The film takes place in ancient Rome just after the Crucifixion. Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) has just returned home after three years at war for Rome. He meets the beautiful Lygia (Deborah Kerr) who once was a hostage is now considered a daughter in her home. Marcus tries to pursue her, with the arrogant idea that a Roman General can have any woman he wants.
Right away, we see that Marcus is bursting full of Roman ideals. He constantly talks of conquest and sacrificing doves in honor of Lygia’s beauty. When he sees a large muscular man and comments that he would be a great gladiator. But it’s these big-talking, manly Roman man that pushes Lygia away.
You see, Lygia and all in her house are Christians. At the time, that was like being in a secret cult, since Rome obviously showed their disapproval by killing their savior. There’s even a great scene where Paul and Peter preach in secret near a cave. A good portion of this film is spent exploring Christian ideals, reciting the Beatitudes and making sure you see the huge differences between brute Romans and docile Christians.
With a bigger look on ancient history, the film also focuses on Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov), who spends most of his day lounging and complaining like a tantrum toddler. He seems to be having issues trying to find a way to be immortal. While watching Nero’s childish outbursts you may conjure an image from your childhood. Perhaps the animated skinny lion portraying Prince John in Disney’s Robin Hood. And it’s completely acceptable, since Ustinov later provided the voice for that character. Anyway, Nero tries to write songs and epic poems to seal his immortal fame, but he’s terrible at it. When he finally thinks he’s found something so amazing that he’ll be remembered being as powerful as the gods, it’s worse than anyone could have imagined. And then he decides to blame the Christians for it.
As I read the little summery on my Netflix envelope I got kinda excited. I love ancient Roman history with all the gladiators, crazy Nero burning everything and all that senseless gore in the Colosseum. Unfortunately, I just felt like I was in Sunday school. I really appreciated the contrast between Roman and Christian ideals, this film would be great for a Sunday school or history class. But three hours of goody little Lygia trying to teach Marcus to turn the other cheek gets a little boring, and in 1951 they weren’t allowed enough Colosseum gore to make up for it.
In the end, this just feels like a less spectacular, more overtly Christian Ben Hur. I don’t want to offend anyone, so here’s a rule of thumb: this movie isn’t worth three hours of your life if you’ve been bored in Sunday school for more than four.
“What in the name of all Jupiter is a Rabbi?”