Our old movies column returns, and this time we take a look back at the pre-code era film The Sign Of The Cross from Cecil B DeMille.

Spoilers for The Sign Of The Cross lie ahead.

Easter was, as you might have noticed, very recently upon us.

For those who don’t necessarily celebrate Easter as a religious holiday, it may have been more a time of chocolate eggs, hot cross buns, and a long weekend. For others, it is a time of celebration – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However you chose to celebrate it, hopefully the weekend proved to be a relaxing one for you.


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With Easter in mind, I decided to look at one of my favourite religious films from the pre-code era – Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign Of The Cross. Okay, perhaps I’m not celebrating it because of its theology and Christian sentiments. Perhaps I’m celebrating it because it is one of the raunchiest pre-code movies of its time.

Released in 1932 and starring Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Charles Laughton, and Claudette Colbert, The Sign Of The Cross revolves around Marcus Superbus, the prefect of Rome, who falls in love with Christian woman, Mercia. However, he has a devout loyalty to the crazed Emperor Nero, plus a possible tryst with Empress Poppaea. On top of that, he must have Mercia at any cost and tries desperately to get her to come to the debauchery of the Romans. Will her faith withstand his lustful ways?

There’s a lot to love with The Sign Of The Cross and not just because they put dear old Fredric March in a tunic so tiny that it barely covers his fascinus.

Cecil B. DeMille’s film, based on an 1895 play by Wilson Barrett, is a titillating portrayal of Nero’s crazed siege on Rome and the persecution of Christians during his reign.

The idea was to contrast the two ideals; the rampant, rude Romans verses the chaste Christians. As Marcus tries to woo Mercia, he hopes that the fun and free-loving fancies of his people would see Mercia bow to his whim and turn away from her faith. However, of course, eventually he sees the light and, though it’s a tragic end, he turns to God arm and arm with Mercia.

The problem is DeMille makes the Romans too fun and free-loving for you to not be seduced by their ways.  I mean, yes, they are awful self-centred people who torture, murder, and whip whenever possible. But they are surprisingly progressive with their sexualities and such.

In a scene where Marcus and his friends are trying to show Mercia just how brilliant it is to be a Roman (a sequence which made me wish that this film were a musical), Marcus decides there’s only one way to convince Mercia, by bringing in Ancaria. See, Ancaria has a gift – a special dance if you will – called the Dance of the Naked Moon. The gossip is that Ancaria’s song could make anyone be imbued with the “warmth of life”, – man or woman. The dance is brilliantly saucy as Ancaria wiggles around Mercia, and thus it feels a bit wet when the imprisoned Christians decide to burst into hymn and stiffen Mercia’s resolve, putting an end to the seduction.

The Sign Of The Cross also has an infamous ass-milk scene too. Colbert’s Poppaea writhes and swims in a whole pool of perfumed milk. A friend pops by with salacious gossip about Marcus, who Poppaea has a bit of a crush on. The Empress cocks her head and demands her friend strip and join her nude in the milk. There’s even a slow slip of her friend’s dress before the film cuts away. It shows the Romans were willing to sleep and fool around with whomever they wish.

The scene was apparently gruelling for Colbert as it was actually milk used for filming which, over many takes, had turned sour. The smell being unbearable. However, a consummate professional, Colbert’s scene here is most memorable.

The climax of The Sign Of The Cross is the amphitheatre scene, and it’s certainly a catastrophic and poignant moment. Nero condemns the Christians to death, including children, but not by crucifixion. Instead, at the colosseum, the Christians are stripped naked and fed to a whole array of animals including gorillas, crocodiles, and more. It is a gruesome scene, especially at the cries of the Christians waiting to go to their death.

However, the depth of the scene comes from its social commentary of the audience. Indeed, you never see the animals rip apart the people – even this film doesn’t go that far. However, DeMille cuts away from the animals approaching to the Roman audience. There are a multitude of reactions such as people jeering or falling asleep.

This scene should be studied today, as audiences and bystanders have been criticised for their gleeful or apathetic reaction to violence throughout history. One woman even produces a scroll to read instead of watching people slain in front of her. It depicts the foul side of human’s thirst for entertainment and blood.

For a pre-code movie, The Sign Of The Cross certainly sent tongues a wagging upon its release. It is often cited that the content of this film – despite the context in which it is presented – led to the production of the Hay’s Code. There were protests and condemnation from the moralists which misconstrued the message of the film.

Today, however, DeMille’s work is often celebrated as one of the most pivotal Pre-Code films of its time – a must watch for people interested in the era. I highly recommend The Sign Of The Cross being on the top of your list to watch. Even if it is just for Fredric March in a tunic and Claudette Colbert in milk.


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