QUO VADIS of course set the ball rolling in 1951, Mervyn LeRoy's spectacular is still an enjoyable treat now and its success at the time provided the impetus for a spate of costume epics. There is a world of difference between the Hollywood epic and the Italian peplum - the latter are made cheaply and the American ones are shot on a grand scale with a seemingly endless budget.
|Elizabeth Taylor in Quo Vadis ?|
Fleisher's BARABBAS from 1961 for DeLaurentiis is a good one to catch now too, with another great cast (Mangano, Quinn, Palance, Gassman etc) and some great set-pieces like that real eclipse of the sun. A stunning soundtrack too by Mario Nascimbene. All the great epics though have great soundtracks: would BEN-HUR be as good without the grandeur of that Miklos Rozsa score which perfectly accompanies the quieter scenes as well as the epic ones? and I loved that Alex North score for CLEOPATRA, that was a well-played soundtrack album. On the peplum front the likes of Steve Reeves, Belinda Lee and others went from film to film, as directors like Sergio Leone (the very inventive THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES) and Mario Bava learned their craft; see Epics label for my recent post on peplums like ATTILA, ULYSSES, APHRODITE etc.
Back though to QUO VADIS - Peter Ustinov as Nero is surely the most scenery-chewing over-the-top performance ever? But as I said in that recent post on De Mille's 1932 SIGN OF THE CROSS (Epics label) (where Charles Laughton is another very perverse Nero) the Christians are so holier than thou. Deborah Kerr is the pious Christian maiden whom hero Robert Taylor falls for - this one too has some good scenes in the arena and that cast of thousands ... the usual suspects are present: Finlay Currie, Felix Aylmer, Nora Swinbourne. Rosalie Crutchley is her usual compelling self too. AND the young Elizabeth Taylor was visiting the set and played one of the Christians in the arena - that great site PEPLUM found this photograph (above) of her on set. Also there was the 16 year old Sophia Loren (and her mother) somewhere among the slave girls - her first movie work; a decade later she would be headlining her own epics. Leo Genn is good too and his love interest is the delightful slave girl played by the very attractive Marina Berti (left) (1924-2002) - she also pops up silently in BEN-HUR as Ben's ladyfriend (right) in the Roman scene (presumably to assert Ben's heterosexuality among all that Messala and Quintus Arrius male bonding..).
The best scene features the wind that suddenly arises and blows away their decadent party after the beheading of John the Baptist. But by the time Beulah Bondi is raised from the dead one is begging for the tepid melodramatics to finish .... but it was one I wanted to see, liking biblicals and peplums as I do. Its major point of interest is that it was directed by the great Frank Borzage, one of cinema's earlier visionaries with that poetic eye (THREE COMRADES, STRANGE CARGO, THE MORTAL STORM - which impressed me so much the first time I saw it on television decades ago). I will always enjoy a good epic or sword-and-sandal peplum, and can happily re-see my favourites anytime .... its what we grew up on in the '50s. If I had to choose one it would be the always-stupendous and majestic EL CID with its great visionary direction by Anthony Mann and those wonderful sets and cast and .... and again that great score...
The giant idol weighted 17 tons and was supported on lintels resting on plaster columns that were narrowed at the base and sent the whole structure, idol and all, toppling when pushed apart. Its almost as good as the pagan idol in THE PRODIGAL, 1955, where Lana (left) in that almost-there outfit is the high priestess guarding the flames ... in that one Edmund Purdom wrestles with a stuffed vulture, perhaps in hommage to Victor with the stuffed lion ... and as we mentioned before 1954's THE SILVER CHALICE is wonderful now, we were very impressed by Jack Palance here as the magician who thinks he can fly ....