- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tyranny demonstrates so much staying power from century to century that it’s difficult to believe human nature is as ill-disposed to infamy as it should be.

The tyrants of antiquity, whose rapacities have become legendary, may also benefit from doubts about the accuracy of the historical record.

Nero has enjoyed a longer run as a theatrical and cinematic tyrant than he did as a notorious Roman emperor, dead at the age of about 30 in A.D. 68, with the persecution of Christians, the patronage of blood sports and the burning of Rome (possibly a bad rap) as his most enduring claims on posterity. A good deal of what we think we know about Nero can probably be traced to a once prestigious historical novel, “Quo Vadis,” written by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz and first published serially in 1895.

The international success of the novel was no doubt pivotal in the author’s selection in 1905 as an early Nobel Prize winner in literature. The first auspicious movie versions were mounted by Italians, the masters of cinematic spectacle before World War I. In 2001, a Polish production company caught up with the source material. A television miniseries of 1985 cast Klaus Maria Brandauer as Nero.

Emil Jannings played the emperor in a silent version of 1925. Anglo-American moviegoers remain most familiar with Charles Laughton in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 film “The Sign of the Cross” and Peter Ustinov in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 production of “Quo Vadis” for MGM, one of the pre-eminent hits of my youth, which never seemed to lack for biblical spectacles.

Ostensibly, “The Sign of the Cross” derived from a play by Wilson Barrett, first staged a year after the publication of “Quo Vadis.” The plot of Mr. Barrett’s play closely resembled the plot of Mr. Sienkiewicz’s novel. In each work a proud Roman soldier, Fredric March as Marcus Superbus in “Cross” and Robert Taylor as Marcus Vinicius in “Quo Vadis,” is smitten with a pious Christian maid, Elissa Landi’s Mercia opposite Mr. March and Deborah Kerr’s Ligia opposite Mr. Taylor.

This attraction ultimately trumps loyalty to the crazed and corrupt emperor, not to mention the lust of empress Poppaea, who can’t resist a Marcus in uniform. Though still a nonbeliever, Marcus Superbus is willing to join the imprisoned Mercia as lion bait in the Colosseum. The film’s one claim on dramatic superiority to “Quo Vadis” is this final tragic-heroic gesture, elevated scenically and emotionally as the lovers mount a steep flight of steps leading to a massive dungeon door and the floor of the arena.

In retrospect, you’re surprised that Cecil B. DeMille deploys both Mr. Laughton’s Nero and Claudette Colbert’s Poppaea so fitfully. Each gets a promising gaudy introduction, the actor laughing and plucking a lyre while exulting, “Burn, Rome, burn!” and the actress making one tantalizing undulation after another.

Piety doesn’t energize Mr. DeMille’s pictorial imagination until the finale. More often than not, his attention seems to flag unless there’s something outrageous to depict.

“Quo Vadis” tones down the potential prurience and sadism while offering generous helpings of Mr. Ustinov as a pouty-lipped, pathetically capricious and grandiloquent Nero, simultaneously flattered and mocked by his most sophisticated courtier, Leo Genn as Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Both were nominated for the Academy Award as best supporting actor and probably split enough votes to make it easier for Karl Malden to win for his role as Mitch in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Even so, it’s a little surprising that Mr. Ustinov didn’t run away with the category. The membership got a second opportunity to honor him in Roman disguise a decade later when he played the gladitorial impresario in “Spartacus.” This opportunity resulted in an Oscar.

Originally a John Huston project at MGM , “Quo Vadis” ended up with a different director, producer and cast when an injury to Gregory Peck, chosen to play Marcus Vinicius opposite Elizabeth Taylor’s Ligia, forced a postponement. Nevertheless, allegorical elements envisioned by Mr. Huston and the historical consultant, Hugh Gray, remained a part of the conception.

These amounted to suggesting parallels between Nero and Adolf Hitler. The affinities are deftly articulated, without forcing anachronisms, and the most recent cinematic portrait of Hitler, in “Downfall,” tends to reinforce one resemblance in particular: the conviction in each tyrant that his subjects proved unworthy of his visionary genius.

TITLE: “The Sign of the Cross”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1932, decades before the advent of the film rating system; occasional sadistic and salacious episodes)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Screenplay by Waldemar Young and Sidney Buchman, based on the play by Wilson Barrett. Cinematography by Karl Struss. Art direction by Mitchell Leisen (uncredited). Costume design by Mr. Leisen. Music by Rudolph Kopp.

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

DVD EDITION: Universal Studios Home Entertainment (part of “Cecil B. DeMille Collection”)

WEB SITE: www.universalstudioshomeentertainment.com

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TITLE: “Quo Vadis”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1951; some discreet depiction of violence and persecution in ancient Rome)

CREDITS: Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Produced by Sam Zimbalist. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S.N. Behrman and Sonya Levien, based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Cinematography by Robert Surtees. Art direction by William A. Horning, Cedric Gibbons and Edward Carfagno. Historical adviser: Hugh Gray. Music by Miklos Rozsa.

RUNNING TIME: 174 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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