Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign Of The Cross (1932) is one of the most infamous of Hollywood’s pre-Code era. In a film that owes more than a little to Henryk Sienkiewicz, DeMille freely juxtaposes dialogue expounding on Christian morality with tantalizing spectacles of the violence and nudity of Emperor Nero’s Rome. It’s a dichotomy that has always served DeMille; give viewers sex and violence all while condemning sex and violence.
The Sign Of The Cross is a film of the D.W. Griffith school of filmmaking. Forever a classicist in this regard, DeMille’s images are theatrical and the acting campy. As with King Of Kings (1927), DeMille strives to make the Rome of The Sign Of The Cross look like a children’s illustrated history text book come to life. DeMille embraces artifice in performance and production design, manufacturing a cinematic world that is the ethereal made concrete.
The sterility of DeMille’s plastic facades is a cozy place for antiquated Christian beliefs to dwell. More than half of The Sign Of The Cross is dedicated to generating images that serve to reinforce Christian doctrines. Yet the other half of the film, that portion which is organic as human flesh, flies in the face of decency and invites the viewer to indulge in some outrageously debauched fantasies. It is these titillating scenes which have endured in the popular imagination. It is these moments of carnal revelry that made The Sign Of The Cross a hit and a classic.
The sequences in which Charles Laughton’s Nero presides over the gladiatorial blood sports is the richest example of DeMille’s masterful command of schadenfreude. Here DeMille treats his audience to a bevy of naked or scantily clad women, some tied to posts and threatened by alligators or gorillas while others battle “pygmies” to the death. Beheadings are followed by shots of bare buttocks and thighs. But DeMille doesn’t stage the scenes in the arena with an eye on Griffith’s classicism as he does in the dramatic, plot driven scenes. Here DeMille makes excellent use of cross fades, creating a series of overlays whose union between two images creates a humorous symmetry. In one instance an aroused courtesan’s twisted expression of pleasure is overlaid with the face of a snarling, bloodthirsty tiger.
Though not as formally impressive as the scenes at Rome’s colosseum but even more infamous is the scene in which Claudette Colbert baths in asses’ milk. The future Cleopatra’s naked body is hardly concealed as Colbert engages in her longest scene of continuous dialogue in the entirety of The Sign Of The Cross. It’s one of the great scenes of uninhibited sexuality in the pre-Code era but it’s also a great showcase for Colbert. Provocative outfits and partial nudity aside, it is Colbert’s performance as Poppaea that feels the most modern. Unlike the toy soldier that Fredric March plays, Colbert’s Roman Empress is a figure very much of the thirties with more on-screen charisma than any of her top tier co-stars.
Essentially what DeMille accomplishes with The Sign Of The Cross is that he makes the Christian good guys appear stuffy and bland while the Roman villains seem like flesh and blood human beings that have a lot of questionable and kinky fun. The Sign Of The Cross, with its inherent duality, perfectly reflects the fundamental contradiction of American Christian culture; the desire to live in God but sin like the devil.