Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can’t even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille’s really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety.
Fredric March plays Marcus Superbus, the least career-minded Roman refect ever. Stumbling across a couple of shaggy-bearded Christians on the street, he is immediately smitten by their traveling companion Mercia (Elissa Landi) and, in direct contravention of standing orders from Emperor Nero (played as a sleepy, ineffectual tyrant by Charles Laughton, pictured), releases them. His action draws the attention of Tigellinus (Ian Keith), who leverages Marcus’s apparent weakness to curry favor with Nero. Marcus’s real enemy, though, is his wannabe lover Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), the petulant, decadent empress. Jealous of Marcus’s attention, she is fixated on dispatching Mercia.
If this sounds like harmless Biblical soap opera, be warned that DeMille’s execution is opportunistic and shallow even by soap-opera standards. To demonstrate Mercia’s virtue, he enlists Joyzelle Joyner to perform a cooch dance and grope the brightly garbed and well-lit Christian damsel as the shadowy suggestion of an orgy rages in the chamber around them. To contextualize his vulgar depictions of the spectacle in the Roman Colosseum (not built until after Nero’s reign, but whatever) he peppers the bleachers with self-absorbed plebeians who complain about sightlines like 20th-century sports fans. The religious stuff is dreadfully dull — it’s basically the story of a whole flock of doomed disciples who sing dreary hymns as they march toward certain death at the hands of the powers that be — but most perfunctory of all is Marcus’s literally last-minute conversion to Christianity.
Worth seeing, I suppose, purely for film-history value — and especially for the scene, early in the film, where Colbert takes a bath in a humongous tub of asses’ milk that barely covers her breasts (pictured). Let’s just note that, even in 2009, it would be impossible to show this scene uncut on American network television. As a matter of fact, quite a lot of pre-Code tomfoolery goes on in this one, much of it cut shortly after the film’s original release. The long, climactic sequence set inside the Colosseum manages to be both violent and lasvicious. A pygmy gets his head cut off, on camera, by an Amazon, etc. A couple of scenes featuring mostly-nude maidens trussed and menaced by wild animals look, incongruously, like they were shot in the Paramount basement. You have to figure De Mille and company figured those would cause trouble.
The real problem with this is the superlative hypocrisy in evidence. DeMille purports to exalt faith, but what the film really celebrates is spectacle and sex appeal. Whenever the decidedly irreverent Colbert and/or Laughton are not actually on screen — which is most of its running time — the religious drama is as dry and irritating as the dirt in your sandals. In the film’s final moments as Marcus marches off to meet the lions with Mercia, apparently leaving Nero and Colbert to feast and fuck another day, cackling over the fates of the hapless Christians they’ve just murdered, you have to wonder whether DeMille was fooling himself, or just his enthusiastic audience.