Special Episode – Quo Vadis (1951) – Part Two

The Partial Historians

Special Episode – Quo Vadis (1951) – Part Two

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.
Source: Pinterest.

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’s Testimony

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.
Source: Pinterest

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!

Sound Credit

Thanks to the fabulous Bettina Joy de Guzman for our theme music.

Our Sources

  • 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 RomeCinema 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.
Source: ievenn