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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Crowd extras were paid around $10.00 a day. See more »
A gorilla is seen menacing a chained Christian woman in the arena but in reality gorilla's where not seen until 1856-59 when explorer Paul Du Chaillu became the first westerner to see a live gorilla during his travel through western equatorial Africa . See more »
My head is splitting... the wine last night, the music... the delicious debauchery!
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One of the very first and one of the very best Roman epics on screen filled with DeMille's splendor!
A comment on the original 1932 version.
Pagan Rome, the third night of the great fire. Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) unjustly condemns Christians of burning the eternal city and sentences many of them to martyrdom. He does not realize that through this deed he unconsciously opens for them a wonderful glory in a better world. The struggle between the sign of the Roman eagle of decadent Nero's times and the sign of the cross begins, this is, symbolically, the endless struggle between those with "delicious debauchery" as the sole aim of life (the lifestyle Nero's times promoted) and those heading for everlasting virtues like love, piety, forgiveness, and purity of heart. Cecil B DeMille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, being the first sound biblical epic after his silent KING OF KINGS (1927) is, though more than 70 years old, a great spectacle, still one of the most entertaining Roman epics, except for QUO VADIS (1951), SPARTACUS (1960), and BEN HUR (1959).
GREAT CAST: The outstanding cast in the movie are its strongest point. Claudette Colbert's portrayal of wicked, lustful Poppaea is gorgeous. The same can be said about Charles Laughton who portrays Nero as a really decadent emperor, entirely flooded in debauchery and all sorts of sinful lusts. There have been more portrayals of this cruel pair (Poppeae and Nero), but theirs from DeMille's film is real feast for the soul. Therefore, they are even more memorable than Elissa Landi and Fredric March playing the main roles of Mercia and Marcus. Indeed, March as Marcus Superbus does a good job, especially in the way he shows a change of heart from a mocker to a believer. Elissa Landi presents Mercia's innocence and virtues memorably. But they are not that terrific as Colbert and Laughton. As far as performances are concerned, it is also important to mention Joyzelle as "the most wicked and talented woman in Rome", Ancaria. The scene of her seduction is truly well played. The dance of the Naked Moon that Ancaria seduces on Mercia is disturbed by Christians singing in a dungeon. MORAL MESSAGE: That scene clearly expresses the fact I have mentioned at the beginning: the universal struggle between two groups of people with two different aims in life. I think that DeMille also wanted to show this moral in another scene: the meeting of two old Christian men, Favius and Titus sent by Paul to Rome. One of them draws the sign of the cross on the ground, which is later trodden on by many people walking in the square.
SIMILARITY TO ANOTHER EPIC: A significant fact is that the content of the movie is strikingly similar to another Roman epic, made almost 20 years later, QUO VADIS (1951) by Mervyn LeRoy. While QUO VADIS is based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, this film is based on a play by an English playwright, Wilson Barrett. Both films, however, present the 1st century Rome, in particular, spreading Christianity in the cruel times of Nero; both films show the conversion of a Roman soldier Marcus who loves a Christian girl; both films remind us of the secret Christian meetings; both films focus on Poppaea being lustful for Marcus and demanding revenge on Christians because of jealousy (consider the moment Marcus Superbus comes to Nero to ask him to spare the life of Mercia. Nero says: If she would publicly renounce her faith... when Poppaea disturbs radically: "Not even then!") Moreover, both films show Poppaea's beautiful leopards. Finally, THE SIGN OF THE CROSS and QUO VADIS show the arena sequence, however DeMille presents much more of its gore than LeRoy in 1951.
ARENA: Alligators feeding with a young Christian woman, elephants treading on people's heads, a gorilla raping a girl tied to a wooden pillar, people crucified and burned, men fighting with bulls, bears, women fighting with dwarfs; yet lions and tigers eating Christians, and many other cruel games to the joy and lust of the viewers. Indeed, it is a film not to be watched by kids even at the beginning of the 21 century, but historically accurate and visually very well made.
ONE OF CINEMA'S MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS: Except for the cruel arena sequence, which is still entertaining in some way, any viewer will be surprised at one scene: Poppaea's famous milk bath. That's a moment that everyone should consider while watching the film. Her sexual bath is one of the best made moments that cinema has ever seen. It is totally filled with desire and sexuality. And all thanks to the great performance by Ms Colbert. No surprise Cecil B DeMille cast her to play Cleopatra two years later, in 1934.
It's difficult to express all I feel about this movie in one review. I simply tried my best to encourage everyone to see this movie because it was an unforgettable experience for me, one of the very best Roman epics of all time. If you have already seen QUO VADIS, you will find this movie very similar but, indeed, more DeMillean. The end is very much influenced by the 1930s cinema but very touching and universally true - the absolute victory always comes in the Sign of the Cross... 9/10
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