Working with a large cast of animals is a risky proposition. On the set of “Quo Vadis,” a bull got loose in the cafeteria, the lions went on strike, and Mervyn LeRoy perched atop a high platform yelling “How high can lions jump?”
The actors weren’t nearly as much a problem as the lions. One of the biggest scenes in the picture was in the Roman Circus, where the lions were supposed to eat the Christians. It’s easy enough, back in Hollywood to write something in the script: “Enter fifty lions who proceed and eat the Christians.”
Then you get to that little sentence in the shooting and obviously you are faced with some distinct problems. Before you can do anything else, you have to acquire. My scouts rounded up all the lions (more than fifty of them) they could find in Europe, from circuses and traveling shows. We had to hire their trainers, too, and dress them as Christians.
We were in the Circus, and I was up on top of an eighty foot boom, because this had to be a long shot, a least at the beginnings. I wanted shadows on the arena, so I waited until late in the afternoon, when there would be long and photographically interesting shadows. I had set up a series of cues, using a revolver—one shot meant everybody get ready, the second shot was the signal for the cameras to roll, and, on the third shot, the lions were to be released.
The sun began to sink and the shadows grew. It was time. I lifted the revolver and fired—once, twice, a third time. I was scared to death. Would the lions take their roles too seriously and actually eat the pseudo-Christians?
The lions came out of their enclosures—the Italians called them spinas—and they looked menacing and growled and swished their tails. But that’s all they did. They took one look at the hot sun and turned around and went back into their spinas.
“Cut,” I yelled. Then I called the lion tamers over and asked what went wrong.
They explained, via their interpreters, that the poor lions couldn’t act ferocious because it was too hot. Besides, they weren’t hungry. We had been feeding them too well. Their advice was to starve them for a couple of weeks and then try again.
“Two weeks?” I said. “My God, they’ll be so hungry they’ll eat up all the actors and the set, too.”
The lion tamers assured me that they wouldn’t, that by the end of two lean weeks they’d be just right, hungry enough to attack and not yet so underfed that they’d be weak.
So that day’s shooting was canceled; and, for two weeks, I shot other things while my fifty lions were on their involuntary diet. Whenever I went near the Circus set, I could hear them roaring. It was eerie. I had visions of them, the next time we shot, coming racing out of the spinas and devouring everybody in sight. I even wondered if they could climb up an eighty foot boom.
When the two weeks were up, we set the whole scene again—Circus, crowds, lion tamers, everything. Once again, I was on the boom. Once again, I waited for the shadows and the hot sun and then fired my revolver three times. Here came the lions, those starving, terrifying animals, roaring out of the
spinas with a three-course meal on their minds.
The same thing happened. The lions came rushing out all right but then they apparently decided the heat and the sun were too much for them, and turned right around and went back. I still don’t know how the ancient Romans staged their bloody circuses. I am probably the only living soul whoever tried to coax a lion into eating somebody, and I tell you they just won’t do it.
We had to fake the scene. I wound up having the prop men stuff empty clothing with meat, so it looked like a Christian lying on the ground, and we brought the lions out forcibly and they ate those “bodies.” I augmented that with close-ups of fake lions, which the technicians built, jumping on real people. It worked, although I never did get the scene exactly as I had wanted.
I have read, but cannot verify, that a bull escaped from its handlers and headed for the cafeteria. Since no one was hurt, it must not have been mealtime. Nevertheless, the poor bull must have wreaked havoc.
Another story is that some of the bull scenes used cows. Supposedly someone yelled to Mervyn LeRoy: “Have them move the camera, the udder is showing.”