The Making of Quo Vadis

The following is from the program book Quo Vadis sold to moviegoers in 1951 for 35 cents.


Robert Taylor, Peter Ustinov, Barbara Stanwyck, Patricia Laffan

The task of promoting Quo Vadis on the screen in a manner worthy of the scope and significance of the theme was no light one,and it was approached by M-G-M with circumspection and deliberation.

In the late nineteen-thirties the wheels were set in motion. Efforts were begun to clear the motion picture rights with the heirs of Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of the novel.
It had always been planned to produce the film in Italy, scene of the story. Then came World War I, and not until the return of peace was there any prospect of definite production, but during the war years writers continued their work on the script and the Studio Research Department began compilation of the many volumes of historical data which would be needed by the technicians who some day would be designing and executing the sets, costumes and “props” for the picture.


The triumph.


The army on the march.

When that day arrived, the vanguard of M-G-M studio executives, specialists and technicians journeyed to Rome, Italy, to look over the ground and survey the available facilities for making Quo Vadis. For the most elaborate motion picture ever made it was necessary that the largest possible film-making space be obtained. Fortunately the huge Cinecitta Studios, eight miles from downtown Rome, were available and a lease for their use was consummated. These studios comprise the largest motion picture plant in Europe, with 148 acres and nine big sound stages. Since they were built in 1936 they had been used variously for film production, a factory for producing war material, a barracks for German soldiers, and later as a camp for 30,000 displaced persons.


Catching up on the news-Taylor and Deborah Kerr.

An almost complete job of reconversion had to be done. One of the largest sound sages became a warehouse for storing costumes, another was divided into sections including a dry-cleaning plant, a laundry and a shoe-repair shop, Part of another stage became a gallery where a group of sculptors began designing and chiseling the more than 500 pieces of statuary that would be needed.

Two years before the actual start of the filming, three important Hollywood technicians arrived in Rome to assist in preparation for the production: the art director, the costume designer and the set decorator. Each had spent months at the home studio drawing sketches and compiling data in connection with their respective assignments.


Two props makers on a break.

Work began at once on the construction of the huge outdoor sets–a reproduction of the Circus of Nero, large enough to seat 30,000 people; the exterior of Nero’s palace; a whole section of ancient Rome, presenting the streets, houses and shops as they appeared, according to careful historical research, two thousand years ago; a great bridge capable of supporting 5,000 people who were to flee across it in their escape from the burning city. To build these and more than 100 other sets, a staff of 500 carpenters went to work, and for the next two years they were kept busy, their number frequently augmented by painters and other artisans.


Many helmets are needed.

As the sets began to take form, thousands of other workers started on the costumes. In Italy, as in most foreign countries, costumes are not always made at one central plant, as they often are in Hollywood. Instead, various firms contract for the work and then parcel it out to housewives throughout Italy. This was done on a huge scale in preparing for Quo Vadis. More than 52,400 yards of material, most of it specially woven, went into the 32,000 costumes. There were more than 15,000 sandals,all hand-sewn; there were 13,000 items of jewelry, 4,000 helmets of brass, aluminum and tin, 4,000 breastplates, 2,000 shields and 21,700 water bottles.

Working from photographs of actual objects on exhibition in Italian museums, thousands of items were manufactured in the shops, factories and homes of Italian artisans, such as ten chariots, four of them of bronze; 200 goblets of Alexandria glass, fashioned expressly for the film in the famous glass-glowing plants of Venice; more than 20,000 yards of fine fabrics for drapes and carpets.



Famous paintings in the Vatican were used as models for scenes of the Christ carrying the cross through Jerusalem and St. Peter preaching to secret meetings of Christian followers in Rome. Leonardo da Vinci’s great painting of The Last Supper inspired one of the most striking scenes in the picture. For the scene in which Nero was to present a model of the new Rome he expected to build, the Italian government lent M-G-M the treasured Forma Urbis, a model of the city as it is supposed to have appeared 2,000 years ago. Official permission was also given for work on the historic Appian Way which temporarily transformed its appearance to that which it bore in Nero’s time. No pains were spared to achieve as perfect accuracy as the most careful research could provide.


The lions just wanted to sleep.

One of Hollywood’s foremost animal experts went to Italy a year before production began to procure the many animals that figure in the story. Before his job was completed he had traveled some 35,000 miles in Europe and Africa. From seven circuses scattered throughout Europe he rounded up 63 lions, five of which had to be smuggled past Iron Curtain authorities in Vienna who were reluctant to issue the necessary permits. In addition, he obtained seven fighting bulls from Portugal, two cheetahs from Africa, 450 horses including 50 white ones from Denmark, and a wide assortment of oxen, cattle, hogs and other members of the animal kingdom.

Marshalling and handling the thousands of persons engaged in the filming of Quo Vadis was as complex a problem of logistics as has ever faced a general in the field. For make-up and costuming, rooms had to be set up that were capable of handling as many as 10,000 persons within a five hour period. More than 250 tons of electrical equipment had to be shipped from Hollywood to Italy. As Quo Vadis was the first Technicolor feature picture ever made in Italy, and the supply of power in Rome was inadequate, five large generators to furnish

Robert Taylor on the set of the film Quo Vadis

Robert Taylor reading Bolero magazine.

power for hundreds of arc lights were sent from the M-G-M studio in England. Later it was necessary to borrow from the Italian Government a generator from the decommissioned battleship Vittoria Veneto.

Well in advance of he start of actual production the producer, director and casting director arrived in Rome with the chief cinematographer. It was decided already that Robert Taylor was to lay the role of Marcus Vinicius and that Deborah Kerr would be starred with him as the beautiful Lygia, also that Buddy Baer, former prizefighter, was to portray Ursus, the giant Christian slave. But there were to be no less than 235 speaking parts in the picture, and more than 40,000 persons applied to the casting department.


Mervyn LeRoy and some of the cast.

For the important role of Petronius the eminent English actor Leo Genn was chosen. Peter Ustinov, well known in England as writer, director and actor, was cast as Nero. Other principal players brought from England were Patricia Laffan (Poppaea), Finlay Currie (St. Peter), Abraham Sofaer (St. Paul), Felix Aylmer, Nora Swinburne, Rosalie Crutchley and numerous others. Lovely Marina Berti, a star of the Italian screen, was cast as the slave girl Eunice. From Hollywood came 12 year Peter Miles to play to play the Christian lad Nazarius and Arthur Walge, youhg California athlete, to portray Croton the gladiator.

Quo Vadis went into production at the Cinecitta Studios on May 22, 1950.

The story has in it the stuff of immortality. In filming it as the most lavish of all productions in the annals of the screen. M-G-M feels that it has been privileged to add something permanent to the cultural treasure-house of civilization.

The dream has come true.

Please note:  only the text comes from the program book.  I added the photos.

Row one: Barbara Stanwyck, Sam Zimbalist, Robert Taylor; Mervyn LeRoy checking armor; amphitheater set; Patricia Laffan checks her hair; LeRoy, a lucky fan, Robert Taylor

Row two: Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor; filming in the throne room set.

Row 3: Prop boy giving a hand; Liz Taylor meets the troops.

Row 4: Vera Ellen and Robert Taylor; statuary workshop; Robert Taylor and Patricia Laffan; William Tubbs and Robert Taylor

About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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13 Responses to The Making of Quo Vadis

  1. Uma Maheswar says:

    I saw this movie in 1952 when I was 6 years old and my first English movie. Still I see this movie at free times and can never forget Buddy Baer Bull fight. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.


  2. B.Weed says:

    Great Quo Vadis film production info. I’ve been able to
    obtain some of such film Roman prop standards, many
    from the 1970 MGM Studio Auction. See examples at …


  3. Carolyn says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this information. This movie is too beautiful for words. I love the soundtrack to this movie. Robert Taylor and all the actors were so beautiful. They were the perfect cast.


    • giraffe44 says:

      Carolyn, I totally agree. I play the soundtrack all the time in my car. Years ago, my best friend and I even went to the Quo Vadis restaurant in New York. Thanks for writing. Judith


      • Carolyn says:

        How exciting that you were able to go to the Quo Vadis restaurant.
        I love listening to the soundtrack too. I wish a soundtrack could be created with the original songs and famous lines quoted from the movie by the actors. That movie took me through every emotion from laughing to all kinds of feelings of sympathy. I always heard stories about the emperor Nero from different pastors and teachers so this was interesting for me to see how he was portrayed in the movie. I love seeing how it must have been for the Apostle Peter and Apostle Paul when they traveled to Rome. The Holy Scriptures became alive to me.
        Your website is wonderful and the pictures are great.


  4. George Donatello says:

    I was about seven as an extra for Quo Vadis…I loved Deborah Kerr…


  5. Christoffer Slotte says:

    you mention call sheets. where did you get those? I am interested in the info on all the call sheets you might have (not necessarily the sheets themselves, though). You can email me with details if possible


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