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.

Samson and Delilah – the rise of the anticommunist biblical epic.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In 1948, film producer and director Leo McCarey, who was one of the most vocal anti-communist figures in Hollywood, wrote an article for The New York Times on the need for films with religious themes.[1]  McCarey wrote that the film industry had a tremendous opportunity for ‘education, enlightenment, and influence’.  He claimed there was a growing plea for motion pictures with a religious influence.  McCarey called for religious pictures that entertained.

In Samson and Delilah, director Cecil B. DeMille had hit on a successful formula of a powerful and corrupt empire succumbing to the spiritual strength of the Jews or Christians. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Religion and its principles can be absorbingly and tellingly presented within the basic screen itself.  After all, the cinema would soon lose its influence, if it lost the primary function of entertainment.  As an example, the unentertaining, heavy handed pounding of a theme is one of the mistakes which the Communists repeatedly make in the filming of their Soviet propaganda.  Pictures which are so colossally dull that their points, if any, are already lost. [2]

McCarey argued for the tactful and tasteful use of religious stories to show the ‘goodness of good as against the banality and wastefulness of those living without beliefs.[3]  By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism.  McCarey wanted religious films to be more effective propaganda than the Soviet efforts and he waned Hollywood to contribute to ensuring a deeper belief in religion throughout the world.  He looked forward to the production of The Robe to demonstrate he strength of his arguments.

On the same page, just below McCarey’s article, was a few notes on the production of a major biblical film called Samson and Delilah (1949).  The film was directed by the ultra-conservative Cecil B. DeMille who followed McCarey’s call for religious films with a message for the audience.  DeMille felt strongly that communism was a dangerous threat to world peace.  In fact Samson and Delilah (1949) had a message which matched his cold war views.  DeMille had been an active anti-communist in Hollywood politics.  He was praised by congressman John Rankin as being ‘literally burned up with the Communist activities of these subversive elements’ in Hollywood.[4]    He was a key player in Hollywood’s anti-communist community.  His films also strongly reflected his anti-communism.  DeMille spoke on the radio before the world premiere:

All the arts for 30 centuries have told the story of Samson and Delilah to all the peoples of the world.  They saw in Samson’s struggle something that is deep in all of us, a desire to be free form fear, tyranny and enslavement, a desire that should be in men’s hearts today.  To keep our liberty and freedom and let no man or men destroy or take them away.[6]

In a speech at Paramount Studios on 27 September 1950, where workers signed a ‘declaration of freedom’, he made his position on freedom clear.

The difference between Communism and freedom is not primarily political – or economic – or national.  It is expressed in one line in the Declaration of Freedom which you are asked to sign today – the line that reads: ‘I believe that all men derive the right to freedom equally under God.’  That is one of the most revolutionary lines that could be written.  Over against it stands the black reaction of the Kremlin, the idea that the creator and lord of human rights is not Got by Stalin.  Today, we make our choice – for slavery under Stalin or freedom under God…[7]

These ideas of freedom were weaved into DeMille’s biblical epics.  Samson and Delilah opens with a globe spinning in a greenish mist and the narrator DeMille saying:

Before the dawn of history, ever since the first man discovered his soul, he has struggled against the forces that sought to enslave him.  He saw the awful power of nature arrayed against him, the evil eye of lighting, the terrifying voice of thunder, the shrieking wind filled darkness enslaving his mind with shackles of fear.  Fear bred superstition, blinding his reason.  He was ridden by a host of devil gods, human dignity ravaged on the altar of idolatry and tyranny rose, grinding the human spirit beneath the conqueror’s free mind.

But deep in mans heart, still burned the unquenchable will for freedom.  When this divine spark inflames the heart of some mortal, whether priest or soldier, artist or patriot, lover or statesman, his deeds have changed the course of human events and his name survives the ages.[8]

The scene was set for conflict between Samson, who was a combination of ‘greatness and weakness’, and the Philistine empire.  The Philistines had held the Israelites in bondage and Samson wanted only ‘liberty for his nation’.[9]  In the Declaration of Independence, the United States was described as the land where the inalienable rights were the ‘preservation of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.  The word ‘liberty’ was a clever and deliberate choice by DeMille and his writers to link the plight of the Israelites with America’s struggle for independence.

On the other side of the fence, the Philistines were depicted an evil totalitarian power, mostly dressed in red.  In one scene the Philistine lord of Gaza looked down at his ant nest and marveled how the master ants dominated the slave ants.  For the Philistine emperor, this was the natural order, just as the Jews were to be dominated by the Philistines.  The emperor instructed a guard on the merits of the social organisation of ants and how they should follow them.

The Philistines were a strong military power, but it was the spiritual strength of the Danites that eventually overcame the tyrants.  In one scene, Samson fought and destroyed the Philistine army with the jaw bone of an ass.  Samson’s strength was derived solely from God and when he chose the beautiful, but deadly, Delilah over the virtuous, but plain, Miranda, the source of his strength was betrayed and he was captured and tortured.  In the final scene, Samson was led into a huge temple where the massive statute of the false Philistine God Dogan stood.  Blinded and humiliated by the Philistines, Samson called on God and then demolished the temple singlehandedly.  The God of the Philistines, Dagon, was sent crushing down and all of the Philistines in the huge temple were destroyed.  The slaves had defeated the masters.

In Samson and Delilah, director Cecil B. DeMille had hit on a successful formula of a powerful and corrupt empire succumbing to the spiritual strength of the Jews or Christians.  It was no surprise to learn that Arnold Toynbee soon began lecturing on Samson and Delilah.[10]  DeMille took great care in making sure that his films communicated the right political message.  He was anxious that the picture would not be seen to parallel the events around the establishment of Israel.  The word Jew was never used throughout the picture, instead the director chose the word Danites, because Samson derived from the tribe of Dan.[11]


[1] New York Times 12 December 1948.

[2] New York Times 12 December 1948.  When McCarey had an opportunity to write and direct his own anti-communist film, the same criticisms could easily be applied to him.  See discussion on My Son John in blog on anti-communist films.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Congressional Record, 91, part 6, 17 July 1945, p. 7337.

[5] Sayre, Running Time, p. 207.  DeMille’s secretary Gladys Rosson wrote to the foundation on at lease one occasion to find out the political credentials of directors Herbert Biberman, Vincent Sherman, Irving Pichel, and Frank Tuttle.  DeMille Foundation For Political Freedom to Gladys Rosson, 7 April 1947, Box 124, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.

[6] Cecil B. DeMille, Speech before World Premiere of Samson and Delilah, on 21 December 1949, Box 629, Folder 8 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[7] Cecil B. DeMille, Crusade For Freedom, speech to workers at Paramount Studio on 27 September 1950.  Box 212 Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[8] Samson and Delilah, (d) Cecil B. DeMille, (w) Jesse L. Lasky Jr, Frederick M. Frank.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Houston Post, 8 September 1949.

[11] New York Times, 14 December 1948.