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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Quo Vadis

As the pool of epic movies yet to be released on DVD diminishes, each release that does appear seems to become all the more significant. Warner Home Video has issued an impressive Two-Disc Special Edition of the 1951 MGM production, Quo Vadis. 1951, remember, was before widescreen or stereo sound was utilized to make such movies really special, but at 174 minutes, with an Overture and Exit Music (there is no Intermission), the film still conveys the kind of ‘event’ atmosphere that encourages a viewer to set aside an afternoon or evening for uninterrupted escapism. Directed byMervyn LeRoy, the film depicts the final days of Nero’s rule in Rome. It is stated in the opening narration that Nero is an ‘antichrist,’ and the term is not employed for exploitation or nonsense. The film is about the spread of Christianity in Rome, and in addition to the conversion the hero, a Roman commander played by Robert Taylor, undergoes over the course of the story, the film doesn’t just present the teachings of Christ and what it means to be a Christian, it also presents the opposite sort of behavior, ideally embodied in Peter Ustinov’s sniveling, self-centered and empathy-lacking Nero. Ustinov’s performance may be over the top in places-there are moments in the movie that are stodgy, wrongly exaggerated or otherwise mishandled by LeRoy-but the essence of what Ustinov does is highly enjoyable and quite memorable-a regular poster boy for how one should never conduct oneself. Taylor’s character converts because he falls for a Christian played by Deborah Kerr, and this being the movies, the film’s other lesson seems to be that a person’s moral conscience is formed in the crucible of sexual desire. For 1951, the film’s period detail and special effects are outstanding, and even for today’s viewers, its depiction of Roman life is not entirely dismissible. Action scenes occur at regular intervals, and there is a wide enough range of characters to make their exchanges continually intriguing. Ultimately, however, there just are not enough movies staged as grandly or as meticulously as the film has been conceived and executed, and it is for this reason as much as any other that Quo Vadis is an overdue and very welcome addition to the DVD catalog.

The film is spread to two platters with a somewhat arbitrary break separating the first part from the second part. The full screen picture is darn near flawless. It looks so good, in fact, that you can easily make out some of the matte work, although the best effects remain completely invisible (those aren’t people in the upper decks of the Colosseum, even though they look like they’re moving around). Fleshtones are precise and the costumes have vivid textures. The monophonic sound, which supports an appropriately ambitious Miklos Rosza musical score, is stable and clear. There is an alternate French audio track and optional English, French, Spanish and Japanese subtitles. The first platter contains two trailers. The second platter has a comprehensive 45-minute retrospective documentary, and on both platters, film historian F.X. Sweeny supplies a commentary track, with some redundancy to the documentary, talking about the cast and crew, its interesting production history (John Huston did substantial pre-production work before dropping out; this was the movie that rebuilt Rome’s Cinecitta studio after the war), the effects and other aspects of the film’s artistry. There are gaps in his talk, but it is reasonably extensive, and he is actually at his best when discussing the movie’s philosophical meanings. “You’re not concerned about Christ’s divinity when you’re talking about Christian times, what you’re talking about is the revolution that he sparked with the word, ‘love.’ Love was not regarded as much of anything except maybe an erotic pastime in the times prior to the rise of Christianity, and love here is seen as something more, something more profound, something that actually exists outside of oneself in a way. And that idea is being dramatized here, that’s what is taking Rome over and shaking Rome to its roots because if you are capable of a love that’s greater than just your own selfish desire, then, of course, you’re capable of being a free person, under yourself. And that is the opposition to slavery that is being dramatized quite skillfully throughout the film.”

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon