"And you said Rome was dull!"
My first glancing encounter with Cecil B. DeMille's masterpiece was on a TV station I don't remember, many years ago. It was the 1944 re-release version, which added an opening framing scene with American soldiers in Italy being shown Roman ruins and learning about imperial decadence. DeMille had brought his film to Code standards by then, so I would have missed many of the good parts had I bothered to watch the film whole. But that opening was a turn off, and what I saw of the rest looked old-fashioned compared to the more modern spectacles I enjoyed on TV.
So it was years later, during a Film Preservation Festival in the good old days of American Movie Classics, when I first took in the restored pre-Code original version of The Sign of the Cross. I was floored. I think it was then that I really began to appreciate what "pre-Code" meant compared to what came after the crackdown. It meant more violence, more sexuality, more high-gloss depravity than you could shake a thunderbolt at. In this particular case, it also meant an ambivalence toward Christianity that comes as a surprise coming out of the 1930s, and a source novel coming out of the 1890s.
Cecil B. DeMille had just returned to his old headquarters at Paramount following a stint of independence and a disappointing stay at MGM. He had two invaluable allies in this project. Mitchell Leisen did the incredible art direction, while Waldemar Young co-adapted the Wilson Barrett novel and play. Young did scenarios and screenplays for Tod Browning
and Lon Chaney during the 1920s, and something of the sick freakishness of those films comes through here.
C.B. drops us right into the third night of the Great Fire of Rome. Emperor Nero looks to the flames for inspiration, but breaks a string on his lyre. He's in no mood to hear his advisor Tigellinus tell him that Romans have accused him of setting the fire. But when Tigellinus suggests finding someone or some group to blame for it, he just happened to be thinking of the Christians, practitioners of "a dangerous superstition that teaches that the meek shall inherit that which belongs to the mighty." That subversive message is growing more popular, but Rome might nip it in the bud if Christians are blamed for the fire.
Nero's strategy seems to work, for when two Christians are recognized in one intact neighborhood, they're nearly lynched. "The sign of the cross" is a two-part line drawing of a crucifix in the dirt; by completing what one starts, the other confirms that both are Christians. But how did you recognize me? Titus from Galilee asks Favius of Rome. Maybe it was the way that they're the only two men in the neighborhood who look like they've wandered in out of the desert. Maybe it's that odd fixed expression on their faces. Whatever it was, local thug Strabo figured it out nearly before they did themselves. Strabo (played by perennial oaf Nat Pendleton) hates Christians but realizes that persecution can go too far. "If they killed off all the Christian lice," he tells his hairy sidekick, "me and you'd have to go back to work."
Strabo has cause to worry that he'll lose his reward as the mob menaces his prizes, but Marcus Superbus ("the proud," I believe), the prefect of Rome, rides in to restore order. He lashes his way to the fountain to find out what's going on, but finds himself mesmerized by Mercia, Favius's ward. An admirer of beauty, he's happy to listen when Mercia tells him the old men are harmless "philosophers." And if Strabo doesn't like it, he can taste the whip. But most people don't buy that alibi -- including Tigellinus, Marcus's main rival for proximity to the Emperor -- not to mention the Empress.
But let's mention her. She bathes in a vast pool of asses' milk, tended by her comely slaves. Her girlfriend Dacia witnessed the scene with Marcus and the "philosophers," and she saw Mercia. Since Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert)has the hots for Marcus, she'd naturally want to know all about it. In fact, Poppaea insists. "Take off your clothes, get in here and tell me all about it," she commands. For the sake of arguments, DeMille throws in a symbolically suggestive shot of two cats lapping at the milk as Dacia strips.
I'll spell out the complications of the plot. Marcus has an itch he wants Mercia to scratch, but being a "philosopher," she plays hard to get, though she's clearly attracted to someone who looks like a young Frederic March. As an object of Marcus's affection, Mercia is an unwitting rival to the Empress, for whom Marcus has been playing hard to get out of loyalty to Nero. Since gossip spreads fast, Poppaea knows that Mercia is a Christian and wants her executed so she can have Marcus. Tigellinus, thanks to Strabo, also knows about Mercia, but he wants to use Marcus's relationship with her to destroy Marcus. Both Poppaea and Tigellinus want to manipulate an indecisive Nero into eliminating their enemies.
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?
Nero seems to have a better idea of the Christian agenda than Marcus does. He thinks Christians want to kill people and destroy the world. The main story of the film is his desperate attempt to deprogram Mercia so that she can live, preferably as his wife. He realizes, however, that Mercia is already deep in the grip of the cult.
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!
But why not let a Christian speak for himself. Titus addresses a secret gathering, telling them that "We are to become as children, Jesus said, with the child's simple loving vision. [Cut to a little girl giggling and playing with her doll] If we have the simplicity, the faith, the trust of a child, we accept that which we do not fully understand."
Unfortunately, young Stephan has been captured by Strabo and tortured to reveal the location of the gathering. By Sign of the Cross standards this bit is a modest atrocity, as the boy is taken into a glowing pit through an opening in the floor, and the action takes place off-screen while we see Tigellinus watching it. Since we don't hear the sound of a whip, we can guess that Stephan is being flayed, one strip at a time. He cracks and reveals the location, where a massacre shortly takes place. Please note that a baby has been killed with an arrow in this scene.
Again Marcus gets Mercia out of danger, but it's now more important than ever that he get her out of the cult. Look at it from his perspective. These Christians seem to want to die. They sing hymns of joy in a strange, droning, dirge-like fashion. They seem to go into trance states of unnatural serenity. As far as Marcus is concerned, Christians are pod people -- but there's still a chance to save Mercia. Maybe she just needs to loosen up a little. Hell, he supposes: maybe she's bi.
Mercia's next intervention takes the form of Ancaria, "the most wicked and ... talented woman in Rome." The wickedness is fine, but the talent is questionable. I imagine there were dedicated tribades in Rome who would dive for the nearest window whenever Ancaria launched into "The Naked Moon." Based on what I could make of the lyrics, as a singer-songwriter Ancaria is right up there with Nero himself.
It bugs Marcus that Mercia didn't respond to Ancaria's seduction, just like Ancaria was bugged by the singing of the Christians as they were being marched past the window to the arena dungeon. The artiste blames this distraction for her failure, but Marcus blames Mercia's brainwashing. "Don't you see what this thing has done to you?" he protests, "It hasn't let you live. It's deformed you. It's made love impossible for you." Still, Marcus is willing to try physical therapy, but Tigellinus picks just that moment to show up. And where's the justice? The prefect of Rome is about to rape a virtuous young woman, and Tigellinus arrests the woman for being a Christian.
The stage is being set. Mercia is the object of a tug-of-war between Poppaea and Tigellinus. He doesn't care for her, but she's the means to his end of ruining Marcus, while Poppaea would destroy Mercia to save Marcus. Marcus himself lets Nero know that he'll take extreme measures to save her, but backs down when he realizes he's spoken treason. He does elicit a promise from the Emperor: Mercia can live if she renounces her faith. The alternative is the arena.
Up to this point, The Sign of the Cross has been an attractive Roman soap opera with fleeting moments of brutality and the usual DeMille veneer of piety, perhaps thinner than usual. At this point, as bourgeois Rome fills the arena seats with gripes and gossip, the movie goes berserk. It goes stark raving mad. Is it Cecil B. DeMille and Waldemar Young's nightmare, or yours? Together with Mitchell Leisen, they take Hollywood cinema to a place it won't return to for nearly forty years. It's nearly ten minutes of concentrated evil that possibly hasn't been topped, ever.
Ready when you are, C.B.! We who are about to die, salute thee!
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.
I just realized that I deeply regret not having seen this masterpiece yet! I have to, soon. And I like Nat Pendleton, he always spices up films with his supporting actor presence.
Lolita, I agree with you on Pendleton. Strangely, I remember him best for his comedy relief turn as the coffee-craving detective in the inscrutable Scared to Death.
Nice post! I just watched this movie today and wow I can't stop thinking about it. It's absolutely horrifying.
But way friggin' awesome.
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