directed by Mervyn LeRoy
written by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien, John Lee Mahin, Hugh Gray
based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz
(my review of the 1895 novel)
(my review of the 1948 screenplay)
It started with a book. An absolutely fantastic book full of riches and complexity and thought. It became a screenplay. A good, solid, worthy adaptation. Now, it's a film. An entertaining yet ultimately disappointing example of a typical Hollywood Spectacle.
The central point of the story, as is Hollywood tradition, is the epic romance. Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is a Roman Centurion, proud of the conquests he's achieved for his emperor. Lygia (Deborah Kerr) is a foreign princess, captured as a young child, adopted and educated in a quiet country estate. She's a Christian, he is not. She promotes peace and compassion, he bloodshed and fear tactics. While I'm glad they kept the novel's central conceit of Vinicius starting out as an antagonist of sorts, only gradually coming to love the inner Lygia after a period of lusting over and trying to capture her body, so much of the philosophical conflict of the book is lost that it now has all the depth of a Fabio romance painting.
And why does Lygia love Vinicius? Honestly, why? In the book, she saw good within and had to constantly search and dig in order to bring it to the forefront. Here, no good is present in his predatory behavior and talk of bloody victory; she just likes him because he's handsome. She wants to save him, cure him of the cancerous decadence of Nero's Rome, that much I understand, but without the sliver of good for her to dig for, I don't understand the draw?
The two leads don't help matters. At all. Though he sucks in the gut and throws a spring in his step, Taylor is a little long in the tooth to play Vinicious, who's ego and impulsiveness were written for a man in the youthful stretch of his 20s. His "manly" posturing and barking delivery only punctuate his miscasting. Kerr is bizarre and all over the place as Lygia. An incomparable beauty, she certainly looks the part, but her constantly staring eyes have all the depth of a porcelain doll, and when she opens her mouth, this odd fluttery, breathy delivery constantly leaves me in confusion.
In fact, the acting overall is largely either forgettable or completely off, which is a shame given the promising roles. Pompaea is the wife of Nero, the true poison behind his increasingly lethal fangs, but Patricia Laffan tries too hard to be sexy while her eyes are scrunched up in a way that makes it seem like she just caught whiff of a fart. Eunice is a slave girl infatuated with her master, who chips at his heart to the point where he loves her as an equal, but Marina Berti plays her like a teen groupie who just snagged a back stage pass. Tigellinus is the leader of the Praetorian Guard, the brutal hand of Nero who constantly pushes the emperor to punish the populace into submission, but Ralph Truman is so flat and forgettable that he never once backs up the threat of his actions.
The worst is Finley Currie as the Apostle Peter. Not only has the script gone through a few more changes since the draft I reviewed, adding some ridiculous heavy-handed miracles to what should be grounded and real events, but Currie takes what was a genuinely inspirational and towering figure on the page and brings him to life with all the dignity and grace of a department store Santa Claus. It's ridiculous.
And I think this speaks to the broader problem that is director LeRoy. I haven't seen many of his films and can't talk for his broader career, but the direction here is little more than hack work. I know it's an old movie, but it's practically drowned to death in a style that, while clean, never rises above the quality of a workman. In what's come to be termed "tv directing" he sticks to the basic formula of "master shot, medium shot, medium shot, closeup (don't forget the soft focus lens), medium shot, dissolve". It's clean and keeps everything moving at a steady pace, but it's boring and does nothing to liven up the material. What I read in the script slowly draws you into huge sequences as the emotions of crowds gradually boil to an epic moment. Here, he just lines everybody up, shoots a reel, and moves on to whatever's next. And it's not just the script. The stunningly massive sets and intricate costumes scream for the attention they deserve, but LeRoy's camera hovers over them like a slideshow from grandpa's vacation. Miklos Rozsa's sweeping score is packed full of emotion and the clash of beliefs, but is brushed away like a buzzing gnat by the flatness of what it's there to support.
But that's not to say it's a bad movie. It's painfully mediocre, but it moves along at a steady pace, sports some great design work, and still tells a thrilling tale. And there are some good moments in there. The springiness of Taylor's performance many not work for the character, but he's great when he gets to kick into some action. The model work used for the burning of Rome, while obvious, is really well used as the camera lingers over unimaginable devastation. The punishment in the Arena of the unjustly accused accused Christians is powerful and surprisingly brutal, especially as they unite in song before gradually giving way to screams on burning crucifixes. And the climactic battle between Lygia's giant bodyguard Ursus (charmingly played by heavy-weight boxer Buddy Baer) and a frothing bull is marvelously executed.
And there's two performances that rise above the others. Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero himself. The two are eternally bound to one another, yet represent diametric opposites of the iconic Roman male: both enjoy wealth and luxury, but Petronius is civilized and intelligent, approaching situations with wit and grace, whereas Nero is pompous and decadent, manically searching for new amusements. One comes to appreciate the citizens of his homeland, the other loathes them from the start. Furthering the divide, Genn is absolute subtlety as the charming Petronius, always watching, always listening for the right place to slip in, while Ustinov is a volcano jolting from lazy flows to gushing explosions. It's impossible to take your eyes off either one when they're on screen, which makes the frequent scenes they share delightfully tricky to soak in.
In the end, it's not a bad movie, just a letdown. A few years earlier, the draft of the screenplay that I read was to be directed by John Huston with Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles. With the best two features of the final incarnation, Genn and Ustinov, also being the result of Huston's casting, one can only image the film that would have resulted. It might not have had as much spectacle, but I'm sure it would have been smarter. As it is, what we're left with is typical Hollywood.
(internet movie database)