less than pleased. Taylor and his wife Barbara Stanwyck were conservatives, but they did want to abuse their position as celebrities. They never wished to discuss politics in public again.
Black and white portrait photo of Robert Taylor as Marcus Vinicius in Quo Vadis.
He wears a Roman style military brestplate and gazes into the middle distance thoughtfully.
Taylor would have to make one more notable exception on that front. Louis B. Mayer, like so many other studio heads, wanted to protect the movie industry. This was business, and with television on the rise and the 1948 ruling against studio-owned theatres, the ‘biz’ was facing enough obstacles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They did not need the public thinking that Hollywood was spreading Communist ideology. More significantly, there is a distinctly antisemitic tone to the HUAC hearings, which must have made the largely Jewish heads of studios nervous, no matter how politically conservative they were.
Specifically, Mayer needed Taylor to testify a second time so he could back up MGM’s official line regarding Song of Russia. It was just a romance! Certainly not wartime propaganda…. HUAC also really wanted Taylor to appear again, purely for the publicity. They were correct: the press (and a lot of female fans) flocked to see Taylor’s testimony.
Taylor seemed to be uncomfortable when asked to name any suspected Communists in the industry. He was hesitant, but he did it. In the atmosphere of Hollywood at the time, Robert Taylor was celebrated by most for his patriotism. Whilst the best days of his career would soon be behind him after Quo Vadis and his testimony, this had nothing to do with his appearance before HUAC. However, these days, Robert Taylor is largely forgotten or remembered as a ‘friendly witness’.
Join us for our take on this rollicking ride through Neronian Rome and 20th century politics!
Thanks to the fabulous Bettina Joy de Guzman for our theme music.
- Babington, B.; Evans, P. W., Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema (Manchester University Press, New York: 1993).
- Cyrino, M., Big Screen Rome (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford: 2005).
- Elley, D., The Epic Film: Myth and History (Routledge and Kegan Paul, Suffolk and London: 1984).
- Joshel, S.; Malamud, M.; Wyke, M., ‘Introduction’, in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, ed. S. Joshel, M. Malamud & M. Wyke (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London: 2001), 1-22. And this what Dr Rad was quoting in the episode!
- Malamud, M., Ancient Rome and Modern America (Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford: 2009).
- Mayer, D., Playing Out Empire: Ben-Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films, 1883-1908, A Critical Anthology (Clarendon Press, New York: 1994).
- Scodel, R.; Bettenworth, A. Whither Quo Vadis? (Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publications: 2009).
- Skwara, E. “Quo Vadis on Film (1912, 1925, 1951, 1985, 2001): The Many Faces of Antiquity.” Clássica (São Paolo) 16, no. 2 (2013): 163-174.
- Solomon, J., The Ancient World in the Cinema (Yale University Press, Michigan: 2001).
- Wyke, M., Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (Routledge, London: 1997).
- Wyke, M., ‘Projecting Ancient Rome’, in The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media, ed. M. Landy (Rutgers University Press, New Jersey: 2001), 125-42.
- You Must Remember This (7 March, 2016). The Blacklist Part 5: The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck: Robert Taylor.
Lygia and Marcus Vinicius posed against a pink and blue clouded sky. This looks like an official promo shot for Quo Vadis.
Dr Rad 0:18
Welcome to this special episode of The Partial Historians. I’m Dr. Rad and normally Dr. G and I discuss the history of Rome from the founding of the city. But today we begin a deep dive into Quo Vadis in 1951. We ended up talking for so long about this epic that we have split the episode into two parts. Seems appropriate given the original film had an intermission. This is part two of our coverage of Quo Vadis, in which we will focus more on our analysis, the film and its betrayal of history. We hope you enjoy this sword and sandal classic as much as we did.
So in a previous episode, we’ve covered the background and plot to quiver strategy. Let’s now try and get a little bit more analytical and delve into the film in more detail. So I’m going to change gears a little bit dodgy because I feel like I had enough narrow for a moment. So first of all, I’m going to mention something which I have mentioned before when we’ve been talking about these films like “The Robe” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, we have to think about why Quo Vadis. Why now. And that is very much to do with the threat of a television you.
Dr G 1:34
Oh yes. How dare they don’t watch things on the small screen when you could watch things on the big screen?
Dr Rad 1:40
Yes. So as we talked about before, the 1950s is going to be the era of the widescreen technology that is officially however, launched with the robe in 1953. Now Quo Vadis is a large scale film in the sense that it’s long, it’s saturated with colour and excess. It’s the kind of thing that you’re not going to get on a small square black and white screen in your suburban home. So it is the kind of film that Hollywood believes is going to encourage people to come to the movies. And they’re right. Because they’re really running scared because it’s not just television, as I am sure I hope you’ve again mentioned before, it’s also the fact that they have lost a lot of power in 1948. With the anti monopoly laws, were they the movies used to control everything, you know, from the production of the film to the editing to the distribution. And monopoly laws of 1948 means that they lose their grip on the distribution. Oh, no, yeah. And so that’s a significant chunk of their business. They’re really, you know, it’s only a few years later, and this has been the model for quite some time. So they want movies like Quo Vadis, which they feel sure are gonna get people to come and watch them because that’s how they’re going to make them money. So that’s a bit of the movie business stuff. Now, specifically, the context of the 1951 film being one of the earliest sword and sands films. I need to throw this at you. World War Two.
Dr G 3:10
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, it’s definitely a thing. I mean, it’s over. By the time we get to this film it is and, like, there must be filming, I guess in 1950. So we’re not far out. I was kind of surprised. But also like pleasantly surprised by just like, it’s all on location in Cinecitta. And you can see from the shots in and around when they’re doing sort of like chariot work and things like that. Yeah, they’re definitely in Italy.
Dr Rad 3:40
And doing chariot work?
Dr G 3:42
Yeah, like Mediterranean pines, like they’re definitely in the right place. They’re on location.
Dr Rad 3:48
Dr G 3:49
It’s pretty impressive.
Dr Rad 3:50
Yeah. I mean, look, they’re often parallels drawn between Roman emperors and the dictators of the 20th century. However, this film, I think, more than most was, I think, trying to lean on that. Okay, I think that it’s meant to be a bit of a weird blend of both like Mussolini, the fascists, and also the Nazis that we see here. Because the Nazis, of course, had been very anti religion. So I think you can kind of see the persecution of Christianity that’s happening here and the seeming decadence of Rome as being you know, tying into that a little bit. But also, of course, Mussolini himself had tried really hard to draw a connection between his Rome and the Rome of the ancients. How awkwardly phrased was that
Dr G 4:40
Ancient Romans and the modern Italy usually were Yeah,
Dr Rad 4:44
yeah. So the point where he put on an exhibit in 1937, called the Augustan exhibition of the Roman spirit. So he was really dwelling on that. And she had she had her course also had been constructed by Mussolini. So there’s an age interesting parallels there. Obviously, there’s a lot of Roman symbolism which the fascists use, like the eagles and the fasces. And they think the salute, although that’s been pretty much debunked by Martin Winkler as being a bit of a misunderstanding.
Dr G 5:15
Yeah. But the Roman salute that’s given in this film is visually resonant. Like there wouldn’t be many audience members who, who hadn’t seen some Nazi propaganda, you’d be like, oh, oh, I see what you did there.
Dr Rad 5:28
Yes, exactly. Yes. And there’s also a very clear accent divide as often is the case in these films we’ve talked about so a lot of the heroic Christian freedom fighting liberty loving characters are American. And the evil people, evil imperialist bastards. British. So of course, we have Peter Ustinov playing, or very memorably playing the role of Nero, whereas we’ve got people like Robert Taylor, very American, playing the heroic person. Now, I know he is a Roman character, but we know he’s all you can.
Dr G 6:07
You can tell from his accent that he’s going to switch sides.
Dr Rad 6:09
Exactly, exactly. And then the plan that Nero outlines the way that he says he’s going to kill all the Christians is very Hitler-esque, in that he says, he’s going to eradicate them from the face of the earth to the extent where people will doubt they ever existed.
Dr G 6:28
Dr Rad 6:29
Yeah. Which is creepily like a genocidal plan. And also the model of Rome that you mentioned. So you know, you said that Nero was going to burn Rome to the ground and rebuild it.
Dr G 6:40
Well, there is a model displayed in this film.
Dr Rad 6:42
Yes, yes, yes. And the shot of Nero standing over, I think, was very much meant to recall shots of Hitler, looking at Albert Spears plan for Germania.
Dr G 6:55
Dr Rad 6:56
like the New Berlin
Dr G 6:57
because I was really interested in the map of Rome itself, because I was like, the reason map, there is a 3D map of Rome, right? Yeah, that looks very much like this model. And I’m wondering if it’s the same one, and I haven’t been able to, I haven’t had enough time to look into that.
Dr Rad 7:11
I actually probably could have found the answer for you if I had known beforehand, but I forgot to check that out.
Dr G 7:17
But I’m fascinated. So I’m gonna keep investigating that.
Dr Rad 7:21
Yeah. And they’re all these lines that Nero delivers throughout the film, which I think are really playing on those Hitleresque sort of things like he says to Petronius at one point, the world is mine and mine to end. Oh, yeah. And also we know that he is someone who has murdered his own father. So we already know that he is a monster. And therefore he from the beginning comes across as a tyrant like he’s obviously very amusing because it’s pretty used. But he is meant to be a monster. But
Dr G 7:57
I think there is something amazingly believable about Ustinov’s performance, though, which
Dr Rad 8:02
Dr G 8:02
Which makes this film stand out, as opposed to some others where the Imperial figure is designed to be the ultimate bad guy. Yeah. But is played in such a way as to not make it sympathetic enough to believe that a real human could be that way. Yeah, was something about Ustinov’s performance is very naturalistic in the way that you like you can you get the sense that this is a mind that is maleable, that that he has particular drives and he’s trying to figure out how to best bring them to life?
Dr Rad 8:37
Dr G 8:37
And he doesn’t conceive of himself as evil he conceives of himself as misunderstood.
Dr Rad 8:43
Yeah and also that idea of him having to be like on a larger scale again is almost not to like yeah,
Dr G 8:51
He sees himself as removed from the common people in part because the position that he has to fulfil is like as Emperor, I have this kind of duty to be very different from everyone else. So we talked a lot about how things have to be uncommon.
Dr Rad 9:05
Yes, I was gonna say I actually have the exact quotes I think it’s such a good one Peter Ustinov says I seek because I must exceed the statue of man in both good and evil I seek because I must be greater than man for only then will I be the supreme artists, let it be wonderful. Or let it be awful so long as it is uncommon? Yeah.
Dr G 9:29
This this is incredible sort of rationale in that Yeah. Which is I think if it was just read off the script, it might not you might not buy it. It’s like it’s very much the performance of Ustinov that brings back
Dr Rad 9:42
He’s just yeah, he’s performance stands the test of time, but you can’t always say about the circumstance. But yeah, the whole idea and the way that the other characters talk about the Christians like prepare saying, give room not one victim but hundreds. Who are these people, they just spies, our temple and our gods, they prophesied that the end of the world shall be caused by fire. Well then let it come true. Let it in for them, like it is that kind of idea of like scapegoating people, just like the Nazis do with the Jews, like it’s all very creepily there. Yeah. And also, then you’ve got Petronius coming in, of course, and being the warning of history, you do this, you make the murders, and you will suffer for it, which, of course, is exactly what has happened in your he has to be particularly bad reputation, because I think he has been seen as like the Antichrist, or at the very least an enemy of the Christian people, which for, you know, subsequent civilizations which pride themselves on being Christian, doesn’t make you a good guy. Now, gender is something I thought you might like to talk about a little
Dr G 10:52
Dr Rad 10:52
yeah. And that also ties in with World War Two. So tell me, what do you know about women’s role during World War Two?
Dr G 11:00
Oh, women’s roles in World War Two? Well, my understanding is and correct me if I’m wrong.
Dr Rad 11:05
Dr G 11:06
Is that because the men were away fighting? Yeah, it was incumbent upon women to really get behind the war effort in ways in which they possibly wouldn’t have been the first in line for if there was a non war time. So you have this shift of women into the workforce in different ways. It’s not the case that women weren’t working before the war. They definitely were. But the kinds of jobs that women were asked to do, or put themselves forward to do because the labour was needed. It was now all across the board. Yeah. And it was kind of like, if it had to be done. It had to be done. Yeah. So you know, the pictures of women on factory lines was not something that people were used to, but it’s something that definitely happened during the war, for instance.
Dr Rad 11:49
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s exactly how we need to say these sorts of films, and Quo Vadis is no exception, this idea that women had stepped up, gone into these roles, which were unusual. But now the men were back back to the private sphere with you, missy? Yeah. So it’s this idea of, I think, women as domesticate the need to have stable families. So Romans very rarely, in the 1950s and early 1960s have stable family. They’re generally somehow twisted, like, for example, mentoring your mother like Nero does, or can the wife as Nero. It’s the kind of you know, the cheating, the adultery is all that kind of stuff that the Romans partake in. And it’s this idea that will the the core of 1950s, America has to be proper Christian religious sentiment, family, and domesticating. femininity, and I am quoting directly from someone who I will reference in our sources.
Dr G 12:50
Ah domesticating femininity.
Dr Rad 12:55
Yeah. Yeah. So good. Women are shown as domesticating influences I see. Yeah. And they need to find someone to pair up with and convert.
Dr G 13:05
Well, well, well, Lygia, step forward.
Dr Rad 13:09
Yes, exactly. Here is obviously classic. She’s an entirely fictional character, obviously, for all the others adaptations. The interesting thing is, though, that there is a bit of a remnant of those women that didn’t want to go back into the private sphere after World War Two with literature, because in the 1950s version, she has moments of being kind of feisty, and knowing her in mind, which in the novel, she is not, she’s entirely passive interest. Yeah, she just does what she’s told to do by either her parents, her adoptive parents, or Vinicius or whatever. She’s really just like a chess piece to be moved around. It’s about possessing her obviously.
Dr G 13:48
Okay, so she’s been slightly rewritten for the 1950s audience.
Dr Rad 13:52
I think so. Yeah. Like they they know that you don’t want someone who’s a complete pushover. But the values that she stands for, nonetheless, like,
Dr G 14:01
well, actually, this kind of makes sense. So she gets accused of like, you know, filling your head with philosophies and things like that. Why would you do something like that? But that’s also Yeah. Well, it’s kind of also the thing that happens to you, you have this sort of like, narrative of the 1950s. And particularly in America, where it’s like, Sure, by all means, go to a good school and get an education but like your number one priority is to settle down with a husband and have some children. Yeah, so like, by all means, get that degree, but hidden for fun if you would attempt to use it.
Dr Rad 14:33
Yes. For anyone who wants to get a vibe for what he is talking about. Mona Lisa smiles, excellent.
Dr G 14:41
Also Mad Men, which I know is very rude now, but I still love it.
Dr Rad 14:45
Yeah, no true true true. Now bad women, of course, are the kind of women that want public power.
Dr G 14:50
Oh, I love Poppaea this film, though. Yes. So you know she enters with two cheetahs on a leash
Dr Rad 15:00
Like Bad Girl table of one
Dr G 15:01
Oh glorious. And you know, it’s like it’s all the makeup. It’s the dress. It’s the it’s the sultry gaze. It’s the one of the things I notice from a cinema cinematography perspective. Yeah. Is that Lygia is tends to be always shot on the three quarters. You don’t get front on shots because I was like, what is it? I just want to know what Deborah Kerr’s nose is like from the front, you know, but I do
Dr Rad 15:32
You’ll have to watch “An Affair to Remember” to get that.
Dr G 15:35
Definitely, I would didn’t get it in this film. But Poppaea is often shot front on
Dr Rad 15:39
Dr G 15:40
and there’s a real so there is choices being made artistically about how these women are shown. And the angles that you get of them, to sort of set them apart from each other as well because Poppaea is front and centre. Next to Nero in public. But also somebody who is given space to be a decision maker about certain things. So she does make decisions publicly.
Dr Rad 16:05
Dr G 16:06
And people just go along with it. And it’s not like she defers to Nero, when she does that.
Dr Rad 16:11
No, and that’s exactly she’s meant to be obviously showing, like, this is what happens when not only women want public power, but when they get it, it’s terrible. They don’t know how to exercise it properly. They should be focusing on me why?
Dr G 16:25
She’s like, ridiculous, get over here.
Dr Rad 16:29
But this is, you know, this is the thing about how passive and so Poppaeas Sabina is a real person, obviously, like Nero, or she was a real person, I should say.
She is a historical figure. She is a historical figure.
And I feel terrible, that she always comes across so badly, because she’s a murder victim, guys. She’s a victim of domestic violence. Yeah, what really happens to her is that Nero supposedly loses his temper and kicks her kicks her in the stomach while she’s pregnant with their child, and she dies because of complications to do with that injury. I mean, added to that way to go. Now, look, the sources are not kind to Poppaea Sabina either. So I’m not saying there’s not some basis. I think, I think Sienkiewicz did his research. You know, I think he read up about this. And I think the best way to sum this up is this little line from Tacitus. This is what he says about Poppaea. She was a woman possessed of all advantages, but a character.
Dr G 17:26
Dr Rad 17:28
yeah, exactly. And so he goes on and on about how awful she is in that she’s beautiful, and she’s witty, but she is depraved and gives into luxury. And she sleeps around and all that kind of stuff. So look, all of that may be true. Whatever I get it. It’s not what the Romans are looking for in wives either. But part of the also wonders how much of this has been exaggerated, because Nero is a bad guy. And we know that when you’ve got a bad guy, he must be not controlling this woman properly. He’s hassled, you know, in disarray. He’ll be associated with a woman who has all the stereotypical bad qualities.
Dr G 18:08
Yeah, this becomes part of the political invective that you level against. Right? Yeah. And so part of the way that you bring him down is to bring down everybody who is connected with him. So there is no way it’s very tricky, I think for somebody like prepare to be able to come out well from this, particularly when the previous wife Octavia has had was so publicly popular. So people even in the historical record, following Nero aren’t willing to openly criticise her because, by comparison, she was the bee’s knees.
Dr Rad 18:42
Yeah, and in all the ways it will for all the reasons that near apparently find her boring was that she was loyal, dutiful, quiet, just went about her business, like being private, not in public, you know, no ambition, that kind of stuff. So yeah, anyway, look, I just thought I had to mention that. So there’s a bit of like, World War Two gender stuff going on. Also for the men. I think it’s no accident. Again, we often talk about the issues with masculinity that are shown on screen and these sorts of movies. And I think it’s no accident that Peter Ustinov Nero is highly effeminate in the way that he’s played, whereas Robert Taylor, our hero, super masculine, yeah, willing to be domesticated. So it’s kind of almost like how the soldiers come home from World War Two and the woman’s like leaving the literary crap at the door. You’re entering the domestic sphere now baby. So all about, you know, pumping out the little ones and putting up white picket fences.
Dr G 19:37
And there is a moment later on in the film where Vinicius kind of has a realisation that he was being pretty boorish at the start of the film.
Dr Rad 19:46
Dr G 19:47
So there is a sense in which that narrative is being perpetuated and they’ve sort of put him into a bit of a domesticated situation and he’s agreed to go along with it because, well, you know, Lygia, she is just so freakin hot. Yeah,
Dr Rad 20:02
Deborah Kerr as in star. Okay, so the other bit of context that we have to mention and I think I know we mentioned this is all these sorts of movies is, of course, another war Dr. G, but the Cold War
Dr G 20:14
Ah, feel that shiver in the room.
Dr Rad 20:18
It’s not getting hot in here.
Dr G 20:21
I’m putting on more clothes even as we speak.
Dr Rad 20:23
Yeah. Now I’m just gonna very briefly mentioned that of course, you’ve got the classic freedom versus tyranny dichotomy going on in this film, which is exactly how President Truman had explained the situation that America found itself in 1947. So it’s no accident. And of course, in 1950, when Quo was being shot, as you mentioned, this is where we see the ramping up of the anti communist crusades within America, the second red scare 1947 had been the first round. That was when we had the Hollywood 10. People like Dalton Trumbo being on trial, but because they did string out their defence for such a long period of time, and it put everything on pause, and so no one else had really been charged. But 1951 is when we’re really going to see that whole more classic, I think, better known part of the second Red Scare taking place, which is where you see a lot of people go down. You see a lot of people doing the whole naming names or not naming names.
Dr G 21:27
Yeah. Well, I mean, on naming names, I mean, that feeds in quite nicely to ideas about the deletores in ancient Rome. Fun. Also, there is this film does a very good job of having the people which could be construed through a communist lens, if you wanted to. Yeah, really quite far removed from anything that’s going on. Yeah, they kind of at the peripheral, and we only see them through the perspective of Nero. And essentially, yeah, they’re a mob. And again, I think it’s meant to be very Mussolini and Hitler is key. Yeah. But any, there’s no focus on like farming or like the idea of like, well, a quasi proletariat that emerges out of the agrarian society, you know, all of those sort of, like classic elements of Yeah, that could build a foundation for a communist narrative within a Christian narrative. Yeah. None of that is happening.
Dr Rad 22:23
They were very self conscious about it. The 1951 campaign book for Quo Vadis, said, this movie, the fact that was being made, it’s basically like the world could well use the message of quo and the dark days are threatening us. The storyline cries out a creative non violence and adjust resistance to a godless aggression. Take that Stalin. Yeah. So whilst whilst Nero was meant to be somewhat, I think Mussolini and Hitler. So there’s also these stolen Soviet things happening.
Dr G 22:55
Take a bad guy, put your Nero on stage and you’re done and dusted. Yeah.
Dr Rad 22:59
And again, very briefly going to mention of course, this comes back to the fact as well that religion in this time period for America, it’s a patriotic thing. It’s about American godliness triumphing over the godless communists.
Dr G 23:15
Yeah, it is one of these really interesting characteristics of 20th century America, where the there’s a tacit freedom of religion, like it, or maybe even a spoken freedom of religion. But when they embrace religion, it is very much a very particular type of Christianity. And that Christian symbolism is imbued into a lot of their public symbolism.
Dr Rad 23:41
Yeah and I think I think it’s also worth mentioning with Quo Vadis, in particular, that Robert Taylor, and Louis B. Mayer, who was the MGM chief executive, and MGM made this film were both friendly witnesses, which basically means that they volunteer their information. And we’re very cooperative in supplying details about the inner workings of Hollywood for the committee, and they both had got involved with us and testified really early on in 1947.
Dr G 24:12
He’s not so good looking to me now.
Dr Rad 24:14
I know. So Robert Taylor, I’m gonna tell you a little bit about Robert Taylor.
Dr G 24:16
Dr Rad 24:17
So he was part of this right wing group called The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. They had been the ones that had actually invited the house on American activities to come to Hollywood and investigate Hollywood specifically because they were worried about his communist propaganda and co working in the industry. So Robert Taylor is a part of that. Now, Louis B. Mayer, I kind of feel like he’s one of those guys. I’ve talked about in a previous episode, where I think he’s just concerned about like, protecting his business.
Dr G 24:50
Yeah, fair enough. Things have gonna run guys.
Dr Rad 24:53
Yeah, absolutely. Now, Robert Taylor was married to Barbara Stanwyck. Okay, now they share had an interest in conservative politics?
Dr G 25:02
Well, I mean, it’s a solid foundation for our marriage, I suspect.
Dr Rad 25:06
Yeah. He’s the only big studio star to name names in an open session to HUAC.
Dr G 25:13
Dr Rad 25:14
Yeah. And they use his initial testimony to publicise your work. And Robert Taylor had no idea that this was going to happen. He was furious about this basically, like, basically,
Dr G 25:28
Did that ruin his career?
Dr Rad 25:29
No, but I don’t think I don’t think he’s a well known name. Now, let’s put it that way. Yeah, certainly, he just wants out of politics after this, but he kind of has no choice because he is a studio star and MGM is like, you are going to testify, they specifically want him to testify in order to present a strong front with Mayor about this film they had made called the song of Russia. Now that was made at the time when the alliance between the allies and Russia was first being formed to try and promote this, you know, during World War Two.
Dr G 26:08
So he’s got a vested interest in perhaps coming forward and coming forward openly. In order to counterbalance some of that, I think he
Dr Rad 26:15
was incredibly reluctant to name names. And yet he is kind of forced into it. The sad thing is that his appearance was a massive deal. And it’s possible that these 1950s HUAC hearings became a big deal, because of Robert Taylor, because he was a big star at the time.
Dr G 26:32
Dr Rad 26:34
So I just thought that was worth noting, because whilst we’ve talked about some of the other Cold War connections to some of the other films, the fact that this one comes about at this particular time with these particular people.
Dr G 26:46
Yeah, really, really interesting.
Dr Rad 26:48
Yeah. I mean, obviously, like we’re talking about 1951 hearings that yeah, obviously being the year of release of Quo Vadis but it would have been filmed before then, but I think everyone obviously knew that HUAC was in their midst because of the Hollywood 10. So yeah,
Dr G 27:05
yeah. It’s not necessarily something that’s clouding the performance of actors in this film with each other. But it’s definitely going to have an effect after
Dr Rad 27:13
I yeah, I just I just think it’s it makes I think Quo Vadis, even more interesting to me contextually, like this kind of stuff. And I, I kind of feel sorry for Taylor in a way that you know, you wouldn’t expect me to necessarily because I hate people who name names. I hate people who are on the right. Politics. Now. I shouldn’t say I hate right wing politics. But yeah, I kind of feel like his. He’s often a person, you’ll see, as you’ll hear, like a soundbite from him, or you’ll see an image of him testifying. And you don’t necessarily have the nuance of exactly how his appearance came to be in front of us exactly how he was used. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Because it seems like something he would do. But he I’m not saying
Dr G 27:53
But there might be some more complications.
Dr Rad 27:54
I think it’s the more complicated factors there. So yeah, I just thought that was interesting, given him being the title role and all so yeah. Anywho, you want to talk about Nero?
Dr G 28:03
Nero. Yeah. Look, I mean, there’s a lot of things that you could say about neuro in this film. And I mean, I’ve said some of those things already, in terms of like the performance and stuff like that. I think this is the kind of film it’s off the same sort of stature in my mind as something like “I, Claudius” in the way that it kind of sets people up to think that there is a very simple read for this period of Rome’s history. And it’s because the performance is so good. Yeah. And because the things that happened, some of these events are verifiable. That was a fire in Rome. It did happen during the late period of Nero’s reign. He did have a rebuilding programme. There are some sources that benefited. Definitely, there are some sources that talk about his connection with the Christians. Yeah. All of that is true. Yes. Now this narrative, this particular film makes it seem like there that is a really smooth story that we can understand Nero and his reign and how it comes to an end. And I would urge you, as a human with an interest in history to keep in mind that this is a film that is so persuasive. But there are some real questions to be asked about the source material for this period and what they might be trying to do with Nero. He is the last of the Julio-Claudians. This is an end point in the first dynasty of Roman imperial power. Yeah, it has ended badly. There’s lots of good reasons for it ending badly and there are a lot of people with their noses out of joint by the way that the Julio-Claudians have developed over time, so there’s lots of people in a position to write really negative histories as well. And that some of the source material that is survived and come down to us.
Dr Rad 30:05
Dr G 30:06
Does this mean that he was terrible and all bad? Probably not. But the stories that we do have a pretty horrifying I don’t think I’m not going to excuse things like domestic violence, which leads to complications of a pregnancy which leads to death. You know, all of that is terrible. But this film does make it an easy package to swallow and just be like Nero was this crazy manipulative human being. And we that’s all we can say about him.
Dr Rad 30:36
Yeah. And I completely agree, because this is the thing I agree with you I don’t think Nero probably was a great person, let’s face it. He grew up with a mother who was probably quite rightly traumatised, and paranoid. He grew up in a family that was even worse. And he was only a teenager when he came to power. And whilst teenagers weren’t really a thing in ancient Rome, I certainly don’t think his brain was fully mature.
Dr G 31:01
They do have a classification for the young man as a young person the “adulescens” which teenager sort of comes out of that string. And that that isn’t a period that goes up to the age of 25.
Dr Rad 31:01
Yes. Is that as I mean, the Romans know that youth equals trouble.
Dr G 31:15
Yeah, they do see them as useful. And they position them as such. And certainly, all of the Republican positions are set up to be open and available to people who are beyond that age group.
Dr Rad 31:28
Yeah, absolutely. But this exactly, I think, yes, I think there was a problematic person. I think some of the stuff that’s come down to us is most likely true, like the fact that he was behind the murder of Agrippina, and that he probably was responsible for the death of Octavia and Poppaea Sabina.
Dr G 31:45
It’s just good politics, isn’t it? Yeah. Gotta get rid of them rivals.
Dr Rad 31:49
However, as you said, there is this intriguing snippet from Josephus, where he says, there have been a great many who compose the history of Nero, some of which have departed from the truth of facts out of favour, as having received benefits from him, while others out of hatred to him and the great ill will which they bear him have so impudently raved against him with their lies that they justly deserve to be condemned. So seeming to imply that there were positive accounts out there, they weren’t necessarily any more trustworthy, but they were there. And like, the fact that none of this seems to have come down to us is staggering. So definitely, I think there were some people who were more in favour of Nero, the people of room seem to have been a bit more fond of Nero than I think the elite of Rome were.
Dr G 32:36
Yeah. And this is something that the film tends not to capture yet is he does seem to have been quite well loved, for most of his rule by the people of the city, not necessarily the leads, but like the man on the street kind of thing. Yes. And definitely he’s rebuilding programme, or post fire. Yes, does a lot of sort of accommodation of people who have lost their homes and things like that. So there are elements of good leadership mixed in amongst the the horror stories. And yeah, the political mayhem.
Dr Rad 33:09
I think he was basically a very selfish person, which is no big surprise, and not particularly dedicated to rule at a time when Rome really needed him
Dr G 33:21
and also somebody who’s probably not that trusting now, given the situation that he’s grown up in, been surrounded by his whole life. So you know, somebody who is naturally suspicious.
Dr Rad 33:21
I mean, he’s his own father, supposedly, ran over children in the street just kicks. So yeah. But again, you don’t know whether that’s actually true, or whether that’s just trying to trash talk his reputation, because Nero turned out to be so horrible, but again, you gotta wonder, like, has to come from somewhere. But definitely, I think it’s worth mentioning when we talk about a film like Quo Vadis. Our sources are actually fairly clear, I think, at least in terms of reliable sources that Nero was not responsible for the fire.
Dr G 34:02
No, the evidence suggests he wasn’t in Rome. So the film does get that right interestingly.
Dr Rad 34:08
Yeah, he’s not personally responsible.
Dr G 34:10
You didn’t Yeah, he wasn’t there, like, you know, with a little match, throwing it onto the bonfire. But he wasn’t there. So it seems unlikely. Also, despite the fact that there’s this building programme afterwards, I don’t think there are many people who believe that they he anticipated the fire or created the fire in order to produce this buildingwork. Well, yeah. Like there’s plenty of space already. If he buys a private property on the Palatine to do the kinds of things he wants to do.
Dr Rad 34:40
Yeah, again, I think he’s just a bit selfish in the way he goes about some of the rebuilding, and therefore it makes people suspicious, which does make him turn to the Christians are scapegoats. Like that’s one thing that yes, you can say, yep, Nero deserves to be blamed for that. Again, the sources I think, are fairly clear that he does pinpoint the Christians as a group that he can target because nobody
Dr G 35:01
cares about them. Yeah. And this is political expedience at its worst. Yes, exactly.
Dr Rad 35:07
Although he’s so horrible to them. I mean, I believe one of the punishments is that, and again, it’s kind of like that poetic justice things that the Romans like every now and then he likes the city of Rome by setting the Christians on fire.
Dr G 35:21
Oh, yeah. So like, this is like the classic source reference where it’s like, you know, he lights up Rome with Christians bodies. Yes. Yeah. And that’s pretty disgusting. If true.
Dr Rad 35:31
Exactly. Like it could be exaggeration, of course, or whatever. But certainly the idea that people I think it testament says, Look, nobody really cared about the Christians until Nero started to persecute them so horribly. And well, then people started to go, Hmm, that is really awful, even by our standards, so I don’t think they were like, Oh, we love the Christians. But it’s more the idea of people started to feel even more simple. People started feeling sympathetic.
Well, they suddenly registered that these people were around to being like, Oh, I didn’t know that they were here. They were really copying. That doesn’t seem okay.
Yeah, definitely. So I thought one final thing I might end on finances very long episode. But such a long movie. It’s so hard not to just like
Dr G 36:14
we’re not even up to the halfway point of the film yet.
Dr Rad 36:17
Yeah, I know. I thought we had to also maybe register, maybe Petronius. Yes, as a real figure. And I also wanted to highlight Lygia’s adoptive mother Pomponia Grecia. Yeah.
Dr G 36:29
Oh, I haven’t looked into her.
Dr Rad 36:31
Well, okay. There is actually a passage about her, she was loosely connected to the Julio-Claudians like, she’s not super something in the inner circle. But as more of them die, her connection probably becomes more significant. She actually does seem to have been rumoured to be a Christian, there is a passage preserved in Tacitus, which talks about her being accused of a alien superstition, which has been taken to mean Christianity. And that having to be dealt with in like a private family disciplinary sort of way.
Dr G 37:01
I feel like this is a testament to our original author’s research. Surely,
Dr Rad 37:06
I know. And so I just thought I thought it was worth mentioning that because we’ve said some stuff about other female characters, and you might not think that she actually is based on a real person.
Dr G 37:14
Yeah, I just assumed that she was made up for the film. No, no, she’s not.
Dr Rad 37:17
And and also, she apparently, very publicly will morning as a statement when one of her relatives, a female that Messalina was jealous off was bumped off. So she was kind of like, daring, you know, but Claudius refused to punish her for obviously making like a bit of a statement about miscellaneous behaviour, what she was doing. So she’s kind of an interesting character. And the way that she has been represented in different versions is quite different. Like, if you go back to the 1925 version, I think that’s where you see more of a storyline about her being caught up in persecution, and managing to escape through her mother’s love, because her child is like, about to watch her be executed. And again, that seems maybe a little bit tying into like, the fascist ideology about motherhood and like, once mention her, but also Petronius I thought he was maybe a fun note to end on.
Dr G 38:09
Yeah, look, Petronius I mean, he is he is a figure that gets sort of like bandied about in this period. But because he’s lampooned and to see Petronius brought to life in a way that is quite intelligent, quite serious. But then being there’s, there’s kind of like a visual homage to the satire that he is generally known for in the final feast, which I quite enjoyed. And I was like, well, well, this is where it gets dramatic, isn’t it.
Dr Rad 38:39
Yeah, I think he might have been the author of this work, which we now call the Satyricon, which is a bizarre work and we don’t have it in its complete form. Of course, we never do. But one of as you say, like the key moments is like the feasts. Yeah. At the house of Trimalchio who I think is a freedman, right.
Dr G 38:39
I can’t remember,
Dr Rad 39:01
Okay, yeah, he’s maybe he’s meant to be this like lower class person who’s aping the upper class. Yeah, he’s got money. He’s really trying. He’s aspirational. Yeah. And so Trimalchio is supposedly partly meant to be inspired by Nero, which is maybe one of the reasons why he is found himself in hot water. Because he does end up getting caught up in these conspiracies in Nero’s reign, as far as we can tell, like the real historical character. So I think it’s, it is interesting the way that he as you say, is turned into like, kind of like the conscience sweet like, like a weird.
Dr G 39:39
He kind of becomes this figure that Nero bounces off and Petronius provides this opportunity just just to gently nudge him in a slightly different direction.
Dr Rad 39:50
Yeah. And he does have like the real Petronius did have official positions as we’d be fit. A man of his status. You know, he does servers console and that sort of thing. And he apparently had this title amongst Nero’s inner circle that he was the arbiter of elegance, oh, which I think has been very much played upon in this particular adaptation. He’s not always as likeable because there is this whole another subplot romance between him and one of his slave girls. Eunice.
Dr G 40:25
Oh, yes, yeah.
Dr Rad 40:26
And in this film, it’s kind of
Dr G 40:28
why is that subplot even there?
Dr Rad 40:30
Oh, well, it gets a lot more disturbing another version, okay. In some versions, I can’t remember which one, but there’s a version where apparently, he orders units to be beaten for something she’s done wrong. And it’s while she’s being beaten that he realises he’s in love with her too. Because the whole storyline is that Eunice is in love with him to a point that is like the range.
Dr G 40:51
Yeah, this is I mean, the Euncie subplot, everyone doesn’t make any sense. I’m like, again, this is one of those
Dr Rad 40:57
It’s drawn from the novel.
Dr G 40:58
Yeah, it’s one of these sort of classic like, it’s, there’s no women in the writers room, you know?
Dr Rad 41:04
Dr G 41:04
And it’s like they’re under what circumstances would a slave just be like kissing the statue of the of their own? No. And it’s like, there’s we’re giving no rationale for why she might be interested in him now,
Dr Rad 41:18
apart from the fact that he seems to be like, super intelligent.
Dr G 41:22
But she doesn’t.
Dr Rad 41:23
It’s weird. It’s weird, because he’s so refined in this film. And yet this, the Satyricon is like, it’s so gross, like, ,
Dr G 41:30
Well and I think this is one of the things where, like, the parallel that you might see with the historical Petronius, and the sort of the satirical one is that the way that things are written, and that, that idea of being very good with words, being very clever. And then we have Petronius is final letter to Nero, where is like six where he reveals the truth and like, I always thought you were a subpar singer. Yeah. It’s like, I would never want to hear anything come out of your lips ever again. You know? Yeah. All of this kind of stuff. So he gets to this moment where he does the reveal. Yeah. When he knows he’s going to take his own life. He’s already got that planned out. Yeah. And to me, that’s the kind of the literary echo coming in of like, you know, the person who’s got that incisive way with language.
Dr Rad 42:22
Yeah and it’s, it’s interesting, though, as well there in terms of characterization, because Petronius is really the only person who’s a Roman, who is sympathetic, but never becomes Christian. He is sympathetic to the Christians.
Dr G 42:40
Are you telling me that Tigellinus is not sympathetic? There’s only one man with a moustache in this film who is also a Roman.
Dr Rad 42:48
Whip out some wax as well. Yeah, no, exactly. He’s easy, only Roman who doesn’t convert to Christianity, even though he might be kind of trying to temper Nero’s actions with the Christians, but that seems to be more because he’s concerned about Rome’s reputation like, and ridiculous as you say, like it’s not really like, because he cares so much for these people. But yet he is the only person who doesn’t convert. You know, so it’s just it’s just inevitable. Yeah, it is easy these sorts of films and that sort of thing happens. All right. Finish up on a very light note. Let’s talk about the promotion of Quo Vadis I have mentioned this before but Quo Vadis really takes the cake.
Dr G 43:31
Okay, how did they promote this film?
Dr Rad 43:33
How do you sell a film like Quo Vadis? Well, of course, you know, there’s lots of tie in products.
Dr G 43:40
Look, I would you take that shot from the film where they’ve recreated Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, part by part and put it on a postcard and be like, do you want to see how it happened? Yeah. Because we bring it to life.
Dr Rad 43:54
Obviously, there’s the usual stuff like you shop windows and that kind of stuff. But there was also a real estate company that use the shot of nearer pointing to the model of Rome. They used it to sell houses Chris mana I’m looking at you. They also sold raincoats, sports shirts, wallpaper, tablecloth, flippers, pyjamas, boxer shorts, tie clips, and my favourite one. Fire Insurance.
Dr G 44:28
Dr Rad 44:30
Yeah, no. And not only that, but they received the Pope’s blessing on the directors copy of the script.
Dr G 44:38
Wow. Yeah. Well, you know once the Pope has blessed the script, I think you’re good to go.
Dr Rad 44:43
Yeah, I think so. And I think that’s a perfect note on which to end this very long episode. But you know what, for long film guys, what can I say? recommend that you go and see it? Yeah, definitely – look Peter Ustinov alone is worth it. Thank you for listening to this special ed said of The Partial Historians. We’d like to thank all of our patrons for their support and allowing us to make these additional episodes, especially Nick, who’s specifically requested Quo Vadis. This has been part two of two episodes on Quo Vadis. And so that’s a wrap folks. Our sources and credits can be found on our website. And as a side note, if you’d like to learn more about Robert Taylor and his involvement with HUAC, we suggest you check out one of our major sources for this episode, which is the fabulous you must remember this podcast which has a whole series on the blacklist including an entire episode dedicated to Robert Taylor, and his wife, Barbara Stanwyck. Until next time, we are yours in ancient Rome.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai