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Sign of the Cross, The
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by dionwr

"Irresistable trash--Cecil B. DeMille's best film"
4 stars

As Pauline Kael once famously opined, "The movies are so rarely great art, that if we can't appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go." Cecil B. DeMille may have existed just to illustrate this point. And the ongoing, inevitable debate among film critics every since is, at some point, can great trash actually be art?

Sign of the Cross is DeMille's best film, and combines all his strengths and all his weaknesses. The story is an old Victorian chestnut that had been done multiple times on stages in England and America and several times as silent movies. It's all about the persecution of the Christians by Rome after the great fire of 64 A.D., with a Roman prefect (Fredric March) falling for a young, innocent (and radiantly beautiful, of course) Christian (Elissa Landi).

Its acting, editing and photography were all first-rate, though that early 30's style of acting reads a bit hammy these days, and this is one of those black-and-white films that we Old Fart critics like to point out to younger viewers who resist black-and-white on general principle.

DeMille prided himself on his historical reconstruction, and would go to great lengths to ensure that the sets, costumes, hairstyles, and props were all as authentic as he could get them, while at the same time being cheerfully anachronistic whenever it suited him. So the film has the cross being used by the Christians as a signal, when in reality early Christians used the fish--the cross wasn't adopted for several centuries later. That point having been made, the film conveys a good sense of ancient Rome. Its crowded, narrow, lived-in streets certainly seem more plausible than the over-production-designed, overly pretty, humongous vistas of Rome shown in the recent film, Gladiator.

March is all snarls and testosterone as the Roman prefect (like a chief of police), lashing out with his whip whenever anyone gets in his way. Think of a spoiled frat boy who considers the Rodney King case a model of how to act, and you've got him. Landi manages to be simple and innocent without being silly or simpering. The huge contrast between the two, with their sudden, mutual attraction for each other, is one of the joys of the film. She's interested in matters of the spirit; and despite his genuine and deep attraction to her, his interest is decidedly unspiritual. Naturally, her purity reaches him, and he has a complete change of heart in the end.

But that's just the central characters.

Typical of DeMille, he wrapped up his Christian sermon with as much sin as he could get away with showing in pre-Hays Office Hollywood. For sexual titillation, this is state of the art filmmaking, circa 1932.

So you see the empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) swimming naked in the famous bath of goat's milk (with the lovely detail of seeing the slaves having to milk all those goats, and the kittens that are lapping at the milk by the edge of the pool), and an attempted lesbian seduction of our innocent Christian maid (portrayed by having a scantily clad woman do a shimmy dance at her which wouldn't make a four-year-old turn their head these days), and lots of almost naked women being sent to various Dooms in the arena. I particularly liked the woman clothed only in a garland of flowers that just cover the strategic parts of her body left chained to a column to be (it is strongly implied) sexually attacked by a gorilla. For all his professions of faith, DeMille's had real talents for titillation and cruelty.

Also typical of DeMille, it's the villains that are the more memorable, interesting characters, and Sign of the Cross has three great ones: the emporer Nero (Charles Laughton), the empress Poppaea, and a scheming rival of our hero, Tigellinus (Ian Keith). Laughton is obviously having the time of his life playing Nero, singing to the flames at the burning of Rome, and literally smacking his lips at all his "delicious debauchery." Colbert is just as good: simmeringly sexy, angelically beautiful, and with a heart as hard as obsidian. And Ian Keith is absolutely the template of well-spoken malignity that we've seen in a thousand movies since--you could take Keith out of this and insert him in as Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and he could do it without breaking stride.

It ends up with the Christians sent to the arena to be dispatched in various inventive ways, in a scene that stays with you. Very little is actually shown of the bloodshed (though you do get the pygmy spitted like shish-ke-bob on the spear of the Amazon in the gladiatorial contests), with DeMille mostly cutting away to the reactions of the crowd. The Roman's blase enjoyment of bloodshed and torment is indelible. In one oft-cited juxtaposition, the film dissolves slowly from a snarling tiger to the face of a female spectator, obviously turned on by the bloodshed she is watching.

Finally, there is one particular scene so memorable it must be mentioned. Tigellinus has captured a young boy who knows where the Christians are to meet. His torturer takes the boy offscreen, down into the dungeon. Tigellinus gestures, and one of his soldiers brings him a stool so he can sit and watch. He waves his hand, and the boy's screams are heard from offscreen. You don't see a thing. You don't need to. It's the most horrible and memorable torture scene I know of, in any movie.

Despite the campy moments, the film leaves a solid impression of a time so nasty, grim and unforgiving that the martyrdom the Christians embrace is an attractive alernative.

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originally posted: 02/13/05 18:04:30
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  DVD: 10-May-2011



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