Superman 1.50: Dawn of the Blockbuster

So here we are, my 50th post about Superman: The Movie, and today I’ve decided that I’m going to mark this mini-milestone by talking about something else.

Because this isn’t specifically a Superman blog; it’s a history of blockbuster superhero movies — and so far, I haven’t really explored what a “blockbuster” is, and how it works. So today, I want to go back to the beginning of that story, starting with a 1913 silent film from Italy about the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome. No, wait, come back, it’s interesting.

The movie was called Quo Vadis? — or Where Are You Going? to you and me — and it was the first large-scale movie specifically designed to amaze people. It was made in Italy by director Enrico Guazzoni, based on an 1896 novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and it was bigger than anything the public had seen before.

For one thing, it was longer. At that time, theater programs were usually made up of short segments, and they’d just developed the concept of a “feature film”. One of the earliest American features was Cleopatra in 1912, which ran to 88 minutes. That was nothing compared to Quo Vadis, which was almost two hours long, with two intermissions in the middle.

The story of Quo Vadis is simplicity itself. It’s basically a typical boy-meets-girl story, where the boy is a military officer serving Emperor Nero, and the girl is a barbarian hostage that he meets at a friend’s house and wants to kidnap.

Nero agrees that Marcus should have Lygia, but first she has to come to a big feast, i.e. an orgy. During the evening’s entertainment, Marcus tries to force himself on Lygia, until her muscular bodyguard Ursus intervenes and carries her to safety. I don’t understand why pretty barbarian hostages have their own independent bodyguards, but that’s what happens in the story.

Marcus knows that Lygia is a Christian, so he sends his slaves to the Christian community to kidnap her. Ursus beats up Marcus’ slaves and sends them packing, so Marcus goes undercover to a Christian meeting himself, where he hears the Apostle Paul. Then Ursus finds Marcus and beats the hell out of him again. It’s kind of Ursus’ movie; a lot of the plot points are just Ursus charging in at crucial moments and hitting dudes.

Lygia nurses Marcus back to health and falls in love with him, but the Apostle Paul says she can’t marry a non-Christian. It’s already tough when your girlfriend’s family doesn’t like you; imagine an actual Apostle telling her to cut you loose.

Meanwhile, Emperor Nero is writing a poem about the burning of Troy, and says that he wished he could see a city on fire; shortly afterwards, somebody sets Rome on fire, how’d that happen. Marcus helps Lygia and the Apostle Peter escape from the fire, and Peter baptizes Marcus on the spot and makes him a Christian.

Nero decides to blame the Christians for the Fire of Rome, so they all get herded out of their homes and into the arena, to be eaten by lions. A bunch of Christians get eaten. For some reason, Lygia is tied to the back of a bull, and then Ursus has to beat the bull to death with his fists. You see what I mean about Ursus? He’s like the Vin Diesel of ancient Rome.

With the audience at the arena on Lygia’s side, Nero has to release her, and she and Marcus get married. Then there’s a coda about Nero being betrayed by his legions, fleeing Rome, and dying.

“Thus died Nero,” the caption says. “Like fire, he brought nothing by destruction, mourning, pain and death. But from the rain of strife and blood sprang a new life: the life of Christianity, in the sign of love and peace.” And then everybody worships Jesus for a minute, and that’s the end of the movie.

So you can see how that would be interesting for people, especially if television hasn’t been invented and this is the first time you’ve ever seen something on this scale projected on a screen.

The movie is posted on YouTube, and it’s worth looking at. It’s not a great print, but you can see how big and elaborate everything is, especially in the spectacle scenes.

The depth of the sets was an attraction all by itself. In 1913, people were used to movies that looked like stage plays, and the Quo Vadis sets were tall and deep, with characters entering through a doorway at the far end of the set and proceeding to the front, often accompanied by a couple hundred close friends.

The New York Dramatic Mirror said, “The scenes have depth, and the massive furnishings appear so genuine that the spectator feels as if he might walk down the orchestra aisle and enter Nero’s banquet hall.” It was basically an IMAX movie for people who were very much not used to the concept of immersive movie experiences.

There are three big spectacle scenes that break up the movie, and one of the things that makes them special is that they involve a lot of editing and changes of perspective. Most of the regular scenes in the film are filmed from a single camera position, but in the spectacle scenes, there’s too much stuff going on to fit into just one shot.

The first spectacle scene is the banquet and orgy, which starts with an armed procession, some Syrian dancing and Nero playing the lyre, and then there’s another procession as Nero’s wife leaves. Then they move into general debauchery, with Marcus trying to make it with Lygia, and Ursus pushing him in the face.

The second spectacle is the burning of Rome, which involves more than twenty-five shots with hundreds of extras, and a lot of smoke. They used miniatures to represent some of the burning buildings, which is very effective, and insert shots of Nero playing his lyre and thoroughly enjoying himself.

The climax of the film is the arena sequence, which goes on for ten minutes and includes a chariot race, gladiators fighting with tridents and swords, and a whole crowd of Christians being attacked by a pack of more than a dozen actual lions. You don’t see the lions killing the Christians, of course, but there’s some nice shots of the Christians huddling together, the lions being released, several shots of Nero and the stadium crowd, and then the lions ripping into some meat. It’s great.

So you can imagine the effect that this had on people, who had literally never seen moving pictures do anything like this. People went nuts for it.

The movie premiered in the US in March 1913 at the Astor Theatre in New York City, where admission prices ranged from 25 cents to $1.50 — and Variety said that it earned an average of $5,000 a week in the first four weeks. It played at the Astor for nine months, all the way until December.

Nationally, there was a Quo Vadis craze, with the novel becoming a best-seller. Theatrical companies produced Quo Vadis plays, and speakers toured the country, giving lectures about the story. If there was such a thing as action figures in 1913, they would have sold a shit ton of action figures.

They didn’t call it a blockbuster, because that word derives from World War II, which they hadn’t had yet. But you can draw a clear line from Quo Vadis through The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind to Jaws, Star Wars and Superman, and everything that came after. If you want a nine-month run and that sweet $5,000 a week box office, then your film has to be bigger than anybody expects.

In our journey through Superman, we’re just on the cusp of the helicopter scene, the movie’s first big action sequence that finally gets Superman out of the newsroom, and up in the air. The film’s spent more than an hour writing checks, and it’s time to start cashing them. I wonder if there are any lions left over that we could use.

A remarkable two-minute tracking shot
inspired by a 1944 screwball comedy…
1.51: The Long Walk

Movie list

— Danny Horn

18 thoughts on “Superman 1.50: Dawn of the Blockbuster

  1. If the main post can stray from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, then I suppose the comments can stray from the 1913 film of QUO VADIS? So I’ll tell a story about how the novel QUO VADIS? led me to do something that would eventually change my life.

    I read the novel when I was in high school and enjoyed it hugely. I spent a lot of time thinking about the scene near the beginning where Vinicius and Petronius are walking down the street and a bunch of enslaved people try to get their attention. Sienkiewicz is establishing them as examples of pagan Rome’s heartless aristocracy, so he says that they “paid no more attention to them than they would to so many wild dogs scrabbling at their feet.” That line stopped me- if a pack of wild dogs were scrabbling at my feet, I suspected that I would be inclined to pay close attention to them.

    A couple of years later, I was an undergraduate majoring in ancient Greek and Latin. QUO VADIS was not a major contributor to my decision to study those languages, but it was probably somewhere on the list. One afternoon I was walking along the street and one of the Classics professors happened by. She and I walked along side by side for a while. Four dogs ran up and surrounded us. They were snarling at each other and trying to get something off the ground near our feet. The professor froze; I put my arm through her elbow and walked calmly past them. When she’d recovered her composure sufficiently to ask where I learned to respond to dogs that way, I told her it was from QUO VADIS. If you know Classicists, you’ll know that however impressive any deed may be, the fact that you did it because of something you read in an old book makes it 1,000 times more impressive to them. She told that story to others in the field, and I’m sure it’s a significant part of the reason I have a job today.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Which is kind of odd, as Ursus seems to be doing the sort of things that you would normally expect the hero (Marcus) to do. Marcus – at least in this telling – seems to be a bit of a bystander.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Marcus sounds like a real jerk. He basically wants to rape Lygia, I mean he wasn’t trying to kidnap her to do a little light housekeeping and you can’t get much money from the barbarian Christians of the time. Ursus hangs around protecting Lygia and saving the day and he gets pretty much nothing here.

        Our view of male/female relationships has changed.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember seeing the 1950’s re-make “Quo Vadis” with Deborah Kerr, and I don’t remember much about the plot. I didn’t actually think much of the movie – the technicolor caves of the Christians seemed very fake. That’s my memory of that version.

    What struck me about your description of the 1913 “QV” version is how close the story seems to be to Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Sign of the Cross” (1932), a pre-Code epic which directly led to the Hays Office and official Production Code, which plagued Hollywood from about 1933 to the early 1960s or so. I saw a complete uncut version of “Cross” on DVD a few years ago, luckily somehow saved by DeMille or his family, Though it was considered to be the “Caligula” of its day, it is tame by today’s standards — the so-called Dance of the Naked Moon with lots of hip gyrations by an actress named Joyzelle Joyner (?) was supposed to be an attempted seduction of the good Christian girl Mercia (who was unmoved). To be honest, I and most modern audiences would be unmoved too.

    And the other objectionable scene was when the Christians were being fed to the lions or other beasts (OK, a bit gruesome), Nero was being fed grapes by a devoted and adoring man-servant/slave, who just looked at Nero adoringly? That’s what people got all riled up about back in 1932? Times sure have changed. It’s hard to imagine how this pretty tame movie could have led to a 30-year Production Code crackdown? Paramount and DeMille did fine financially on the film, and I’m sure the controversy was free publicity. Shorter edited versions, in line with the code, were around for many years after 1932.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I believe Ursus’ protection of Lygia is that he was the royal bodyguard to her father and has transferred his services to her. And Lygia’s Bull situation was ordered by Empress Poppea out of jealousy and spite.
    Interestingly, last Wednesday marked the 70th Anniversary of the 1951 MGM version, which is said to have ushered in the Biblical Epic genre in the 1950s and 1960s (if one ignores SAMSON AND DELILAH and DAVID AND BATHSHEBA). Lavish production, great Miklos Rosza score.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Happy 50th post, Danny! Thanks for the occasional detours into non-superhero territory. The first true blockbuster I remember was “Star Wars” (somehow “Jaws” didn’t register in my nine-year-old mind as a blockbuster). Before it was released in my town, “Star Wars” was shown sixty miles away in San Francisco, and the local news stations were reporting the lines around the block. The adults in my life thought it was ridiculous to stand in long lines for a movie. Little did they know that I would soon be waiting in those lines myself, multiple times for the same movie, and that this habit would become a cultural norm for future blockbusters.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I know that sub-title on the CINES PHOTO DRAMA artwork is supposed to say ‘Nero sings while Rome burns,’ but to me it looks like ‘Nerd sings while Rome burns.’ He does look like a doofus.


  6. It’s two solid hours long without the intermissions. It sounds pretty technically advanced for the day. It did very well commercially in the US, so it wasn’t some obscure “foreign” (to US filmmakers) movie. So why historically was everything in (at least American) film history _Birth of a Nation_ this and _Birth of a Nation_ that? Other than sheer length and racism, what (if anything) did _BOAN_ (which was released 2 years later) have over this? Or did the way it was suppressed by the Unione Cinematographica Italiana to avoid competition with the ’24 version doom it to an undeserved obscurity?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Never underestimate the audience-pleasing power of racism in American entertainment. Sometimes it feels like the history of American stage, radio, TV and film is entirely about white people trying to figure out how to deal with the existence of Black people.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “You’re gonna jump on me! I know you’re gonna jump on me! Like Nero jumped on Poppea!…She was his wife and she was unfaithful to him so he got mad and he jumped on her…”

    Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” taught me everything I know about Poppaea. I was expecting her demise, especially after Poppaea approaches Marcus for a tryst. But it didn’t happen. Not even offstage.

    The movie has spectacle and I’m sure it was awesome in 1913. It wouldn’t make my top 10 silent films list, though.
    Did it pioneer the effect of Jesus appearing on the road to Peter or had that been done before?
    I was wondering why Marcus wasn’t listed in the opening credits. He’s called Vinicius throughout the movie. Only in a piece of correspondence does he give his name as Marcus Vinicius. Is he called Marcus in the book or the later movie version?
    In 12 years the silent version of “Ben Hur” would have a chariot race that would leave the one in “Quo Vadis” in the dust. Like future blockbusters, it was a very profitable movie, but not necessarily a great film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Silent era chariot racing reached its peak in the 1926 Ben-Hur. The director offered a cash prize to the winner (after several takes where the other drivers were politely holding back to let the stars get ahead); the results were both spectacular and deadly, with the pileup left as a scene in the film.

      They don’t make them like that anymore (because now there’s CGI).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s nice that you watched the film; I wasn’t expecting anybody to do that. He is called Marcus in the book, not that I read it — I just went to Gutenberg to check. I called him Marcus because I think it’s funny, which is the explanation for most of the things that I do.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you tell me something is worth looking at and give me a link, I am going to hit the button. So remember, “With great power comes great responsibility.”


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