‘Quo Vadis’ Was an Appropriate Question to Ask Film in 1913

Note: This is the seventy-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1913 film, QUO VADIS, directed by Enrico Guazzoni.

I feel like I’ve been writing forever about the trials and tribulations of film as it struggled to embrace the feature length container and structure we are now unable to divorce from the concept of a movie. But if there was a year to highlight that transition, 1913 would be the poster child. My list has been full of features for the first time, and the common thread through all five of my essays chronicling the best films of the year is that I actually had quite a lukewarm reaction to most of the films in some way. And that’s because feature filmmaking was in its earliest stages. QUO VADIS (1913) is a perfect film to cap off this year because the very question its title asks would be answered in a few years, if not even just in 1914.

Translated from Latin, quo vadis means “Where are you going?” It is most significant in its religious context in the meeting of Saint Peter and the risen Jesus. But this very film, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, posits the questions for the medium at large: would audiences be content with a diet of short films for the foreseeable future, as the powers that were would have preferred? Or would they want deeper, longer experiences that could be compared to a night at a stage show? In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) cemented the movie-going experience we now know today. Of course, the film was not the first to do many of the things many claim it did first, but its extreme popularity is nothing to dismiss in a historical context. It made a massive impact, and that’s because its epic structure, camera techniques, and historical weight was informed by the early features from Italy…such as QUO VADIS.

But the precipitation of feature filmmaking from as far back as 1911 might have gotten the ball rolling in 1914, the year I personally identify as the beginning of the filmmaking (and Hollywood) structure that would explode in the 1920s and morph into the talkie studio system people so closely associate with the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” This “ball-rolling” was certainly sped up by European films and filmmakers like CABIRIA (1914) and Louis Feuillade. But in America, Griffith would make his first feature, JUDITH OF BETHULIA (1914), pioneering comic actor Mabel Normand would support an up-and-coming comedian named Charlie Chaplin, who would make his first comedy shorts and appear in first feature comedy TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914), and Cecil B. DeMille would direct his first film, THE SQUAW MAN (1914), often cited as the first feature film made in Hollywood. Winsor McCay released GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1914), Mary Pickford became an international star after her performance in TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY (1914), and THE HAZARDS OF HELEN (1914–17) and THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1914) helped popularize the serial film format in America.

In short, 1914 was great and important. And there were plenty of shades of that in 1913. But it was truly the end of a brief era, beginning in 1909, that I kind of see as the creep into more complicated films and the eve of the migration west, to Hollywood. And as mentioned, European films had a great influence on that, just a few years removed from their impact in their native countries. QUO VADIS is often called one of the earliest blockbusters of cinema, and has much in common with the epics we now associate with filmmakers like the contemporaneous DeMille.

But, as I alluded, I was somewhat underwhelmed by QUO VADIS. It’s an important film, but one that is not exactly fun for all of its nearly two-hour run time. It was this length, and its over 5,000 extras and lavish costumes and sets, that drew praise at the time. But today, the film’s stage influences slow the film to a crawl at times. It’s a story I’ve told many times, so I won’t continue it here.

What QUO VADIS does well is establish a complicated, political drama that weaves the agendas of disparate characters into a story with historical context. In this, it’s quite like another 1913 favorite, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1913). The two films are actually eerily similar, although QUO VADIS released first. They both deal with forbidden love, scheming from despotic rulers, and a whole lot of fire and smoke that brings down buildings. QUO VADIS’ central characters, however, are somehow even more unlikable than those of THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII. The film, based on an 1896 novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz, follows Marcus Vinicius, an officer of the Roman emperor Nero. He falls in love with a Christian and makes her his slave; this Lycia slowly falls in love with him as well.

This dynamic is very close to the one portrayed in THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, but in that film, the slave’s love is unrequited. It lends a bit of sympathy to the character, in addition to the fact that she was saved from crueler masters. In QUO VADIS, Vinicius just takes Lycia from her family. They’re both not situations in which you’re necessarily rooting for the love, but the behavior of Vinicius is immediately reprehensible.

But, maybe, that’s the point. Nero, who is given a fine performance by Carlo Cattaneo, is a good villain, and his treatment of the Christians is meant to stir up some Jesus love. The Great Fire of Rome as the brainchild of the maniacal emperor and the siccing of his lions on the scapegoated Christians will lead you to feel for the then-marginalized group. By the way, the lions are shown chewing on some meat in robes, which is super morbid and surprising! Visual thrills like these are sparse amid the scheming, miscommunication, and dramatic conversations that are the main thrust of the film, so they stand out. Those machinations can be confusing and dry, but it belies a commitment to the epic that shorts just never could pull off. QUO VADIS maintains a massive cast of characters, and the dynamics between them are archetypal and satisfying in their own biblical way.

Like THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, QUO VADIS features a scene of disaster, fire, and smoke that crumbles the majestic architecture of a Roman city (in this case, well, Rome). But unlike THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, it takes place like half an hour before the end of QUO VADIS, which makes it feel somewhat anti-climactic. I understand the narrative considerations, but it’s a high point that leads the film to kind of peter out.

That’s besides the great little final shot of Jesus “holding court” in front of a luminous cross, a great final shot that’s certainly removed from the rest of the film because it carries a sharpness that I wish was present more often in the rest of the film. But QUO VADIS does contain spectacular sets and costumes, especially for the era, and my appreciation for it primarily lies in its commitment to its scope. It is essentially Guazzoni’s best known work, and for good reason. It was part of an Italian crucible that gave us the birth of cinema as we know it. QUO VADIS is a difficult film to turn to for a great time, but for an appreciation of the artistic bounds of the year, it is worth watching.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.