Forty years after The Wild Bunch, 35 after Taxi Driver, and with memories of last year’s head-squishing Drive still fresh, I can report that Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 sword-and-sandal epic The Sign of the Cross still has the power to shock.
Though it is nearly 70 years old, this tale of the first-century persecutions of the Christians is astonishingly violent and gleefully lurid.
But then, those were things at which DeMille excelled ... those and his ability to run circles around the censors by enfolding his scandalous material in a cloak of reverence.
It begins with Laughton’s Nero watching as Rome burns in a fire of his own creation (apparently this was his preferred method of urban renewal).
A centurion with the wonderful name Marcus Superbus (March) falls for a Christian girl (the ethereal Elissa Landi), thus angering Nero’s wife, the minxish Poppea (Colbert), who has set her own sights on Marcus.
With the sly courtier Tigellinus (Ian Keith), Poppea schemes to blame the burning of Rome on the Christians, thus diverting public indignation away from Nero and onto the nonviolent members of this new sect. Also, it means that her competition for Marcus’ attentions will soon be lion food.
There are some interesting things in this first part of The Sign of the Cross, particularly Laughton’s obviously homosexual Nero (he embraces artistic pretension and keeps a naked boy at his feet like some sort of pet), and a sequence that finds a nude Colbert taking a long milk bath while the camera plays peek-a-boo with her breasts.
But the main event, the part of The Sign of the Cross that you’ll never forget, takes place in the film’s final 30 minutes.
Here DeMille recreates a long afternoon in the Roman arena. We see the spectators entering, buying souvenir programs, seeking their seats, snacking on the Roman equivalent of junk food.
The march of the gladiators into the arena is captured in a high tracking shot. Nero drops his handkerchief, and suddenly the place is alive with clanging swords. Even audiences who think they’ve seen it all won’t believe what DeMille delivers.
The survivors salture Nero, the bodies of the losers are hauled off on a sledge. An attendant uses a large feather to toss perfume on the blood-soaked sand.
Then the real fun begins.
Elephants crush the heads of condemned criminals.
Boxers trade punches wearing spiked gloves that take chunks out of the arena walls and do pretty much the same thing to their opponents’ faces.
A tiger attacks and devours a woman.
A man wrestles with a bull, gripping the animal by the horns until he is tossed into the air and gored to death.
Crocodiles advance on a terrified young woman who hangs like a human hammock between two posts, her naked body just barely covered by an encircling garland of flowers.
A wrestler snaps the spine of his opponent.
Spear-wielding hunters slay a bear.
A nude woman is tied to a column while a gorilla approaches, apparently with romance on its mind.
There’s a battle between Amazons and pygmies. A woman warrior skewers one of the little men with her scepter and triumphantly lifts the squirming victim into the air.
And all the while the Christians are below in a dungeon, listening to the roars and screams and awaiting their turn.
Now that’s entertainment!
DeMille’s attention to detail is quite astounding. He dwells on the perversity of the Roman mob.
Some women weep as their champion is slain. Others succumb to a sort of sexual hysteria inspired by the mayhem. A few are bored, having seen it all. A rich lady ignores the death around her and applies her makeup.
Men place bets on which gladiator will survive, or how long it will take a victim to expire. A wife carps at her husband for placing them in the cheap seats. Young couples woo.
Of course, all this savagery must somehow be redeemed, and DeMille provides an uplifting ending by having the centurion Marcus make a last-minute conversion to Christianity so that he may accompany his beloved to their deaths.
As they mount the stairs to the arena, the dungeon door shuts behind them and the light from a window casts the glowing shape of a cross on the beams.
A happy ending after all.
Late in life DeMille claimed to have gotten religion. But what we’re seeing here is a cynical embrace of faith to justify good, old-fashioned bad behavior and a whole lot of outrageous spectacle.
Which is fine with me.
Other films in the series “Tinseltown Testament”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- July 2: The Nativity Story (2006) Rated PG
- July 9: Samson and Delilah (1949) Not Rated
- July 16: The Prince of Egypt (1998) Rated PG
- July 23: King David (1985) Rated PG-13
- July 30: The Sign of the Cross (1932) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.