This is a movie that never quite works for me, as much as I want it to. It is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, from the costumes to the sets to the matte shots to the gigantic crowd scenes, it is big and BIGGER and always pretty. I love this about the film. I love that about epics in general. But the story? Simply doesn't work for me. There just isn't any substance to it.
The biggest problem for me is love story between the two main characters of Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) and Lygia (Deborah Kerr), as it is supposed to provide the emotional core to this story. I didn't buy it at all. Marcus Vinicius is an arrogant jerk who thinks he can take what he want. He's in lust with her, not love, and I don't mind that. That seems realistic. What I mind is that Lygia falls for him, when he gives her ZERO reason to do so (other than he's handsome and Robert Taylor, but yanno, that ain't enough). She's a smart and caring girl, true to her religious convictions, and she wouldn't give his character the time of day, particularly after he forcibly has her removed from her life and everything she loves, just so he can make time with her. This would still all work if his character showed more depth than a shoebox. The best love stories often start with two diametrically opposed characters, but there has to be something good or redeeming about the jerk so we can believe a girl would fall for him. And he does change his ways over the course of the film, but I don't particularly buy that change either. Vinicius's flatness is partly Robert Taylor's fault -- he does not particularly convey anything more going on in his heart beyond what's on the surface -- but mostly, it's the script's failure. This is a script that tells, not shows.
The love story that does work for me in this film is that of Petronius and Eunice. Now, they're convincing, and touching, and feel genuine. Petronius is one of the better characters in the movie. He's played by Leo Genn, who always turns in first rate work. I mostly know him from Moby Dick, but he made a lasting impression in that film on me. He is fabulous here, flattering and placating Nero, trying to steer the emperor to act for the good of Rome and not his own selfish interests. Now there's a losing battle, but it gives him some of the best and wittiest dialogue in the film. I really liked him.
And, of course, this is also the story of Nero, played by Peter Ustinov. I think it's quite amazing that Ustinov can make Nero both completely mad and yet still sympathetic. There's a fair bit of scenery chewing in his scenes, but it's the delightful, entertaining kind, particularly as he's surrounded by very staid and serious people, and his flamboyant turn provides some much needed color.
I just have to add that Poppaea had the best costumes, hair, and jewelry, and the actress (Patricia Laffan), had exactly the right exotic look to pull it all off with poise and elegance.
My favorite scene in the movie was when Lygia refuses Vinicius's marriage proposal because of her beliefs. This was the first (and only) scene Deborah Kerr actually got to do something other than be the perpetual helpless victim and damsel in distress. I loved her here. If this movie had let her do more like this, this would have been a great movie. And it was also the first scene in which I actually liked Robert Taylor's character for once.
This movie kicked off the run of epic biblical films, and I have to thank it for that. Without this one, there may not have been 1959's Ben-Hur, which is a far superior movie with a stronger, more emotional story and deeper, believable characters. Even Miklos Rozsa's score to Quo Vadis seems like a warm up to the Ben-Hur score.