It is 64 AD, and Rome’s 14th Legion is returning home on the Appian Way after fighting against an uprising in Britain, led by commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor). They are stopped from entering the city by a member of the emperor Nero’s praetorian guard, who has orders to make them remain outside. Marcus, irritated, decides to confront Nero himself at his palace. The emperor (Peter Ustinov) is in the middle of composing a song, seeking advice from, among others, his closest friend Petronius (Leo Genn). Fearing his criticism, they praise him as a god and offer deliberately vague suggestions. When Marcus enters, he learns that Nero wants to wait for the 14th Legion unite with other returning groups for a triumph; in the meantime, he’ll be staying in the home of retired general Aulus Plautius. As they exit, Petronius complains to Marcus about Nero and the declining state of Rome. When Marcus asks if it’s true that Nero has killed his mother and wife and married a “harlot,” Petronius quiets him, saying that in “the language of privileged government”, they “were removed for the good of the empire.”
At Plautius’s house, Marcus and his soldiers catch sight of muscleman Ursus (Buddy Baer) while bathing. Marcus inquires whether he’s a gladiator, and Ursus responds that “It is a sin to kill,” much to the amusement of the soldiers. While walking in the garden, Marcus sees Lygia (Deborah Kerr) for the first time. He is instantly taken with her beauty and tries to attract her by quoting poetry at her, but she rebukes him. Marcus assumes that she is a slave, but learns from Plautius (Felix Aylmer) and his wife Pomponia (Nora Swinburne) at dinner that night that she is their adopted daughter. She was saved as a child from the Roman-conquered territory of Lygia, and Ursus acts as her protector. The meal is interrupted by the arrival of Paul of Tarsus (Abraham Sofaer), which Lygia’s family has been eagerly awaiting. He introduces himself to Marcus as first a rabbi, and then, seeing his confusion, as one who “teaches philosophy”. When Marcus leaves to check his men, Paul is safe to reveal his identity as a Christian, and bring the news that Peter, one of Jesus’s original disciples, will soon be coming to Rome. Marcus finds Lygia again in the garden, drawing the Christian icthys in the sand; he tries to appeal to her with talk of the upcoming triumph, but she is disgusted by his remarks. That night, she prays that he will come to Christ and set an example for others.
On the day of the triumphal procession, Marcus leads the armies as conquering commander after rites conducted by the Vestal Virgins praising the Roman gods and Nero. The watching emperor is upset at the crowd’s constant demand for his entertainments, but Poppea (Patricia Laffan) reminds him that as an artist, he requires an audience. Afterwards, Marcus visits Petronius’s house, where he meets Eunice (Marina Berte), a Spanish slave woman he had been previously interested in. When Petronius sees that Marcus is no longer attracted to her, he learns of Lygia, and the two devise a plan to have Lygia abducted. Taken from her parents, Lygia is forced into “Nero’s house of women” and, with the help of manager Acte (Rosalie Crutchley), dresses for the night’s banquet. There, she sees Marcus and, understanding the purpose of her captivity, is angered. As part of the evening’s entertainment, Nero performs the composition about fire which he had been practicing earlier; he decides that it was inferior, as “one must suffer an experience to recreate it”, and from there is struck with the idea to burn Rome.
Marcus orders Lygia to be taken to the house of Petronius. As Acte helps Lygia leave, she reveals that, while not Christian, she is a sympathizer, and wishes her luck. On the way to Petronius’s home, Ursus, who had been lying in wait, attacks the guards carrying Lygia, allowing her to escape. Marcus inquires Plautius where Lygia’s whereabouts might be, and through him finds a guide, Chilo (John Ruddock) to lead him to a secret gathering of the Christians. In their meeting cave, Peter (Finlay Currey) delivers a retelling of the life of Jesus. Marcus attempts to trail Lygia home, but is attacked by Ursus, who is unaware of his intentions; he is taken to Lygia, who treats his wounds and gives him a place to rest. Seizing his opportunity, Marcus asks to marry her, promising to adopt the Christian iconography and “put up a big cross, higher than the roof”, but she rejects this knowing that he has not truly accepted the faith himself. Shortly after, Nero announces that he has burned all the sections of Rome apart from his palace to form a new city, Neropolis, and to reach new artistic heights. Marcus, shocked, rides into the crowded areas of the city to find that they’ve gone up in flames, and helps citizens evacuate. As citizens riot outside of Nero’s palace, accusing him of being “the incendiary”, Poppea suggests he lay blame to the Christians so that the mob has a scapegoat.
The Christians of Rome are rounded up and imprisoned, and Marcus finds Lygia there among them and joins her. As this occurs, Peter, who is traveling to Greece on the Appian Way, receives a heavenly sign in the forest to turn back to Rome after asking the film’s eponymous question “Quo vadis?”: “Wither thou goest, Lord?”. Petronius, suspicious that Nero is going to kill him, holds a dinner where, after freeing Eunice (whom he has fallen in love with), they both commit suicide. He also dictates a scathing note which expresses his true feelings about Nero and his works, devastating the emperor when he receives it. Nero arranges a spectacle in the Colosseum where the Christians are to be ripped apart by lions, and is disgusted by the way they sing and smile while condemned to death. When Peter returns, sensing trouble, he’s sentenced to be strung up on a pole over the sea. At night, dozens more Christians, including Plautius, are burned alive. Marcus and Lygia, realizing in full that they will most likely never see each other again, ask Peter to bless their partnership as a marriage so that they may be together in death.
Poppea devises a final punishment—she has Lygia tied to a stake, Ursus by her side, facing down a charging bull. At the same time, Marcus is handcuffed to a pole in the emperor’s booth and forced to watch. Marcus prays for strength, and breaks free from his restraints as Ursus strangles the animal. When Nero signals (against popular vote) that Lygia and Ursus should still die, Marcus and his soldiers storm the center of the arena. He announces that Nero’s reign as emperor is over and that Galba, who is returning from a military campaign, is the next successor. As the crowd storms Nero’s palace that night, the emperor realizes that Poppea was the mastermind of the plot to blame the Christians and chokes her to death. Acte offers him the blade to commit suicide, which he does with her help. The end of the film finds Marcus and Lygia raising a family together as Galba triumphantly rises to power in Rome.
Quo Vadis was a commercial success which pulled MGM out of bankruptcy, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. One of these nominations Best Supporting Actor, went to Peter Ustinov, who was prompted to say that “ ‘No nation can make Roman pictures as well as Americans’ ”.
The fundamental ideological conflict in Quo Vadis takes place between the Christians and the Roman empire, wherein the Christians are a stand-in for virtue and the Romans are aggressive and debased. The understood moral differences of each side are conveyed with several visual signifiers, beginning with costuming. Compare the foils of Lygia and Poppea, for example—the viewer first sees Poppea in a multicolored, revealing garment with numerous articles of gold jewelry, while Lygia is modestly clothed. As a people, the Romans take up symbols for oppression and conquest which would have been instantly recognizable in the film’s postwar release. In scenes where the Romans greet each other or hail Nero, they use a motion identical to the Nazi salute. The cinematography of the triumph scene utilizes symmetry and pans over a dense crowd, recalling propaganda films like Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”. Quo Vadis’s score reinforces Roman militarization through the persistent drums of the opening sequence and triumph; the Christian gathering in the catacombs, by contrast, is marked with the soft tones of choral singing. Additionally, the emphasis on Roman slavery clashes with the Christians’ value for human dignity. The memorable opening narration intones that “there is no escape from the whip” as a soldier, having fallen out of step, is trampled by his peers. Lygia, on the other hand, acts as a counterpoint in her sense of respect for others. When she interacts with Marcus for the first time and he demeans those outside of Rome for their ragged appearance and calloused hands, Lygia caringly suggests that this “proves they are diligent”. The Christians’ position extends from moral to political defiance with the emperor’s contempt for the religion, which reaches beyond Tacitus and Suetonius’s bemusement at the “superstition” to downright hatred. In almost contemporary terminology, the Christians are deemed “the enemies of…the state”, effectively transforming them to political dissidents. In one of my favorite lines for its cleverness, Christian sympathizer Acte encourages Lygia in the faith, even in the presence of a praetorian guard. “Bear in mind, your fate is determined by the greatest power in this world,” she says—a double entendre which could refer to both Jesus or Nero. But the Biblical allusion in her parting words seals her intent: “His will be done.”
In the presence of the Romans’ oppressive power, martyrdom is elevated as a theme. Peter instructs the Christians that they must “obey those who govern you…even though, under them, you suffer cruelties”. Consequently, in the face of their punishment by the Romans, they find that ironically it is only through the act of dying that they can live out their faith. As Marcus ominously phrases it, “They know how to die”—the sacrifice becomes intertwined as an essential component of faith. The referential nature of how Quo Vadis’s script treats the course of history implies that there is a moral arc to such sacrifices. When Petronius attempts to dissuade Nero from assigning blame to the Christians, he argues that “You have often reminded us, Nero, of the judgment of history. What will its verdict be if you punish the innocent and betray your own greatness?”. Despite the brutal nature of the Christians’ deaths, it seems that they are avenged by history, a sentiment meant for the Christian viewer in particular to absorb.
The calm humility of the Christians is contrasted with the irrational, pleasure-driven mob of Roman citizens. This is shown to moving effect in the scene where the camera cuts rapidly between horrifying footage of lions attacking the Christians and the delighted, jeering crowd. The nature of the settings which each group appears in helps to reinforce this binary. The one significant voluntary gathering of the Christians is their hidden service in the cave, which is structured around an orderly teaching of Jesus’s life. The story told by Peter is intercut with staged reenactments of significant moments, such as the Last Supper, which resemble Renaissance paintings. The figures who act as community leaders are portrayed as knowledgeable men. Paul’s identity is saved through his cover as a philosophy teacher, and Peter, bearded like a traditional wise man, speaks with a measured, thoughtful tone. The Roman populace, conversely, appears most often as a swarm, flocking to places of disorder like the arena and the streets of the triumph. Christianity and its associated values are not only shown as moral, but more rational than those promoted by the Romans.
There is one interesting similarity between Quo Vadis’s diametrically opposed groups—both carry out their ideals on a global scale, though for entirely different purposes. The Christians want to reach others through good works—“to conquer…with love”, as Paul phrases it. The Romans, in turn, are baffled by this concept. “Conquest…is the only method of uniting and civilizing the world…have to spill a little blood to do it,” proclaims Marcus, the epitome of warlike ideal before his transformation. When Marcus accepts Christianity at the film’s end, he muses about “A more permanent world…or a more permanent faith. One is not possible without the other”. It’s a clear call for a mode of governance influenced by a set of values that would have resonated with viewers at the time.