Charles Laughton plays Nero as too often exhausted from "delicious debauchery"
to take an active role in the story.
And Mercia? What do those Christians want, anyway?
Marcus: Something has twisted you out of all natural feeling.
Your kind of life, your faith has done it. I've always believed that
Christianity was merely stupid, but it's vicious if it can do this to you!
Alternating between cuts and dissolves, DeMille keeps taking us back to the spectators in different states of agitation or arousal. The people place bets or argue with one another while a band plays throughout the action. Sometimes they're just bored, content to read the program rather than watch the action.
But DeMille has only been warming us up for the main events.
All of this happens before the Christians are sent into the arena. We don't actually get to see them die, but we definitely know what's coming. So it's do or die for Mercia as Marcus makes his last appeal for her to renounce her faith. But she won't renounce her friends, and won't go back on her promise to poor Stephan, who was chickening out at the arena gate, that they'd be together forever. And that's what makes Marcus crack. The appeal of Christianity is its promise of eternity. Marcus, realizing that he can't live without Mercia, takes a version of Pascal's Wager, hoping that by dying with her, he'll be united with her forevermore.
What exactly has happened here? This is where the movie is more ambivalent than its literary source. I checked the final chapter of the novel (the whole thing is available as a Google book for free), and in the 1896 text Marcus explicitly declares his conversion to Tigellinus. There is no doubt that he dies a worshipper of Jesus. But in the film, Marcus tells Mercia, "I believe in you, not this Christ," and even at the end says, "I can't sing the hymn, and I shan't look up. I'll be looking at you and believing that you're my wife." DeMille's film is a triumph not of evangelism, but of romantic love, which has in common with Christianity an imagination of eternal union. But the director's game is such that pious audiences could leave the theater convinced of Marcus's redemption, while more sophisticated spectators could draw different conclusions. I don't know if DeMille could have pulled it off after the crackdown.
DeMille's historic reputation is as a huckster who could fill the screen with decadence as long as piety triumphed in the end. The Sign of the Cross certainly fits that description. It is an epic of exploitation that delivers the goods in an insane avalanche of pure spectacle, but it's also a beautifully made film. Maybe it was Mitchell Leisen, or maybe DeMille was better off in black and white, but for all its brutality it's a more visually impressive film than the garish epics Samson and Delilah and the Ten Commandments remake, -- not that those films don't have virtues of their own. But The Sign stands apart as an ultimate statement of the pre-Code cinema, dishing out everything the screen could offer in 1932 except for outright nudity. It's a "bible movie" for people who hate bible movies, but love movies in general -- the less holy, the better.
* * *
You may think it'll be just a brief martyrdom, John Carradine,
but your ordeal is only beginning.