After burning Rome, Emperor Nero decides to blame the Christians, and issues the edict that they are all to be caught and sent to the arena. Two old Christians are caught, and about to be hauled off, when Marcus, the highest military official in Rome, comes upon them. When he sees their stepdaughter Mercia, he instantly falls in love with her and frees them. Marcus pursues Mercia, which gets him into trouble with Emperor (for being easy on Christians) and with the Empress, who loves him and is jealous. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
As the Christians are holding their clandestine meeting at the Grove, right before the little girl asks her mother "Why don't they sing loud?", the shadow of the boom mic can be seen hovering over the people in the background. See more »
My head is splitting... the wine last night, the music... the delicious debauchery!
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Christian Hymn No.1
Music and Lyrics by Rudolph G. Kopp
Sung a cappella by Christians at the meeting
Reprised by them after their capture and at the arena
Sung a cappella by Elissa Landi and Tommy Conlon
Played and sung offscreen at the end See more »
Whereas "The Sign of the Cross" minus DeMille leaves the ponderous "Quo Vadis?" This is a Biblical extravaganza the way only DeMille could have fashioned then, and I daresay, now and probably even into the future, anybody would be hard pressed to match or even emulate his style with such flair and finesse. This movie has something for everyone since it pretty much has it all--religion, morality, sacrifice, decadence, betrayal, love, lust, action, song and dance, sex (all kinds) and violence! It is the Golden Age of Rome under Nero in all its pomp and pageantry, opulence and depravity, splendor and sin. Charles Laughton is archetypal in his portrayal as the mad emperor, whose seemingly harmless jolly-rotund exterior and near-comic epicene foppishness belies an unstable and dangerous man, made all the more by the machinations of his beauteous wife Poppaea, in an eye-popping, attention-grabbing (and how!) Claudette Colbert in the role. She exudes all of the ominous, sensual stealth and wicked, reptilian cunning like some sort of exquisite she-viper, but tempers her performance from becoming too mired in malevolence with an air of uninhibited, at times playful, sexuality.
Laughton and Colbert are given relatively little screen time, a pity; however, their flashy roles enable them to overshadow the much larger parts of Fredric March and Elissa Landi. The former plays Marcus Superbus (what a name!), Roman prefect and elusive lust-object of Poppaea, whose loyalty to his service, his state and his emperor is tested when he falls for Mercia, a virtuous beauty, whose people exist under persecution when Nero conveniently scapegoats The Great Fire onto them in an agenda to rid the state of pesky Christians. While March does admittedly look almost ridiculously dandified with his finger-curled raven locks, made-up face and skimpy Beau Brummel-esque Roman attire, if one can overlook that he does turn in a convincing job, going from valiant, womanizing unbeliever to an increasingly understanding, desperately lovelorn character and is particularly impressive in the "conversion" scene without being heavy-handed or maudlin. Landi also holds her own, not as easy feat since her role is very pure and quite understated--if she had been too restrained she could easily have faded away and been dull, and if she played it too virginal she could have slipped into sappiness. As it is, she infuses Mercia with a dignified strength of spirit, a mature wisdom, a brave conviction and a solemn yet inspiring optimism (yet despite her thespian talents, I couldn't help to think that lookswise the ethereal, angel-like beauty of Loretta Young, who later starred in DeMille's "The Crusades," would have been more appropriate than the unremarkably beautiful Landi).
The film is on the longer side but never really feels as if it's "dragging" since there are many highlights to keep things rolling along, notably the few Laughton-Nero scenes, the "Naked Moon" segment replete with orgiastic environs and lesbians, and most famously, Colbert-Poppaea's visceral, sinfully sexy nude milk bath. But the real rewards comes near the finale, during the sexually charged, violence-drenched atmosphere of the Coliseum--after the usual gladiatorial to-the-death games, the spectacle and sensation really begins. The most remarkable among them being: the human-head crushing by Elephants, the African pygmies-Amazon women match, and the 2 nude young women--one horizontally tied to a pole like a pig on a spit for a Crocodilian feeding frenzy, the other vertically tethered for a male gorilla's, er, pleasure. The actual "action" is most instances is not shown, instead the camera pans to the audience reaction and this technique proves to be highly effective in fueling the viewers' imagination and horror.
p.s. There were some amusing tensions between cast members during this film. Apparently Laughton was shocked about March not wearing anything beneath his tunics, and exclaimed "The man is shameless!" Yet that didn't prevent the homosexual Laughton from trying to peep under March's costumes. And at the same time, March was annoyed by Laughton's peeping attempts, yet still went sans underwear.
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