One of MGM's biggest box-office hits, the epic QUO VADIS offers a spectacular cast to match its overwhelming production; there's plenty to enjoy, but don't look for greatness. Over it all looms a loony Ustinov as Emperor Nero, despite director LeRoy's best efforts to keep him from

chewing the scenery as he enjoyably steals the show. Taylor is the nominal star, playing Marcus Vinicius, a Roman army commander who returns victorious to the Eternal City in the 1st Century AD. After receiving a hero's welcome from the empress (Laffan), Marcus meets Lygia (Kerr), a hostage who is

the Christian daughter of a defeated king. He lusts after her, but is put off by her oversized pal Ursus (the aptly named Baer), and further rejected by Lygia because he is a pagan. Angered, Marcus makes Lygia his slave, but is still unable to make her his mistress. How he manages forms the core

of the story.

The acting is good, especially that of Kerr, Taylor, and Genn (as the gentle advisor to the emperor), but it's the wild Ustinov who scoops up every scene he's in, giving one of the most outlandish performances ever filmed. Ustinov tested for the role of the lyre-playing little arsonist in 1949,

but the film was slow to develop. A year later, MGM wired Ustinov that they were still interested in him for the part but they were worried that he might be too young for the role. Ustinov wired back, "If you wait much longer I shall be too old. Nero died at thirty-one." (Tony Thomas, Ustinov inFocus.)

Shot in six months at a cost of almost $7 million, QUO VADIS gleaned $25 million in world rentals and became the second all-time grosser after GONE WITH THE WIND. It led the way for all those crazy religious epics which dominated popular postwar production: SALOME, IVANHOE, THE ROBE, DAVID AND

BATHSHEBA, THE SILVER CHALICE, and BEN HUR, which would surpass its boxoffice take. Enhancing this epic's success was the fine score by Miklos Rozsa, who, along with MGM librarian George Schneider, located all the known instruments of the period and then, although no clear record of the era's

music remained, pieced his score together through slave songs, Christian hymns, marches, and fanfares played on modern instruments (using the Scottish clarsach to approximate the sound of the ancient lyre, for example). QUO VADIS was nominated for eight Oscars, but the lions were passed over.

Imagine that.