BOOTLEG FILES 510: “Quo Vadis?” (1913 Italian epic).
LAST SEEN: The film can be seen on the Russian website Mail.ru.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A tiny mail order company offers this title.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It seems as if almost everyone forgot about this film.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is a high quality European DVD release, so maybe an American edition is possible.
One hundred years ago, the hottest movie in America was the Italian epic “Quo Vadis?” Adapted from the best-selling novel of ancient Rome by Henryk Sienkiewicz, this production created a sensation when it crossed the Atlantic and opened in April 1913 at New York’s Astor Theatre (a major Broadway house reconfigured as a cinema). The Astor charged an unprecedented $1.50 per ticket, but demand was so strong that the film played for nine months. Road show presentations took “Quo Vadis?” to other major cities, where it inspired awe from audiences. The news of the American release helped to secure a special royal screening in London for King George V and Queen Mary.
Today, however, “Quo Vadis?” is all but forgotten. Unless you are a film scholar that spent far too many hours watching old movies, there is an excellent chance that you never heard of the film.
How did the film fall from box office bonanza to near-total obscurity? Well, there’s quite a story behind its rise and fall.
During the first decade of the 20th century, film producers and exhibitors believed they had a winning formula by keeping their movies on the short side. Although a number of feature-length films were successfully released, the industry mostly preferred to stick with one- or two-reel offerings. The reasoning behind this was two-fold: it was cheaper to make shorter films and easier to secure profits from multiple screenings.
In 1912, this environment was disrupted when a French company produced a four-reel version of “Queen Elizabeth” starring Sarah Bernhardt, the world’s most prominent theatrical star. “Queen Elizabeth” was imported to the U.S. by Adolph Zukor, and its premiere at New York’s Lyceum Theatre was the cultural event of the year.
In truth, “Queen Elizabeth” was a stodgy, heavily theatrical work that had no reason to exist except for the regal presence of Bernhardt. While “Queen Elizabeth” tapped the commercial potential for feature-length films, the artistic potential was still untouched.
And that’s where Società Italiana Cines came in with its grand offering of “Quo Vadis?”, which was reportedly made for a then-record budget of $150,000. Quite frankly, there was nothing like it – a full-fledged spectacle, complete with scores of costumed extras, three-dimensional sets (not the painted backdrops used in most films of the era), and elaborate sequences including a quasi-orgy for the Emperor Nero and a climax that featured racing chariots and lions attacking Christian martyrs in Rome’s Colosseum.
In terms of razzle-dazzle, “Quo Vadis?” is still a highly impressive work. The presence of dozens of centurions, the toga-clad Roman elite, scantily-clad “Syrian dancers” and armored gladiators provides the foundation for the modern movie epic. In moving away from the theatricality that anchored so much of the early silent movies, director Enrico Guazzoni wisely chose to shoot exterior scenes that showed the scope of the Roman countryside. This gave a rich degree of reality to scenes that required massive crowd action (particularly the panicked exodus during the burning of Rome), while sensitive moments such as the vision of Christ to St. Peter on the outskirts of the city resonated, in large part, to having them placed in natural settings rather than in a studio
If “Quo Vadis?” has a shortcoming, in comes in the lack of character development. The film’s primary characters are mostly sketchy approximations of the deeply textured creations in the Sienkiewicz novel – while the settings were three-dimensional, the people occupying them were strictly one-dimensional. In fairness, one could imagine that the filmmakers were relying on the popularity of the Sienkiewicz text to allow an immediate recognition of the story. Thus, the hand-clasping of the pious Lygia, the muscle flexing of her protective slave Ursus and the effete vituperative raving of Nero would be apparent upon immediate sight to the 1913 audiences.
George Kleine, the American producer behind the Kalem Studio, imported “Quo Vadis?” and scored a mammoth hit – although Kleine trimmed the original three-hour running time down by an hour, no one in America seemed to notice anything amiss. The film had a particular influence on an up-and-coming filmmaker named D.W. Griffith, who later cited “Quo Vadis?” as inspiring him to move beyond the limitations of the two-reel format to create his own epics with “Judith of Bethulia,” “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance.” Indeed, one can easily see that the Babylonian bacchanalia from “Intolerance” owed more than a passing inspiration to Nero’s lusty party at the heart of “Quo Vadis?”
So how did this film fall from grace? Griffith’s films raised the bar of film art so dramatically that “Quo Vadis?” paled in comparison. As the film world evolved in the 1920s, film spectacles became more sophisticated and expensive, making “Quo Vadis?” seem like a quaint relic from a distant period. Remakes of the film in 1925 and especially the Technicolor 1951 extravaganza made people forget the 1913 offering. Mercifully, the film was remembered in 1969, when a restoration was undertaken using a somewhat battered print from a Dutch archive, thus saving the film from extinction. (The Internet Movie Database incorrectly lists the film as being lost.)
“Quo Vadis?” slipped so far off the radar that it was conspicuously absent from the rise of home video, which gave public domain silent movies a new lease on life. Today, the only place you can find “Quo Vadis?” in the U.S. is on the tiny Harpodeon label, which sells the film directly from its website; it is not listed on Amazon or the other major online retail sites. This version is saddled with a tinny piano score that does not suit the production.
You can see “Quo Vadis?” online, but not on YouTube. Instead, there is a 102-minute version with English intertitles and Russian subtitles on the Russian website Mail.ru, (The Harpodeon version runs 81 minutes.) I assume that the online posting is not authorized, because the presentation appears to have been ripped from a DVD release that features a print restored in the 1990s along with a lovely symphonic score. Unfortunately, I have no idea where one can purchase this DVD version – if any reader has a lead on this intriguing DVD release, please let me know.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!
Posted on December 13, 2013 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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