Here are some excerpts of a review/assignment on SIGN OF THE CROSS. I had mixed feelings on this one, on a personal level I certainly felt moved, but as a film you can see how comparatively small it is to other bigger budget films for DeMille. However, it is easily one that sucks you in and is much darker then something like QUO VADIS.
The narrative purpose of DeMille’s Sign of the Cross seems to be part didacticism and part DeMille’s interpretation of faith of not only ancient Rome, but of modern times. The purpose ultimately seems to me, that faith is a convoluted ideal that often times have people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. To elaborate it seems that people’s pursuits for faith are often compromised by humanly emotions of love, desire, and fear. The story is propelled by the tragic tale that has echoes of Romeo and Juliet, 2 star crossed lovers in Marcus and Mercia, who are doomed from the first moment they lock eyes and stumble all over themselves in terrible dialogue and bad love scenes. We have a scheming empress in Poppea who is in love with Marcus, the decadent Nero and his power hungry centurion leader Tigellinus, and a bunch of women who serve as both eye candy and temptations of this unholy world. Having never seen this I could see that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending within these characters and their mannerisms and dress and simple dialogue seems to separate the good from the bad. Archetypes are cast big brutes for common Roman spies/drunks, demure, but beautiful and virtuous Christian Mercia, gorgeous and evil Poppea all embody the themes of the film, good and evil and the daily battle of life in a world of decadence.
Key scenes like the milk bath, but the scene of the boy Stephan being asked if he was prepared to die for his faith by Titus before he goes for bread foreshadows the grave test he will be put to, but also illustrates his innocence by agreeing to die and then in the next beat saying he’ll be right back, he knows the way, with a smile that takes away from the seriousness of what is and will be asked of him. Marcus love for Mercia is interesting as well, he seeks her out at home and then does everything he can to save her, but two scenes stick out in the way he tests/tempts her and then the depiction of his deep love for her. When Mercia is arrested Marcus gets her out of jail and has her dressed in white and brought to a party where he has her serenaded by seductive temptress that hint at lesbianism, but more at the base desire of lust. Mercia is trapped by her worldly love for Marcus, but is reminded of her faith by the chanting of the Christian prisoners being led to the arena. This scene is like the ‘passion of Mercia’ where she is tempted by desire and worldly love against her faith and love and devotion to her people and God. Though the way DeMille portrays love for God is more of Mercia’s devotion to her people/family like Stephan then with God/Jesus who is more a distant and absent/passive figure.
I don’t believe DeMille is trying to be didactic in the Michael Wigglesworth Day of Doom way, but more as a loud proclamation of here is the world and faith is not enough! And to go even a bit further when Mercia leans against the door as Stephan is finally led away to his death in the arena she cries out, ‘Why Jesus why?’ as if God is a passive actor with no happy ending except through suffering and death. I’m not sure if DeMille is critiquing faith because he does present Marcus as ultimately choosing to die with his love Mercia and join her in the search for God. Marcus says he feels like he can change and that he could have her faith too, and the message is confused, is he choosing to die for a woman so he can have her in the afterlife? I don’t think I completely buy into that because while Marcus may be partially doing the right thing for a wrong reason, it is a blind trust that he will have her in the next life if it is true about God and heaven. That in it of itself is a major leap of faith for a man who can seriously have any woman, including the empress to satiate his lusts. The message transcends lust because he’s willing to die to be with her, that is the ultimate love and sacrifice similar to the Passion of Christ.
. The acting is great, even if the dialogue and a few sappy love scenes are minor hiccups of an otherwise great film. Claudette Colbert is sultry and when you are introduced to her naked in a milk bath you can feel her sexuality and as she orders her friend to get naked and join her in the bath is extremely titillating. Elissa Landi has this way with her mouth that makes her look timid and innocent, but also virginal and beautiful, the scene where she is comforting the prisoners before death she is now wearing a dark cloak over the white garb she wore in the dance scene and it tells you that she is a mix of desire and piety. Fredric March is probably the weakest of the actors because he seems to have these confused looks on his face, which are good for the torn scenes he has about Mercia and faith, but when he’s supposed to be a commander and facing down Tigellinus he still looks confused and not dominant and alpha male. Tommy Conlon is great too as the young boy Stephan who is the most ‘real’ of all the characters because he shows fear and a desire to live, there is no romantic scene of him running to face death or spitting in the eye of the torturers, he cries, he’s scared, he tells everything, and he hides beneath Mercia’s feet instead of facing down the lions. Poppea and Marcus motivations are absolutely clear, they each want what they want and are willing to pursue it into games of death to get it. Titus can be put here too because he is intent on spreading the message and ready to die to carry it, but he also reminds Stephan that he too must lay down his life. Mercia’s motivations are a mixed bag, she feels love for Marcus and has desire to succumb to this lust/love, but she also has faith in her heart, but it does take some intervention from circumstance and in particular the chanting of the Christians to remind her. The acting certainly overcomes the poor writing, even Marcus confused looks and poor acting overcome the sappy scenes of love and at the end because the weight of the story, the gravity and depravity of the scenes, and Mercia and Poppea’s solid performances carrying DeMille’s message. Poppea’s extreme hatred of Mercia are seen as she refuses to let her live and then has her brought out alone so she can relish seeing her death without other horrors/entertainment going on simultaneously. The character’s end exactly how you would guess, tragic, but wrapped in the cloak of love. There is no hero to destroy Nero and Poppea and restore Stephan to Mercia, and Mercia to Marcus and everyone good meets their end and the evil triumphs in this life. Marcus choosing to die isn’t a surprise or twist either because eventually his confusion would be unraveled and he wasn’t going to go with the obvious (and probably more realistic) choice of watching Mercia die while he seeks comfort in the arms of Poppea.
The cinematic/diegetic world is very effective in portraying what in my mind Rome was, togas, sandals, cloaks in terms of costumes. The scenes are the most powerful and some of what DeMille seems to do best, with scenes of markets with people milling about, the arena colosseum-like and filled with toga clad people. The opening scene with Nero lounging on a stone throne and Poppea in her enormous milk bath all scream decadence and Rome. The most realistic was probably the milk bath because of how huge and quite obviously something white, possibly actual milk was used to fill an enormous and elaborate bath with statues and the ubiquitous eagles of royalty around. The least realistic was probably the prison at the end with the stairway to the arena, it felt like a scene like something out of the Wizard of Oz like Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road and cut scene before they run into a wall, and in the film fade out of Mercia and Marcus arm in arm or close the doors as Stephan marches up. These don’t take away from the power of the film, but look very fake compared to the large open scenes in the markets and arena.
....Certainly DeMille is the master of mise-en-scene and there are some great tracking shots. I'd like to explore more of his work.