Screening History: “The Sign of the Cross”

Welcome to my official entry in the Pre-Code Blogathon!  Today, I will be focusing on Cecil B. DeMille’s (in)famous classic The Sign of the Cross (1932).  Released just prior to the implementation of the Code, this film utilizes that freedom to paint the ancient Roman world as full of dangerous yet pleasurable sexuality and violence.  The film tells the story of the virtuous Christian maiden Mercia (Elissa Landi), and the pompous, brutally masculine Roman soldier Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) who falls in love with her.  Their fraught relationship emerges against the backdrop of the reign of the villainous, corpulent, and childlike Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) and his lascivious wife Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), who plots against Mercia in her attempts to claim Marcus for her own.

If all of this sounds like a dangerously merry romp through ancient Rome, it is.  There is something sinfully delightful about this film, in keeping with DeMille’s penchant for combining the flagrantly sexual with a supposedly uplifting moral message.  There are points in the film, however, that definitely veer more toward the former than the latter, such as the infamous seduction scene in which Marcus convinces a famous courtesan named Ancaria to perform a lewd song and dance number.  Naturally, Mercia resists, but this moment highlights the film’s investment in showing ancient Rome as a place where sex remains inextricably intertwined with power and manipulation.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

This all pales, however, in comparison to the arena scene, which serves to highlight the violent depravity of the ancient Romans and their attempts to squash the burgeoning Christian faith.  DeMille throws everything he has at the viewer, including a highly suggestive moment in which a gorilla assaults a vulnerable Christian maiden, much to the jeering and excited delight of the crowd.  Such scenes invite us as contemporary spectators to join in the fun, to relish the carnal nature of the Roman past, even as it also invites us to disavow that enjoyment, to remind ourselves that are (supposedly) live in a more civilized, order, and disciplined present.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

As far as the characters go, Marcus and Mercia nicely complement one another, with Marcus providing the masculine hauteur that must gradually be tamed by the patience and everlasting virtue of the Christian maiden.  What sets this film apart, however, is the very incompleteness of Marcus’s conversion.  Even at the end of the film, when he decides go with Mercia and her fellow Christians into the certain death of the arena, he states that he will be saved not by faith in Christ, but instead through Mercia herself.  His excessive pagan masculinity can only be tamed and channeled into appropriate Christian morality through the body and soul of the Christian maiden, and even there it remains startlingly incomplete.

I have to admit that, before I first watched this film, I was a little skeptical of Claudette Colbert as the sultry and sensuous Poppaea.  I had already seen the 1951 Quo Vadis (based on the same source material as Sign), and was very much taken with Patricia Laffan’s heavy-lidded and sensuous depiction of the character.  However, Colbert managed to surprise me, though she is much more of a coquette than a traditional femme fatale (she would later adopt a similar persona for her interpretation of Cleopatra in DeMille’s film of the same name).   She pales, however, in comparison to Laughton’s delightfully corpulent Nero, who emerges her as a slightly pathetic man unable to control his own fleshly appetites and tempers.  As he later would in Spartacus–in which he portrayed the world-weary and hedonist Senator Gracchus–Laughton’s own pudgy physique lends Nero a certain child-like essence that makes him a study in pop Freudian psychology.

While seemingly uplifting, the end of the film is actually rather pessimistic in its worldview.  Unlike the 1951 Quo Vadis (in which the two main characters are saved by the arena and end up sparking the revolt that topples Nero from his throne), the two main characters meet their presumed deaths in the arena, the film fading to black as both Marcus and Mercia walk to their deaths.  Salvation, the film suggests, can never take place on this sinful earth, but must instead be achieved in the some other realm.

Like many other representations of antiquity, ancient Rome here is a world obsessed with the promise of death, though it takes on very different valences for the pagan Romans and the Christians.  For the former, death can be both combated and embraced by feverishly indulging in the pleasures of the flesh (Poppaea’s ass’s milk bath and seductive gestures toward another female bather is a case in point) and by watching the tortures of the arena.  For the Christians, however, death is a not a thing to be warded off nor to be encountered only through sublimation, but instead embraced as the escape from the confines of the flesh, the body, and the pagan Roman world.

Given the intensity of the images in this film, it’s small wonder that it was severely edited for its subsequent re-releases (one of which featured a brief introduction featuring soldiers fighting in World War II against fascist Italy).  However, the trends that it set, especially its visceral depiction of the ancient world, would re-emerge after World War II in renewed force.  Beginning with Samson and Delilah in 1949–yet another film directed by DeMille–the world of antiquity in all of its violent, splendid glory would come to reign supreme at the box office throughout the 1950s.  A golden age, indeed.

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9 comments

  1. Pingback: The Pre-Code Blogathon: Day 4 | shadowsandsatin
  2. shadowsandsatin · April 3, 2015

    I greatly enjoyed your interesting and insightful post, Thomas — this is a film that I’ve heard about for years (and years) and have STILL yet to see it. I intend to remedy that as soon as possible! Thanks for this great pick — and an excellent addition to the blogathon!

    • tjwest3 · April 3, 2015

      It was my pleasure! It’s definitely worth a watch, if only for the seduction and arena scenes. Truly amazing what you could get away with before the enforcement of the Code.

  3. Silver Screenings · April 6, 2015

    I can only imagine Charles Laughton as Nero. I bet he was fab!

    Like you, I would be a little unsure of Claudette Colbert in that role, but I’m glad to read you were surprised by her performance. Will have to add this to the Must Watch list!

    • tjwest3 · April 6, 2015

      Laughton is truly amazing. He’s also pretty fab in Spartacus as Senator Gracchus.

  4. girlsdofilm · April 6, 2015

    This sounds wonderful – trust DeMille to tick every box when it comes to shock and scandal. Glad to read your comments about Claudette Colbert as I too have always had doubts about her in this role – she always seems so good and innocent. Clearly she’s a better actress than I give her credit!

  5. Kim · April 6, 2015

    I only saw this film recently, and though I’ve seen a ton of pre-codes, this one truly shocked me. It really was an absolute wonder that DeMille got away with so much – I mean, scene after scene in the arena, the ante was upped in terms of violence, nudity, etc. I definitely would love to see those PCA files for this movie!

    • tjwest3 · April 6, 2015

      We actually have PCA files here at Syracuse. I might have to take a look and see if Sign is included.

  6. Karin S · April 10, 2015

    “Pre-code-Claudette” is definitely not the same Claudette as seen in the comedies of the forties.
    That milk bath scene – wow…!

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