Strangely similar:’The Sign of the Cross’ & ‘Quo Vadis?’, both on The First Christians

When recently I at last saw again that film I had loved so much, ‘Ben-Hur’, after I was finished watching it I sensed rising in me a vague memory of another film I had loved too, but which was about the just later period, the period of the first Christians and their persecution by the Romans. The title of that other film still rang in my memory and my heart: it was ‘Quo Vadis’, with Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr.

I immediately wished I could see that one again too, but except for a few extracts on video found on Internet, I couldn’t find ‘Quo Vadis anywhere (Post Scriptum: I did find it at last later and enjoyed it thoroughly!!!).

In the meantime, an Auroville lady-friend of mine, same generation as me, had borrowed my copy of ‘Ben-Hur’, eager like me to see it again. When returning it with many thanks, she asked me if I had ever seen ‘The Sign of the Cross’, and passed it on to me. I almost wished it were ‘Quo Vadis’ instead, but on her recommendation I decided I would give a try to ‘The Sign of the Cross’, one of the first Cecil B. DeMille famous films; it was in black and white, she warned me, as it was from 1932.

I started watching it … and gradually had the strange feeling of somehow knowing that story without really knowing it the way it was told in this film.

‘I know that plot…!’, I kept thinking; it went like this (my summary):

In Rome, in the 1st century, during the reign of Emperor Nero and his cruel persecutions of the first Christians, an important military officer falls in love – and it is mutual – with a beautiful young woman he later discovers is a Christian, living among other Roman citizens secretly converted to Christianity.

He himself doesn’t really mind, but his political rivals of course take advantage of this situation to ruin his position with the Emperor. Worse even, the personal vengeance of another beautiful woman, whose lust for him he has scorned, the all-powerful and evil Empress Poppea herself, Nero’s adulated wife, brings upon him and his beloved a particularly terrible death situation especially devised by the jealous and humiliated Empress, during the enormous games staged by Nero to entertain and pacify the population of Rome:

A while before, at night, Nero himself, in his insane carelessness as an egotist, has actually ordered the city of Rome to be put aflame, so as to nourish his poetic inspiration with such an extraordinary sight… but on Poppea’s advice, to avoid being blamed for it by the angry populace, he has accused the Christians of having done it. So in the second part of the film the gigantic Colosseum with a huge crowd in it becomes the bloody arena where all the many Christians arrested, including our two lovers, are to be exterminated in various horrible ways, supposedly in punishment for their heinous crime against Rome…

Of course I knew that plot!… It was the plot of ‘Quo Vadis’!!!

So after seemingly endless horrible and disgusting scenes I could hardly bear, when finally the ending came close, I kept taking it for granted that at least this courageous couple would be somehow saved at the last minute, like in ‘Quo Vadis”… and when it became obvious that in ‘The Sign of the Cross’ they were really going to die, I was disappointed to the point of anger: I felt betrayed; and I lost all interest other than from a researcher’s duty, for a film which didn’t even have the happy ending that is normally my condition for watching any film or reading any novel at all.

For sure I could see that from a purely Christian point of view the ending could be considered ‘happy’, in that sense that the two lovers would bravely die together, him becoming at last fully a convert because of her, and that meant they would be again together in Heaven, and all that.

Well and good perhaps from that point of view, but still not happy enough an ending from my point of view!

Then, when my anger calmed down, intrigued by this strange similarity in the plot of those two films, I started wondering who had copied who.

And after a lot of intricate Internet searching, this is what I gradually pieced together as the whole picture, including of course also’Ben-Hur’:

‘Ben-Hur’ had started out as a very successful novel, adapted several times to the big screen, the most famous rendition being the 1959 one with Charlton Heston in the main role, to which he owed an Oscar. The story ran parallel to the unfolding life and death of Jesus-Christ, so historically it came first. And the book ‘Ben-Hur’ (that all the films  with that name were based on) had been published actually the first too, in 1880, by Lewis Wallace, as Wikipedia explains:

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a novel by Lew Wallace published on November 12, 1880 by Harper & Brothers. Considered “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century”,[1] it was the best-selling American novel from the time of its publication, superseding Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). It remained at the top until the publication of Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone with the Wind (1936). Following release of the 1959 MGM film adaptation of Ben-Hur, which was seen by tens of millions and won 11 Academy Awards in 1960, book sales surpassed Gone with the Wind.[2] Blessed by Pope Leo XIII, the novel was the first work of fiction to be so honored.[3]

In a similar way, there had been later on two other very successful pieces of writing about the historical period that followed and the tribulations of the first Christians, that gave rise to famous films too, including the two I was searching about.

They had apparently two separate origins and authors:

Quo Vadis (novel)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero
Quo Vadis 1897 Edition.jpg

First American edition title page
Author Henryk Sienkiewicz
Original title Quo vadis. Powieść z czasów Nerona
Translator Jeremiah Curtin
W. S. Kuniczak
Country Poland
Language Polish
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Polish dailies (in serial) and Little, Brown (Eng. trans. book form)
Publication date
Media type Print (Newspaper, Hardback and Paperback)

Scene of the historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz (“Quo Vadis”), entitled “Ligia leaves Aulus’ house”. Illustration by Domenico Mastroianni.Postcard from 1913. Publisher: A.N. Paris (Alfred Noyer Studio).

Nero and the burning of Rome, Altemus Edition, 1897. Illustration by M. de Lipman.

Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, commonly known as Quo Vadis, is a historical novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz in Polish.[1]Quo vadis Domine” is Latin for “Where are you going, Lord?” and alludes to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, in which Peter flees Rome but on his way meets Jesus and asks him why he is going to Rome. Jesus says “I am going back to be crucified again”, which makes Peter go back to Rome and accept martyrdom.

The novel Quo Vadis tells of a love that develops between a young Christian woman, Ligia (or Lygia), and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician. It takes place in the city of Rome under the rule of emperor Nero around AD 64.

Sienkiewicz studied the Roman Empire extensively prior to writing the novel, with the aim of getting historical details correct. As such, several historical figures appear in the book. As a whole, the novel carries an outspoken pro-Christian message.

Published in installments in three Polish dailies in 1895, it came out in book form in 1896 and has since been translated into more than 50 languages. This novel contributed to Sienkiewicz’s Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.

Several movies have been based on Quo Vadis including the 1925 Italian silent film Quo Vadis, the 1951 Hollywood production Quo Vadis and the 2001 adaptation by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

Similarities with Barrett’s play

1896 was also the year that playwright-actor-manager Wilson Barrett produced his successful play The Sign of the Cross. Although Barrett never acknowledged it, several elements in the play strongly resemble those in Quo Vadis. In both, a Roman soldier named Marcus falls in love with a Christian woman and wishes to “possess” her. (In the novel, her name is Ligia, in the play she is Mercia.) Nero, Tigellinus and Poppea are major characters in both the play and novel, and in both, Poppea lusts after Marcus. Petronius, however, does not appear in The Sign of the Cross, and the ending of the play diverges from that of Quo Vadis.

The Sign of the Cross is a late-1895 four-act historical tragedy, by Wilson Barrett. It is generally conceded that the plot resembles the novel Quo Vadis of those same years, as an unofficial adaptation of it, yet Barrett never acknowledged this. The piece was debuted by his own theatre company at the Knickerbocker Theatre on Broadway, in late 1895, then to be presented in England, with great success. It spawned a 1932 film adaptation directed by Cecil B. DeMille – the first DeMille sound film with a religious theme.



So it ended up being the following chronology of events:

– 1895  Book ‘Quo Vadis’, by very famous Polish author Sienkiewickz.

– 1896  Stage Play ‘The Sign of the Cross’, by Wilson Barrett.

– 1932  Film ‘The Sign of the Cross’ by Cecil B. DeMille.

– 1951  Film ‘Quo Vadis’ by Melvin Leroy.

 The drama by Wilson Barrett, ‘The Sign of the Cross’, had been the first of the two pieces of writing to have been put to the big screen, so for those who now see it  first without knowledge of this background, it could seem that the later film ‘Quo Vadis’ was a kind of remake or adaptation of ‘The Sign of the Cross’. But as soon as one sees the dates of actual publication of the two separate sources of those two films, it becomes obvious that it is on the contrary the story of ‘Quo Vadis’ which is anterior to ‘The Sign of the Cross’.

I wanted still to give Wilson Barrett the benefit of the doubt, thinking that after all it does happen sometimes that exactly the same idea, the same line of thought, or the same scientific discovery is ‘received’ at the same time by two different people, without either of them having borrowed it from the other one.

But in this case I felt one of the two had really taken the idea from the other, and adapted it in ways which for me made it less truly inspired and inspiring; for example, I couldn’t forgive Wilson Barrett the very names he had chosen for the two main heroes:

The name ‘Marcus Superbus’ given to the hero in ‘The Sign of the Cross’ had made me laugh at once, so improbable and ridiculous it was, while the ‘Marcus Vinicius’ of ‘Quo Vadis’ sounded so right, and was an actual historical Roman name;  even the young Christian girl calling herself simply Lygia, from the name of her country, in ‘Quo Vadis’, had in ‘The Sign of the Cross’ become a ‘Mercia’ too obviously adapted from the English ‘mercy’ so that it would sound more evocative of Christianity to contemporary ears…!

Such details were already revealing a somewhat lesser inspiration, but so was also the generally lower level of many parts and scenes changed in the adapted plot. It is not surprising that Cecil B. DeMille chose to make into a film Wilson Barrett’s version rather than the more austere original novel by Sienkiewickz: Barrett’s adaptation gave him more erotic scenes to play with, and scenes so complacently showing torture that I wasn’t surprised later on to discover that Cecil B. DeMille seems to be known for having a sadistic streak in his movies, great as they may be otherwise.

To top it all, you will remember that Wilson Barrett had the unforgivable bad taste of making the two lovers, the main heroes, die in the end…!

Do I dislike then entirely ‘The Sign of the Cross’, and feel people shouldn’t see it at all?…

No, that would be quite unfair to what remains an overall beautiful story and a film that is exceptionally powerful and moving in its own way too. If ‘Quo Vadis’ didn’t exist, I would highly recommend ‘The Sign of the Cross’, knowing how much it has touched and marked generations of viewers, including that friend who recommended it to me, I can absolutely understand and feel why.

But ‘Quo Vadis’ does exist too, and if I have to choose between that film and ‘Quo Vadis’, I happen to still prefer ‘Quo Vadis’, and immensely so, for reasons that ultimately will not matter to those who happen to prefer ‘The Sign of the Cross’; but this is my blog, it is my duty as a researcher to state my conclusion, and as a person my own preference… Well, I have done so! Please feel free to agree or disagree with me…

As a last contribution to my visitors’ personal enjoyment of those two films through an eye different than mine, here is a link to a very pleasant article on both:


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