Pre-Code Hollywood and Ancient Rome are a match made in movie heaven, and director Cecil B. DeMille exploits both to perfection in The Sign of the Cross, an opulent, artistic, shockingly risqué, and emotionally affecting epic that chronicles the persecution of early Christians at the hands of the maniacal emperor Nero and his wicked wife Poppaea. DeMille brilliantly juxtaposes the sex, nudity, and violence that pervaded first-century Rome against the pious attitudes and steadfast faith of a group of dedicated Christians willing to die for their beliefs, and the result is a visually dazzling, often disturbing film that showcases the director's vision and technical prowess. Fully restored to its original 126-minute running time (and featuring all the juicy material the censors cut out after the movie's initial run), The Sign of the Cross makes its stunning Blu-ray debut with terrific transfers that make this tantalizing historical drama look better than ever before. If you like The Ten Commandments - and even if you don't - you'll love The Sign of the Cross. It's one of DeMille's greatest achievements, and it comes highly recommended.
Hollywood produced a slew of Roman epics during its storied Golden Age, but because of the rigid Production Code that governed the industry and censored its output, films like Quo Vadis and The Robe were forced to sanitize the rampant debauchery, brutal violence, and horrific bigotry and persecution that defined the Roman Empire. Lucky for us, Cecil B. DeMille made The Sign of the Cross just before compliance with the Code became mandatory, and the legendary director takes full advantage of the freedom, mounting a dazzling, often shocking movie that revels in all the lascivious, sadistic, and bizarre elements that make Ancient Rome so fascinating.
Of course, if any film single-handedly spurred the full adoption of the Code, it was certainly The Sign of the Cross. DeMille pulls out all the stops in this chronicle of Christian persecution during the Emperor Nero's turbulent reign in the first century. The love story between pagan Roman prefect Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) and paragon of virtue Mercia (Elissa Landi), a devout Christian, may dominate the film, but what we remember is a naked Claudette Colbert, as Nero's wicked wife Poppaea, luxuriating in a frothy bath of mule's milk that doesn't always cover her breasts, a wild orgy featuring a bisexual temptress, Roman soldiers piercing a throng of peaceful Christians with a barrage of arrows, and a teenage boy being brutally tortured when he refuses to betray his Christian comrades to Roman officials. And that's all before the climactic Colosseum sequence that contains bloody gladiator battles, alligators attacking bound naked women, an elephant stomping on the head of a prone man, pygmies fighting female warriors, a graphic beheading, and - of course - a pack of lions gnawing on the flesh of condemned Christians...all while hundreds of rabid spectators roar.
Yes, it's salacious, exploitative, occasionally horrifying, and often campy, but The Sign of the Cross - 88 years after its initial release - remains a beautifully filmed, expertly acted, and historically reverent motion picture that brims with cinematic artistry. That's right, artistry. While it's true DeMille is more of a showman than a craftsman most of the time, he goes the extra mile with The Sign of the Cross, expertly balancing eye-filling spectacle with striking shot compositions, technical innovations that lend the film a fluidity others pictures of the period lack (it was the first movie to use a camera crane), and a sumptuous production design that immerses us in the pageantry, skullduggery, and gaudy excess of Rome.
DeMille had a lot riding on The Sign of the Cross...first and foremost, his career. After a couple of flops, his reputation plummeted, prompting the studio he helped create to lose confidence in him. He almost had to beg Paramount to let him make The Sign of the Cross, and the project got the green light only after DeMille agreed to put up half of the relatively meager budget from his personal funds. With help from future director Mitchell Leisen, who designed the lavish costumes as well as many impressive sets, and acclaimed cinematographer Karl Struss, who won the first cinematography Oscar for Sunrise and lends the picture a lush, beautifully contoured look, DeMille gets plenty of bang for his bucks. He wisely keeps his presentation intimate, yet The Sign of the Cross still oozes opulence, proving its possible to do a whole lot with very little.
The third film in DeMille's religious trilogy (the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments and 1927's The King of Kings are the other two) opens with Rome in flames and the deliciously wacko Nero (Charles Laughton) serenely playing his lyre while it burns. When his advisor expresses concern over a probable backlash by an angry populace, the devious emperor suggests blaming the blaze on the Christians, whose growing numbers threaten the security of his dictatorial rule. That forces the devout group to go undercover and sets up a showdown between paganism and religion that culminates in the attempted extermination of anyone who follows the teachings of Christ.
Marcus, who revels in his elevated status and the indulgent perks it affords him, finds himself caught between his love for Mercia and the manipulations of the evil Empress Poppaea, who desperately wants him in her bed. Marcus hopes to lure Mercia away from her faith, but her steadfast beliefs eventually land her in the dungeon and test the limits of Marcus's love.
If you think the plot sounds a lot like Quo Vadis, the 1896 Henryk Sienkiewicz novel that MGM would adapt into a dazzling blockbuster with Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr in 1951, you're right. The play upon which The Sign of the Cross is based was written a couple of decades after the publication of Quo Vadis, and the parallels border on plagiarism. The narrative, though, is only a minor element of The Sign of the Cross. It's the atmosphere, spectacle, shocking imagery, and audacious antics of the depraved characters that fuel and sustain DeMille's arresting epic.
And none of it would be nearly as entertaining without the fine performances of the stellar cast. March, who's usually impeccable (a year before he won his first Best Actor Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), overacts a bit as the arrogant lothario who learns the true meaning of love, but he's still a magnetic, macho presence and wears his Roman breastplate well. Landi, whose Hollywood career was all too brief and whose life was cut short by cancer in 1948 when she was only 43, files a luminous portrayal bursting with warmth and sincerity. Her radiant face reflects the light of the Lord, but she also generates a fair degree of heat with March that makes their romance believable.
March and Landi dominate the film, but Colbert and Laughton steal the picture. It's too bad both are supporting players here; we miss them when they're off screen, but when they're on, they hijack attention in every scene in which they appear. Laughton's fake proboscis helps him embody the corrupt, degenerate, gluttonous emperor who's often flanked by a practically naked boy-toy. Laughton's blasé attitude toward human suffering and childlike glee when inflicting cruelty make him a revolting and riveting presence in his American film debut.
Laughton almost never gets upstaged (he just doesn't allow it), but Colbert manages the feat as the predatory Poppaea, who slithers like a snake and snarls like a tigress. Her arched eyebrows, pursed lips, and laser glares cut like a knife and transmit plenty of raw sexuality, and Colbert, who rarely got the chance to play a bitch, seems to relish every moment. Much has been made of Hedy Lamarr's nude swimming scene in Ecstasy, made a year later in Europe, but Colbert's dip in the milk bath is equally risqué and a watershed moment in American film. If any one scene is responsible for ushering in a generation of movie censorship, it's that one.
The Sign of the Cross was a huge hit when released in late 1932. It revived DeMille's career, saved Paramount Pictures from economic ruin during the depths of the Depression, and made stars of Colbert and Laughton. Today, this eye-opening film is quite possibly more fascinating and more fun than it was then, especially for those of us who know just how far it pushes the envelope. And yet the reverential spirit of The Sign of the Cross still makes an impression, and during this time of uncertainty and unrest, its unwavering faith reassures.
The Sign of the Cross may not be Hollywood's best Roman epic, but it's without question its most provocative, and that makes this DeMille masterwork a must-see movie.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Sign of the Cross arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HDMaster Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
This excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is taken from a full-length print of The Sign of the Cross that was preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. (After the Motion Picture Production Code began to be rigorously enforced in 1934, several objectionable elements in The Sign of the Cross were deleted for subsequent reissues. All that material was meticulously restored in the 1990s, thus enabling the complete version of the film to reside on this Blu-ray disc.) The gorgeous cinematography by Karl Struss earned the movie's only Oscar nomination, and this transfer faithfully honors it. A consistent, pleasing grain structure maintains the feel of celluloid, and though Struss employed soft focus techniques throughout much of the film, clarity is not at all compromised. Superior contrast and grayscale enhance depth (which is a critical component of this movie's beauty), the fine details on the lavish costumes and opulent sets are easy to discern, and all the close-ups of stars and extras alike are wonderfully sharp.
Rich, deep blacks anchor the image, while the frothy white bubbles of Poppaea's milk bath are bright and airy. Terrific shadow delineation keeps crush at bay most of the time, and silhouettes are nicely defined. Though the source material isn't spotless - errant nicks, marks, and scratches periodically pop up - the imperfections are rarely bold enough to grab attention. The Sign of the Cross stands as one of the most visually impressive films of the early sound period, and this high-quality rendering brings all the dazzling elements to life like never before.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track nicely spruces up the 88-year-old audio. Though a higher than normal volume setting is needed to get the track to a comfortable listening level, the sound is clear and well modulated throughout. There's not much music in The Sign of the Cross, which was made before music scores became de rigueur film components, but what's there exudes a fullness of tone that allows it to fill the room. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend, as are the growls of the wild animals and grunts of the gladiators during the shocking Colosseum scenes, and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been meticulously erased. Most early talkies sound rough, tinny, shrill, and hollow, but not this one, and that's good news indeed.
Aside from a theatrical trailer for the film and a slew of other previews for movies starring Colbert, March, and Laughton, the only supplements are a pair of audio commentaries. The first features film historian and pre-Code Hollywood expert Mark A. Viera, co-author of a DeMille biography, who chronicles the production history of The Sign of the Cross and provides fascinating insights into DeMille's artistic style, technical prowess, and ability to mount such massive epics. Viera shares numerous anecdotes and bits of trivia, points out the material that was cut by the censors for the film's various reissues, cites the differences between the stage play and movie, notes how the graphic violence horrified audiences of the day, and discusses the themes and symbolism that permeate the picture. This is a fascinating and informative track that greatly enhances appreciation for this classic film and the director who made it.
Film historian David Del Valle sits down for the second track, which covers much the same territory as the first. Del Valle's lively delivery and obvious enthusiasm for The Sign of the Cross keep his discussion engaging, but aside from a few gossipy anecdotes, there's not much new information. Both tracks are worth a listen and you can't go wrong with either one. If you crave a more scholarly presentation, go with Viera. If you're looking for a more conversational treatment, Del Valle is your man.
The Sign of the Cross may not be as well known or beloved as The Ten Commandments, but it's certainly Cecil B. DeMille's most provocative film. It's also one of the iconic director's most artistic epics and impressive productions. DeMille packs this engrossing story of Christian persecution and resilience during Nero's reign of terror in first-century Rome with scandalous scenes, shocking violence, pageantry, spectacle, doomed love, and inspiration galore, and draws marvelous performances from Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, and a young Charles Laughton. Kino honors all the pre-Code debauchery with a beautiful transfer that celebrates Karl Struss's arresting, Oscar-nominated cinematography, solid audio, and a couple of interesting commentary tracks. At last, the full-length, uncut version of The Sign of the Cross is available on Blu-ray, and every DeMille fan and classics junkie needs to add it to their collection. Highly Recommended.