The Sign of the Cross (1932)
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
Written by: Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman (based on The Sign of the Cross by Wilson Barrett)
Starring: Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton
Famous producer Cecil B. DeMille made a career out of forging some of Hollywood’s grandest epics, including The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cleopatra, and Union Pacific. DeMille’s religious epic The Sign of the Cross is another in a series of films at least partially responsible for the creation of the Hays Code, and it’s easy to see why when looking at it in a historical context. DeMille’s 1932 epic is filled with sexuality and violence, and tells a story that is chock full of intense bigotry and hatred. The Sign of the Cross is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of the sheer potential held by filmmakers in pre-code Hollywood – it’s full of ambitious filmmaking, passion, and depravity.
The Sign of the Cross takes place in the year 64 A.D., where the Roman Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) has just burned down the city. The action has been blamed on those of the Christian faith, creating an extremely anti-Christian sentiment without Rome. A young and lustful Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), prefect of Rome, is taken by Mercia (Elissa Landi) who he sees defending her fellow Christians. Marcus tries everything he can to seduce Mercia, but her devotion to her faith will not allow her to fall for Marcus’ games. When she hears of Marcus’ new infatuation, a jealous Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) demands that Mercia be killed. This puts Marcus into a complicated and dangerous situation, torn between his beliefs and the beliefs of his nation – no matter what decisions are made by Marcus and Mercia, it surely won’t be pretty.
Religious epics have always been one of my favorite genres, with both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments being lifelong favorites of mine. Unfortunately, The Sign of the Cross doesn’t hold a candle to either of those terrific pictures. While I can admire the grandiose nature of DeMille’s pre-code classic, very little of it actually stuck with me in any meaningful way. It stands as more of a fun, deranged curiosity than most of the true greats of the genre. That isn’t to say it’s all bad – the production design alone makes The Sign of the Cross more than worthy of a watch, especially in the context of pre-code Hollywood. Costumes and sets feel lavish and genuine, transporting viewers to the Roman Empire – the entire film feels as large in scale as many epics from the time period. It’s immediately clear that DeMille had an eye for detail, and a knack for capturing detailed period pieces on film. The film’s dark cinematography helps set the mood, featuring some terrific use of light and shadows during its many nighttime scenes. Cinematographer Karl Struss was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, making it the only nomination that The Sign of the Cross would receive.
The memorable performances by great actors like Charles Laughton, Claudette Colbert, and Fredric March all help to further The Sign of the Cross’ terrific mood and atmosphere. Laughton steals the show (as he always did) as Emperor Nero, whose sinister nature and indescribable prejudices make him very easy to hate. Nero is portrayed as a lazy, spiteful, worm of a man, and Laughton plays it up perfectly. Colbert’s sexually-charged performance as Empress Poppaea is every bit as memorable as Laughton’s, only for completely different reasons. Poppaea uses her beauty and sex appeal to her advantage in every scene, creating some of the film’s most titillating moments – the most iconic of which being an early scene that sees Colbert bathing in asses milk. Unfortunately for The Sign of the Cross, many of the supporting performances can’t exactly live up to those of the legendary main cast.
The Sign of the Cross’ weakest aspect is its story, which feels inconsequential in comparison to the sheer size and scope of the film. While there are many iconic and memorable moments throughout, there is little to nothing substantial connecting these moments to one another. The movie is ultimately a love story at its core, and not a terribly compelling one either. This is a shame, because the brutality and visceral nature of DeMille’s film could have made it truly unique had it featured stronger writing and pacing. Clocking in at over two hours long, I found myself begging for more of the aforementioned iconic moments. Luckily, the pre-code content of the film is consistent throughout, with scenes of brutal violence and outright sexuality being enough to hold viewers’ attention. This is certainly a film that would not have been possible following the enforcement of the Hays Code – in fact, DeMille’s film was heavily edited and censored until its restoration in the 1990’s.
While Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is a far cry from some of the incredible films we’ve taken a look at throughout our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, there are hints of greatness throughout. The lavish set decoration and costuming rival some of the greatest epics of its time, the lead performances are wonderfully exaggerated and theatrical, and the film’s pre-code nature still does enough to shock and titillate today. It’s unfortunate that the film couldn’t overcome a weak central story, bloated run-time, and some underwhelming supporting performances – there’s a masterpiece in here somewhere. With all that said, The Sign of the Cross is sadly not recommended – it’d be best to see this one as a curiosity, much in the same way people view Caligula today.