Add Demetrius and the Gladiators to that shortlist of Hollywood sequels that are actually better than their predecessor. This is a continuation of the story of The Robe–that most turgid of Biblical epics, known to film students the world over (and for this reason only) as the first Cinemascope release. The title of the earlier film refers to a red garment worn by Jesus as he was taken to his crucifixion. The discarded robe catalyzes the conversion to Christianity of Roman soldier Marcellus Gallio (played in the earlier film by Richard Burton), who was last seen being frog-marched to martyrdom on the orders of nutty Roman emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson). The sequel picks up the story of Marcellus’s former slave, Demetrius, again played by Victor Mature, as he becomes the robe’s caretaker.
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.