Quo Vadis, the master piece written by Henryk Sienkiewicz in the 19th century, is one of the best historical books ever published. The deceptively simple summary from Wikipedia is a good enough point to get started with the plot: 

The novel Quo Vadis tells of a love that develops between a young Christian woman, Ligia (or Lygia), and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician. It takes place in the city of Rome under the rule of emperor Nero, circa AD 64.

However, this is just scratching the surface of things. No other book described the everyday life of Romans so well, or the way they mentally processed things and perceived life and the world around them. Sienkiewicz literary goes into The Romans head with impressive skills and knowledge (he was crazy prepared and did extensive research - you can see it on every page!) 

The book, like many great pieces of literature, was filmed several times - with varying degrees of success. Several movies mentioned here are considered absolute classics and are mandatory holiday viewings. Now, I want to compare these movies. Ž
PS: Note that Sign of the cross is not directly Quo Vadis, but was based on it, with some notable differences, and it was filmed twice.  

The movies I have seen are:
- Sign of the cross (1914)
- Quo Vadis (1924)
-The Sign of the Cross (1932))
-Quo Vadis (1951)
-Quo Vadis (1985)
-Quo Vadis (2001)

The silent version was made in a completely different medium, so I won't mentioned it any further. 

Despite the fact that they come from the same source material, all of the versions are vastly different, much more so than Pride and prejudice, Jane Eyre and similar books. This a double edged sword – for one, it makes the diversity greater and all of them are worth watching, with new and unexpected things to discover. But, this very difference makes them hard to compare them fully, if not fairly. 

Some fundamental similarities can still be critically compared, like the characters. We all know the story revolves around soldier Marcus Vinicius, and his intense lust/love for slave girl Lygia. They are either aided or hindered in their road to bliss by Marcus' uncle Petronious, Roman emperor Nero and so on. 

What I am interested in is the portrait of Marcus Vinicius, the main man character of the book. Why? 

Because, IMHO, no actor so far has nailed Vinicius the way I would stop and say, this is it! In my humble opinion, the difficult roles like Darcy, Heathcliff and Rochester have been tackled with great success and for each I can say „This is it!“ (oh yes, Timothy Dalton is the perfect Rochester!)

Unfortunately, Vinicius has not been as lucky and as blessed – at least not yet. I still hope, in my heart, that one day a supreme interpretation of this work shall be made (preferably by BBC and with a stunning all British cast). It is by far the most difficult role to play in the adaptations, and by far the most misunderstood. 

But, for now, let's look at the assortment of performances we already have and analyse them:

1932 version: Played by Frederic March

First, let's starts with the sentiment that Frederick March is a fabulous, top class actor. While back in 1932, when the movie was made, he was 36 years old, he had not yet come to his best time as a actor (that came later in the decade, and in the 1940s, although his prolific career went all the way up to the 1960s), but he was already well versed in the theater and had acting experience galore.

March is very, very, very good as Marcus Superbus (what a tacky, campy name!). Of course, this is not Vinicius – the differences are there and are obvious – but he still manages to capture some essence of the character and is overall a pretty good match.

March looks ridiculous at times with a ton of make up - the reason is too much foundation and terrible eyeliner for a man (guyliner!! ha ha ha). He has more make up than the leading lady, Elissa Landi, which makes for some funny moments when the two are pitted against one another in several scenes – it's so obvious she has minimal make up and he is almost like a drag queen.

However, this was quite usual in the old days of silent movies – watch any movie to see it for yourself, the old version of Quo Vadis from 1925 is enough to attest to this claim, and it is hardly's March's fault he was so badly plastered.

March's Superbus is fundamental a strong, capable soldier, but when he deals with Lygia, he turns into a chevalier and a gentleman. He is a bit too experienced for the youthful Vinicius of the books, but when he loves, he loves hard - when he wants something, he's aflame with passion. This is what Vinicius is all about - untamed, wild with emotions that he slowly learns to hold under reign... March is a master at playing these characters - didn't he give us a wonderful Mr. Jekyll/Dr. Hyde

The last scene, where he decides to die with Lyga for the sake of her religious ideals, is March's cup de garce in the movie. He is mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, and acts with such conviction that even we, the audience, feel the need to push him to do it – despite the lunacy and sheer madness of it.

Superbus does not die for religion – but rather for love. And he is more than swoon worthy in the process. As I said, in his essence, he is the best match for Vinicius of all the actors assorted here. But let's find out more about them before we make a final judgement... 

1951 version: Played by Robert Taylor

Let me say that I simply adore Robert Taylor. He was a strange, but highly successful blend of two types of male beauty – an androgynous beauty with a baby face and the sharp handsomeness of a manly men. When I saw Taylor in Camille with Greta Garbo, I just melted at the sight of two such divinely perfect, stunning people next to one another- one of the most visually impressive pairings ever, if you can agree (Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, in their early days, were a similar coupling in my eyes).

But, Tayor is completely, utterly miscast as Vinicius.

First, he is way too old to be Vinicius. Let us face it – Taylor was a heavy smoker (who died from lung cancer) – who aged badly, and it shows in this movie. He was 40 during its filming – and when you compare the 40 –ish, mature Taylor with the boyish 25 year old Taylor, the difference is vast. Gone are the pretty features that made him such a interesting mix and a more crude, more crass man emerges. No, Taylor never fully lost his beauty – you can still see the perfect profile, and the deep blue eyes – but the youthful spark, the initial energy, the joie de vivre I sensed in Camille has been lost.

Some actors had it better, some worse - for instance, Henry Fonda looked youthful well into his 40s, as did Gregory Peck. Another man who lost his youthful beauty was also William Holden, a stunner in his 20s, by his 40s he was a shadow of his former self, barely recognizable and a visible alcoholic.

Luckily, Taylor got onto his own as an actor only after he lost his looks. The newly gained, masculine strike served him well in loves like Baatan, where there was no place for pretty boys he so often  played in the 1930s. The irony is, while it did help him to achieve a good career in his waning years, in Quo Vadis it did him a disservice.

When Taylor as Vinicius meets with Petronius and calls him "uncle" I almost choked, as Taylor actually looks older than Leo Genn who plays Petronius in this version. Glenn, who, despite being 4 years older in real life, was so well preserved and had such a timeless masculine look about himself that he cold actually pass for somebody who was (perpetually) in his late 30s.

Secondly, Taylor's acting is generally dead wrong for Vinicius. He is too „American“. I know that nobody can ever really act the way that the Romans were in those ages – nobody can know for sure how they lived. However, there is a standard cannon for acting in these time periods: having a British cast who use the traditional acting style, with heavily accented Queens English. This is, in terms being truly authentic,  completely wrong, but it is a cannon so well woven into our mindset that I find it hard to digest anything that deviates too much from it's standardized paths (Game of thrones is a good modern example).

In this regard, Taylor is just "too much". He speaks, acts and goes around more like a colonel of the American troupes during WW2 than any Roman general I can think of. Also, to placate his age, Taylor's Vinicius has been promoted from a solider to a commander – he is actually the leader of the Glorious march into Rome – something that is far removed from Vinicius in the book, where he is a young foot soldier who just touched the tip of the iceberg called life. 

By making him more mature, the movie Vinicius deviates from the original character. As a direct result of his new found maturity, he cannot be the young, inexperienced man prone to intense outbursts of  feeling. It's clear anyone surrendering to those „vices“ would never climb to the rank of Commander, let alone merit such a glorious homecoming.

The books Vinicius is million miles removed from this. He is almost a teenager, full of himself, a crass, crude Roman chauvinist who takes what he wants and devil-may-care about the rest. He is from a good family, an inherent snob, and sees everybody non-patrician as below himself. Taylor doesn't even remotely play Vinicius this way. While there are some flickers of passion, he is more sedate and hard bitten, like somebody who has seen it all and lived to tell the tale - which book Vinicius has not, for sure. 

But, I do not mean to say that Taylor is a complete waste of an thespian. He plays Vicinious the wrong way – compared to the book – but he is a capable actor who tuned in a performance that might be off the mark, but is not a bad or an unbearable one. He pulls of the love scenes between him and Lygia quite nicely, and he is more than adequate in the action scenes. 

Luckily, he had a top notch actress playing against him – Deborah Kerr – and he rubs of some of her genius acting that it actually seems he is on her level, acting-wise (and trust me, he is not).

All and all, a miss, but a valiant one. 

1985 Version – Played by Francesco Quinn

Let me start to say that I think that Anthony Quinn is a great actor who deserved every award given to him. Sadly, his son, Francesco Quinn, is not. 
Francesco, who was Anthony's son by his second marriage, plays the worst Vinicius ever.
Be not fooled – in Quo Vadis, Vinicius is the toughest role to play. One can easily cheat then they play either Nero or Petronius – which has been doe before, especially in the 1951 version. There, Peter Ustinov hams it up as Nero, making him an almost parody of a complete nutcase, and Petronious can be pulled as elegant dandy by any actor who has that „English elegance“ (heck, even Noel Coward could have been Petronious). Here is no such shortcut to be had with Vinicius.

As the male protagonist he is bared to the bone in the novel – and nothing is left to the imagination of the reader, which in this case is good (otherwise he would be drafted as an almost negative character. If, for instance, the book was written from the point of Petronius only, most of us would see Vinicius as a total wastrel and idiot obsessed over a girl he practically lusts after and does not love in the beginning). 

First, let's go back to Anthony Quinn. Quinn is a great actor, but he was never typical love interest for one reason – his looks. He was an average looking guy, and we know that this is sub-par for Hollywood, who prefers their men in the league of Robert Taylor and Rock Hudson. Neither Robert nor Rock were great actors (Hudson, in my opinion, was a terrible actor) – but both consistently played romantic leads in a wide array of shallow movies and achieved international success. Quinn achieved success by being a top notch actor who constantly belted finely tuned performances that sometime rose to the rank of „great performances“ (Greek Zorba, Greek Zorba!).
The Younger Quinn looks stunningly like his father – but the similarities end here. Sadly. 
One thing of Vinicius is nailed right  in Quinn – his age. He is the only actor who played Vinicius that is the right age  – Vinicius is about 20 – 23 when the novel opens. He is young, inexperienced, full of life and zest, and lounges head first into things without really ever contemplating or planning on how to get them trough. He is extremity hard headed, impulsive and poised to win at any cost. 

Quinn's Vinicius, altough just as young, is nothing I mentioned. He is a meek, spineless, painfully lukewarm character who so easily blends into the background that he almost disapears with the furniture. Everybody overshadows him in this production- first and foremost Lygia, then his uncle, Petrinious, and in the end, Nero. 

To add worry to insult, in addition to a character written so bland he can hardy be interesting, Quinn nails the coffin by being , by far, the worst actor in the whole series. He is like a dead fish, passionless, without any conviction in his voice, stature or ideal – something that is utterly alien to the Vinicius of the book, who is steaming with youthful power and passion and wants to live, to experience things. At times, he is like a wraith lit aflame with his obsession with Lygia, a man poised to go to the ends of the earth to achieved the thing that he cares about. The difference between the book Vinicious and how Quinn plays him is so palpable, so acute that I disliked Quinn almost from the first episode, and the motion never left me as the series progressed. 

How can he be so bad in a cast of such great actors is a mystery to me. A sore, sore disappointment. This version of Quo Vadis shifts the focal point from the lovers to the general overview of the Roman society, so he has it a bit easier, but still, instead of trying to salvage his role, Quinn only buried it deeper and deeper. While perfect in age and tolerable in looks (although, IMHO; he is not handsome enough – it may sound a bit lame, but in the book it is clear that Vinicius is the example ofa  handsome youth – a tall, lean and mean Apollo, the very picture of the famous Roman health  – Quinn is an average looking guy who I would never call the shining example of anything), there is nothing to recommend him. NOTHING.  
A totally missed role… And I mean totally... 

2001 version: Played by Pawel Delag

2001 – Ah, Pawel Delag. The only Polish actor to play this role. 

A brief detour first. Let me say, I a a tough cookie to please when man are concerned. I have strange tastes and often do not find conventional handsome  men interesting – but Delag had me swooning the minute I saw him walk down Petronious' hallway. What a man! So, the first impression was without a doubt a good one. 

Delag was also too old for Vinicius – at 30 – but it is hardly visible as he looks youthful enough, and has a vigor I have not seen in the previous actors.

What is more important – Delag is a solid actor. But he is still NOT a great actor.There are moments in his acting that are simply not enough to pull of Vinicius of as he should be "pulled" – the wild passion and inner fire.

Delag lacks the powerful body language that is very much needed for such a demanding role. One of the toughest scenes to play – and one that has often been omitted from the other versions - is when the slaves return to Vinicius' house without Lygia, whom he expected so he can marry her. And then, Vinicius simply... Blows up. And does some pretty bad things to his servants. Pretty bad.  

The novels clearly shows a Vinicius we had not seen before – the barbaric, rampant part of him that he kept under warps with his „civilized behavior“. His voice turns „inhuman“, the look in his eyes grows beastly. I cannot imagine this an easy scene to play, with any actor, no matter how good he is. And Delag fails. Yes, he does show  degree of pure savage emotion, but it does not run deep enough, does not touch profoundly enough. I do not understand his obsession, his desperation. I do not see it or feel it.  

But, he is much better Vinicius than either Taylor or Quinn. He is very handsome – physically totally in sync what I imagine Vinicius to be (sans the merged eyebrows described in the book – I think we can go without that one), and has a commanding voice and does many things right. He is more wide eyed and enthusiastic than all the rest of the actors (except maybe March). He and Lygia make a great couple visually – he a dark haired Apollo, she a fair-haired Aphrodite - and their chemistry is not all too bad. Too bad Lygia is a lackluster actress (model turned actress, argh, often a recipe for disaster) - but he makes it work, in the long run. 


So, what can I say? Delag takes the cake, but only barely. But, the ultimate actor has yet to come. Let us hope that some day, the prince on the white horse will come and finally play this character as it should be played. And good riddance until then! 

Published by Stela Zoric