Quo Vadis?: the slaves defeat the masters

Dr Kevin Brianton

Honorary Associate: La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Director Mervyn Le Roy (centre with pale trousers) jokes with Deborah Kerr on the set. Le Roy further developed the themes of the doomed empire.  Quo Vadis? focused on the burning of Rome by Emperor Nero and the martyrdom of early Christians. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Samson and Delilah’s successor Quo Vadis? (1951), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, built on the ideas of its predecessor. Quo Vadis? focused on the burning of Rome by Emperor Nero and the martyrdom of early Christians.  The film opened with columns of victorious troops returning to Rome after crushing a rebellion in Britain with the following voice over:

Imperial Rome is the centre of the empire.  An undisputed master of the world, but with power inevitably comes corruption.  No man is sure of his life.  The individual is at the mercy of the State.  Murder replaces justice.  Rulers of conquered nations surrendered their helpless subjects to bondage.  High and low alike become Roman slaves, Roman hostages.  There is no escape form the whip and the sword.  That any force on earth can shake this foundation, this pyramid of power and corruptions, of human misery and slavery seems inconceivable.  But 30 years before this day, on a Roman cross in Judea a miracle occurred.  A man died to make man free.  To spread the gospel of love and redemption.  Soon that cross will replace the proud eagles of the Roman legions.[1]

The opening lines anticipate the cold war speeches of Secretary of States Dulles.  ‘The individual at the mercy of the State’ sounds remarkably like Dulles’ belief tat the Soviets treated ‘human beings as primarily important from the standpoint of how much they can produce for the glorification of the state.’  And because of this failure to respect human values, the Roman State was doomed.  The cross of Christianity would replace the eagle of the Romans.  The slaves would defeat the masters.

Quo Vadis? began with the return of the victorious General Marcus Vinicius, played by Robert Taylor, from his battles in Britain.  He was a proud and stern commander who would have a soldier flogged for any disobedience.  He desired a Christian woman Lydia, played by Deborah Kerr.  She refused his advances because he owned slaves.  One of the major criticisms the Christians make of the Roman empire in the film is that they have slaves.  Indeed Lydia refused to marry Vinicius unless he gave all his slaves freedom.  George MacDonald Fraser in his survey of Hollywood’s historical epics has pointed out that the film is incorrect in its attempt to depict the early Christians as being anti-slavery.  He argues that Hollywood was always eager to suggest that its heroes were champions of universal liberty.  This was not the case as there were slave owners and slave dealers among the Christians.[2]  The biblical epics were not interested in historical accuracy, they were interested in presenting religion as a vibrant and powerful force against tyrannies.  To do so, the filmmakers were prepared to stretch an historical point or two to get their message across.  As a consequence, the early Christians were depicted as being against slavery.

Vinicius arranged through Emperor Nero for Lydia to be bought to him.  While pursuing Lydia, Vinicius began to see the justness of the Christian cause after hearing St Peter speak.  In the interim, Nero burned Rome and then attempted to use the Christians as a scapegoat for the burning.  When the Romans condemned St Peter, Christianity was represented as a rebellion against a totalitarian state.  The Romans said that Peter had preached blasphemy against the emperor and was crucified as a warning to all Christians.[3]

The Christians bravely sang hymns as they were devoured by lions or crucified or burnt to death.  Eventually the Roman crowd, moved by the courage of the Christians, revolted against Nero.  Vinicius and his new wife Lydia left Rome while order was restored.  At the conclusion of the film, Vinicius watched the Roman army march into restore order and reflected on the decline of Roman and other powers.

VINICIUS:Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  What follows?
SOLDIER:A more permanent world I hope?  With a more permanent faith?
VINICIUS:One is not possible without the other.[4]

LeRoy and his writers were arguing that the true faith of Christianity was the real foundation for an empire.  Empires built on different faiths would crumble, just as the Roman empire had fallen.  This message, which foreshadowed Dulles’ Watertown address would have been deeply reassuring for the American public who had witnessed the growth of communism following the Second World War.  The cultural myth created by these films said that despite its power and success, communism would collapse when faced with the Christian spirit of America.


[1] Quo Vadis?, (d) Mervyn Le Roy, (w) John Lee Marhin, S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien.

[2] George MacDonald Fraser, Hollywood History of the World, Michael Joseph, London, 1988, p. 22.

[3] Quo Vadia? Op cit.

[4] Quo Vadis? op cit.

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