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Rome - First Century A. D. Nero, the mad Emperor & Poppaea,
his vile Empress, engage in every sort of vice & degradation.
Wanton cruelty becomes a spectator sport and virtue &
innocence are denigrated. Slowly, however, a new Power
growing. People calling themselves Christians are secretly
spreading their Faith ever more widely. They are horribly
persecuted, but they continue to multiply. Which will
eventually triumph - the might of Imperial Rome, or the
ones who follow THE SIGN OF THE CROSS?
This Cecil B. DeMille epic is a vivid retelling of the struggles of the first Christians. Paramount gave the film a lavish production and DeMille wrings every drop of piety & puerile interest possible from the plot. Fredric March is stalwart as the Roman official who falls in love with a beautiful Christian girl. While his ultimate conversion wouldn't convince the average modern Baptist, he holds his own in scenes with other performers whom are allowed to behave outrageously. Elissa Landi is sweet as the virtuous Believer, effectively underplaying her role.
`Do you want to play the most wicked woman in the world?' DeMille asked Claudette Colbert one day on the studio lot. She did & she does memorably, from her eye-popping milk bath scene to her revenge on her would-be lover. Sniveling, whining and wearing a huge fake nose, Charles Laughton is pure effeminate evil as Nero (notice his catamite), a foul blot on the face of humanity & stealing all his scenes from everyone else. History tells us that Nero eventually murdered Poppaea by stomping her to death...
Ian Keith is enjoyable as an unpunished villain. Ferdinand Gottshalk & Vivian Tobin are effectively degraded as Roman bacchants. Film mavens will recognize the voice of John Carradine, calling `We who are about to die, salute you!' out of the arena to Nero; he can later be spotted in the role of a Christian martyr ascending the dungeon stairs to his death.
DeMille had just returned to Paramount from a 3-year, 3-picture stint at MGM, where he was remarkably subdued. Back at his home studio he was allowed more license. Wrapping a little sermon up in a lot of sin, he filled this pre-Production Code drama with plenty of the latter. When THE SIGN OF THE CROSS was re-released in 1944, many cuts had to be made. The film now having been restored, it's not difficult to guess which sections those were. The Dance of the Naked Moon & much of the antics in the final arena sequence are beyond the bounds of good taste, but certainly not beyond the bounds of Cecil B. DeMille.
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
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
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
like some sort of exquisite she-viper, but tempers her performance from
becoming too mired in malevolence with an air of uninhibited, at times
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.
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
First, this film is high camp. One need only know some of the
events to know that all the actors had a great deal of fun in making the
film. March tells in his biography that Claudette Colbert spurned his
attempts to flirt by chewing several garlic cloves before each close up
between the two of them. The famed Chicago World's Fair fan dancer Sally
Rand has an uncredited role (according to her family members) as the woman
who is about to have her head bitten off by an alligator near the end.
is a close up of Sally's face. With such goings-on, what's not to like
I found Fredric March as Marcus Superbus (the Prefect of Rome and man upon whom Empress Poppea has her eyes) convincingly full of himself through the first three quarters of the film. He shows a believable change of heart towards the end. Colbert is charmingly over-the-top as Poppea, as is Charles Laughton, who plays Nero. The ingenue Christian girl, Mercia, is played with restraint by Elissa Landi. While this may make her seem to be overshadowed by Colbert, Marcus states that he is "tired" of overpowering patrician women and, thus, Landi's cool understatement entrances him.
Despite the violence, which is standard fare in tales about early Christians in Rome, there are moments of good acting, not only by the main characters, but by the bit players. Some of the group scenes and interactions among the Christians as they await the arena are well-played, indeed.
There is nothing to dismiss here. At very least, the film is worth a viewing as a landmark epic sporting some of the Hollywood elite of the mid-1930s.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I watched Sign of the Cross last night with my church's Bible Study
group. This was the third time I've seen this film. It's an interesting
movie, if not a great one, but I think it's one of DeMille's most
underrated works. There's a lot more to it than first meets the eye.
The first thing that surprised me was how long it took for this movie to get rolling. Film-makers of this period liked to let audiences get to know their characters before beginning to rev up the plot. The classic example of this is the 1933 version of King Kong, in which the big monkey doesn't even appear until the third reel.
********* WARNING - SPOILERS FOLLOW **************
The whole first half of the 125-minute "Sign of the Cross" is relatively uneventful, particularly for contemporary audiences that are used to having movies start off with a bang. DeMille uses the first hour to set up a love story between a powerful Roman Prefect named Marcus Superbus (played by Frederic March, who must have had a difficult time keeping a straight face with that name) and an innocent young Christian girl named Mercia (played by Elissa Landi).
When they first meet, March is in lust more than in love. He clearly can have any woman in Rome that he wants, including the Emperor's Wife (Claudette Colbert). When he first meets Landi he tries to seduce her. When that doesn't work, he tries to demonstrate his affection for her by convincing one of "Rome's most... er, Talented Women" to seduce her for him, leading to a lesbian dance sequence that drove the censors crazy in 1932. Meanwhile, Landi develops what can best be described as a schoolgirl crush on March. Landi claims to love March, and flirts with him, but then draws away.
The first half of the film focuses on these 2-dimensional characters, and the shallow attraction that they have for one other. But their feelings deepen during the second half. When Landi's Christian friends are marched off to the arena to die, she finds herself wanting to do nothing more than join them. March realizes that he loves her, and sacrifices his career by demanding that the emperor (Charles Laughton in his American film debut) spare her life. Laughton agrees, but only if she renounces her faith.
March goes to the Coliseum just as she's about to be sacrificed to the lions. He tells her that she can continue to practice Christianity privately if he marries her - she only has to pretend to renounce it publicly. It's a tempting offer, but she refuses.
So March, who does not believe in Christianity, and apparently knows next to nothing about it, does something astonishing. He says that *he* will convert - not because he believes in it - but because he cannot imagine living without her. The film ends with the two of them hand in hand climbing the stairs to meet the lions and their maker.
On the surface, this seems to be a satisfying ending. The largely-Christian audience for whom the film was made would have cheered an ending with March converting to Christianity and dying for his faith.
But that's not exactly what's happening here.
Suppose March had converted to Christianity before deciding to die for it (as Richard Burton would do 20 years later in "The Robe"). Then it would be easy to cheer as the two of them marched into the arena to die. But in Sign of the Cross, March agrees to sacrifice his life mostly because of his love for Landi, not Jesus. He accepts Christianity to please her, not because of of any spiritual awakening.
Sign of the Cross was marketed as a religious movie. But what DeMille delivered was something else. Landi's faith not only inevitably leads to her martyrdom, it also consumes March because he had the bad luck to fall in love with a Christian. DeMille almost seems to be suggesting that Christianity in those days demanded death from its followers, and from their loved ones, and would not be satisfied with less. This film is hardly a flattering portrait of early Christianity. (Christian readers please hold your email - I'm not espousing this point of view - I'm merely pointing out that it is there in this movie. If you feel the need to respond to these comments, please do so by praying for me, not by writing to me; I promise I'll be grateful.)
And speaking of the audience, pay attention to the way DeMille uses the camera during the infamous arena sequences. He's not the least bit squeamish about putting the horror, blood and guts of the Coliseum on the screen, given the limits of his budget and 1930's special effects. But he continually returns his camera to the arena audience. Their reaction to the spectacle ranges from boredom to excitement to sexual arousal.
It's a powerful indictment of both audiences - the ones who are watching from the brightly lit benches of the Roman Coliseum, and those of us who are watching from more comfortable seats in the dark.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had heard that "The Sign of the Cross" was one of the most
outrageous, perverse, over-the-top films to come out of Hollywood in
the "Pre-Code" years, so I expected it to be more entertaining than it
turned out. While "The Sign of the Cross" certainly has its moments,
they are surrounded by lots of slow-moving, quasi-religious stuff about
Christian martyrs in Ancient Rome. I say "quasi-religious" because it's
hard to believe in Cecil B. DeMille's commitment to Christianity when
he is bombarding you with images of kinky sex and violence. Instead,
the movie makes DeMille seem like one of the great hypocrites of all
time, pasting a religious message on top of an amoral film to make it
After a promising beginning that has Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) cackling and strumming a lyre as Rome burns, and soon after that Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) taking a milk bath, the royals' wicked antics take a backseat to the main story of persecuted Christians. The emperor's deputy Marcus (Fredric March) falls in love with a Christian named Mercia (Elissa Landi), and struggles to save her while obeying the royal command to kill all her people.
March isn't the best person to carry the movie, though he is hampered by a weak script that makes his feelings for Mercia more like lust than like actual concern for her, and thus unsympathetic. His big change of heart at the end is melodramatic and unconvincing. Landi's piety can tip over the line into starchiness, though I enjoyed her smirking reactions to the courtesan who tries to entice her with the "Dance of the Naked Moon." Actually that whole scene is entertaining, but mostly Landi and her fellow Christians speak ponderously of Jesus, gaze at crosses, and sing a hymn with unintelligible lyrics.
Thus, it's always nice when the film returns to Nero and/or Poppaea, but it does this far too infrequently, especially considering how entertaining Laughton and Colbert are. Laughton savors his lines and lolls around like a big debauched baby, but he only appears in four scenes. Colbert is very charismatic and seductive, and her voice has an appealing directness to it. She plays Poppaea as a woman who knows exactly what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it.
"The Sign of the Cross" really got its infamous reputation from the last half-hour or so, where the Christians get thrown to the lions as just one event in an elaborate Coliseum spectacle that includes gladiators, bear-baiting, dwarfs battling Amazons, and plenty of semi-naked women menaced by various animals. Indeed, this sequence is eye-popping and mindboggling. It's just a pity that you have to watch so much boring stuff before you get to it.
If you are looking to get a taste of 1930s DeMille, I would recommend his "Cleopatra" over "The Sign of the Cross." While it contains nothing quite as audacious as the Coliseum scenes, it's still pretty spectacular, plus it's shorter, moves at a faster pace, and makes better use of Claudette Colbert.
Cecil B. DeMille was famous for the excesses he depicted on screen, and
"The Sign of the Cross" has enough excess for a dozen movies by any
other director. Fortunately, DeMille loved to detail the debauchery
that warranted divine punishment, because he was more adept and
entertaining when portraying orgies than he was when depicting piety.
Perhaps sin is intrinsically more interesting than virtue. Certainly
the sinful characters, especially Charles Laughton as Nero and
Claudette Colbert as Poppaea, are riveting and colorfully conceived.
Laughton lolls around on his divans, while alluring slave boys attend
to his whims. Colbert lures and tempts lovers when not catering to her
bare flesh in a milk bath. Bloody gladiatorial games and the obligatory
feeding Christians to the wild beasts keep the proceedings on track,
and an erotic Lesbian dance enlivens an otherwise dragging orgiastic
gathering. Orgies can be difficult to film because the delights are far
more evident to participants than they are to viewers. Perhaps every
orgy needs a Lesbian dance.
Unfortunately, DeMille felt compelled to throw away screen time on a group of early Christians, whose idea of a good time was to sit on rocks, sing tuneless songs, and listen to a motivational speaker. Naturally, the improbably named Marcus Superbus, played by Frederic March in a fetching mini-skirt and tight curls, falls in love with Mercia, a bland, but virginal, Elissa Landi, and he rejects the advances of the milky, silky Claudette Colbert, who had been around the Colosseum a few times. Of course, March not only rejects Colbert, but risks losing the endless parties and his own rising career for the touch of Landi's soft hand. "The Sign of the Cross" is hardly convincing drama despite the lure of Romans sinning every way, everywhere, and with everybody.
If the corny dialog and stilted scenes of pious proceedings had been severely cut and Laughton's and Colbert's roles had been brought to center focus, the film would have been a delicious camp spectacle. However, as the film now plays, viewers must patiently wait out the dull-as-drying-paint scenes with Landi and company to savor the sinful delights of Nero and Poppaea, which make "The Sign of the Cross" worth a look and a hoot or two.
Roman epics did not really come into their own until the advent of
widescreen. We did have the silent BEN-HUR and QUO VADIS. (The silent
OF KINGS does not concentrate on Rome although it is of course a
The first talkie to deal with Imperial Rome was THE SIGN OF THE CROSS- from a play freely adapted from (and with no credit to) the novel QUO VADIS. The similarities in plot are too great to overlook this point.
Unfortunately, the limitations of the microphone and the care directors took to make sure every word was carefully pronounced and understood by audiences often resulted in static and wordy scenes. THE SIGN OF THE CROSS suffers from this problem. Even the simulated gore and horrors of the final half hour arena sequence are presented in a leisurely fashion.
The only "oomph" this production gets is in the supporting performances of Laughton's Nero (only two scenes in Act One and two in Act Two) and Colbert's Poppaea (four scenes in Act One and two in Act Two). The two share three of their scenes together. If only we'd had more of them, the production might have been spicier.
The VHS remastering of the complete original with restored scenes is visually stunning. The soundtrack however suffers from an electronic wobble from the projector being used which is quite noticeable in Act One for about a half hour of the film's running time. There is an Intermission which occurs 75 minutes into the film with Intermission Music played over a black screen before the second act begins.
If you are a fan of films dealing with Christianity and/or Rome, this is a must-have. It wouldn't be until nearly twenty years later (MGM's QUO VADIS - 1951) that Hollywood came back to this dual theme. The latter's boxoffice returns inspired the CinemaScope production, THE ROBE, and from then on Roman and Biblical epics were a genre.
If you are not a fan of either genre, your enjoyment may only come from Colbert and Laughton's brief scenes and the concluding arena segment.
The Sign of the Cross is clearly a movie about the Roman way of living more
than the virtues of Christianity. There are scenes of graphic violence,
debauchery and nudity as well as overtones of lesbianism - intermingled with
scenes displaying the morality of Christian followers. It is a movie which
perhaps the Christian community of that time would have been proud of. The
character of Mercia (Elissa Landi) is portrayed as a Christian martyr whose
sole aim in life is to follow her faith.
On the other hand, there are too many scenes in which Cecil B DeMille lets his imagination run riot and too many beautifully portrayed characterizations of evil for this film to be a religious film. It plays like a biblical epic but its content is very different from its silent predecessors. The characterizations of Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) and Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) are perfectly realised as a personification of evil. The scenes of brutality in the arena and scenes during Marcus' (Frederic March) banquet leave us without doubt that this movie is for the voyeur.
The direction by De Mille is inspired, as are Laughton and Colbert's performances. However, Frederic March has the difficult task of standing up to these two egos as well as acting alongside an ineffective leading lady. It is not surprising that his performance suffers because of this.
Overall, the movie is very interesting because of the era it was made in, because of the wonderful direction, and because it has stood the test of time - it can still shock audiences now!
My favorite DeMille film. Charles Laughton and Claudette Colbert are delicious as the debauched emperor and empress of Rome. Prominent supporting players Arthur Hohl and Harry Beresford appeared in two horror classics (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and DOCTOR X, respectively) the very same year. John Carradine can be seen as a condemned Christian on his way to the arena (you can also hear his voice as a spectator and as a gladiator). Very sharp viewers can also spot Dave O'Brien (a condemned Christian) and Kent Taylor (a disinterested spectator). Three famous scenes still impress today: Poppaea's milk bath; Ancaria's attempted lesbian seduction of Mercia; the outrageous arena sequence featuring beheadings, burnings, impalements, hungry crocodiles, untamed apes, bears, tigers and, of course, lions. Only C.B. could have gotten away with this in 1932! The closing cast list includes the characters Viturius, Servillius and Philodemus, but I'm not sure who they are. Viturius may have been Marcus' soldier-aide, although he doesn't look as burly as Richard Alexander. The other two must be Strabo's ugly, brutish companion and the old Christian man protective of the little orphan girl.
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