The Sign of the Cross, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and released in 1932, is based on a play of the same name, produced in 1895. It is said to resemble the novel Quo Vadis? which was published around the same time, and which has been made into several movies, notably Quo Vadis in 1951. That movie is more spectacular, being filmed in technicolor, which allows us to see how beautiful Rome was. But The Sign of the Cross is a pre-Code movie, and as such, it has a quality not captured by this later film.
And then there are the historical facts of the matter. Liberties are taken in both movies, of course, but what is more important lies in the differences between these two movies and what they choose to emphasize, regardless of what may or may not be historically accurate.
The Sign of the Cross begins in Rome in 64 A.D., on the third night of a great fire, during which thousands of people have died. The Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) is playing a lyre. Suddenly, one of the strings of his lyre breaks, spoiling his whole evening. He collapses in his throne, distraught.
As is often the case in such movies, Romans are played by British actors, such as Laughton, especially if they are degenerates, but good Romans tend to be played by American actors, in this case Fredric March, in the role of Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome.
In Quo Vadis, Nero is played by another British actor, Peter Ustinov, while Marcus Vinicius, a good Roman, is played by Robert Taylor, an American actor.
Ben-Hur (1959) has British actors Jack Hawkins and Hugh Griffith, along with Stephen Boyd of Northern Ireland. Charlton Heston, an American actor, plays the title character, who is a Jew. Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov play Romans in Spartacus (1960), as does Laurence Olivier, another British actor. The good guy is played by Kirk Douglas, an American actor. In The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) we have Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, all from the United Kingdom, including more I haven’t bothered to list. In The Passover Plot (1976), Donald Pleasance plays Pontius Pilate, and of course he is a British actor, as is Malcolm McDowell, who played the title emperor in Caligula (1979). The television miniseries I, Claudius (1976) used British actors Derek Jacobi and John Hurt for Claudius and Caligula respectively, much in the way the never-completed version of I, Claudius in 1937 used Charles Laughton and British actor Emlyn Williams for those roles.
We are so used to seeing these British actors playing evil or decadent Romans that we almost forget to ask ourselves why. An American actor could play such a part just as well, as does Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator (2000), although this is more than made up for by the British actors Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Derek Jacobi, who are also Romans in this movie. If foreign actors were needed to play the roles of Romans given to sin and corruption, so that American actors would play the decent Romans for the most part, then I should have thought those foreign actors would have been Italian, Rome being in Italy, after all.
Failing to see any reason why British actors dominate the field when it comes to playing Romans, I was tempted to guess that it was just by chance that Charles Laughton was selected to play Nero in The Sign of the Cross, and he did such a good job that Hollywood has been picking British actors for such roles ever since. The only other reason I could think of why British actors have been so regularly asked to play the parts of decadent, if not degenerate, Romans is that there is an American prejudice about the British people, suspecting them of being very much like those Romans.
One such suspicion may have something to do with homosexuality. In his book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, Thomas Doherty says that one way movies could indicate that a character was a homosexual was to have him be British:
Associated with the upper ranks of the British class system and the backstage worlds of theater and high fashion, the mincing gestures and perfumed wardrobe of the nance had been staples of vaudeville sketches, legitimate theater, and the silent screen in the 1920s….
Sound gave the nance a voice: a high-pitched trill, often British in inflection or vaguely foreign in accent. [page 121]
Whether this association of the British with homosexuality was based on reality or merely an unwarranted American prejudice, I cannot say. But lately, it seems that this association has found its way into heterosexual relationships as well, and this brought about by the British themselves. It all started when I saw the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), which is set in England. It is directed by Matthew Vaughn, a British film producer, and stars Taron Egerton, a British actor, playing a superspy. Toward the end of the movie, a beautiful princess tells Egerton that after he saves the world, “We can do it in the asshole.” Boy, does he ever hurry up and save the world, returning with champagne and two glasses, at which point the beautiful princess presents her butt for penetration.
Now, I can certainly understand anal sex for homosexuals. And in times past, it may have been practiced by heterosexuals as a form of birth control. But the idea of this movie seems to be that anal sex is a treat for male heterosexuals, the best form of sex with a woman any man could possibly want, but which the princess reserves only for someone who is special.
One movie like that, by itself, means nothing. But several years later, a woman who is a friend of mine recommended the television show Fleabag (2016-2019). So, I decided to give it a try and rented the DVD. In the pilot, in the very first scene, the title character has met some man in a nightclub and they agreed to meet back at her place to have sex. Much to her surprise, the man inserts his penis into her rectum. When she wakes up the next morning, she sees him looking at her with worship in his eyes. You see, no woman had ever let him do anal on the first date before. She is the ideal woman. His character is the “Arsehole Guy,” played by a British actor. And Fleabag is played by a British actress. And the story is set in London.
I pressed the eject button and sent the DVD back. I wanted to ask my friend what she thought about that scene, but I never worked up the nerve.
Just recently, I watched the movie The Forgiven (2021). At some point in the movie, a woman asks a man whether a prostitute he availed himself of did anal. “What’s the point of a hooker if she doesn’t do anal?” he replies. The idea seems to be that the world is full of women from whom you can get vaginal sex, but if you want it really good, if you want the ultimate form of sex that most men only dream of, the ecstasy for which there is no equal, then you may have to pay a prostitute for that. But if she doesn’t do anal, she’s worthless. You might just as well settle for ordinary sex with ordinary women and get if for free. The woman he is talking to jokingly threatens to tell his mother he said that. “My mother would be fascinated,” is his reply. It sounds as though he thinks his mother might like to try a little anal sex herself.
“This must be another British production,” I said to myself, as I hit the eject button. I was right. The director is British, and there are several British actors in this movie as well. With this third example, I’m starting to wonder if using British actors to play Romans has something to do with this British obsession with anal sex, something long suspected by Americans, but only recently made explicit in these movies.
But I digress. Returning to The Sign of the Cross, the movie presents us with a choice. If you lived in the first century A.D., would you rather be a pagan or a Christian? At first, I thought I might prefer to be a pagan, since they seem to be having a good time, what with all the feasting and drinking; although the one thing I wouldn’t want to drink would be a glass of milk, for I would wonder where it came from, having seen the Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) bathing in a swimming pool full of asses’ milk. That’s icky, but as film critic Joe Bob Briggs might have pointed out, you do get to see most of her breasts. And then there seems to be lots of fornicating going on, so that’s a big plus. Being a Christian, on the other hand, would seem to be a drag. The Christians are plodding in their movements, heavy in their speech. But according to the movie, the Roman soldiers are trying to find them and kill them, so I guess we can’t be surprised if they aren’t having much fun.
The Roman soldiers are trying to kill all the Christians because they believe in a “dangerous superstition,” refusing to recognize that Nero is a god. But in addition to that, Tigillenus, head of the Praetorian Guard, warns Nero that the people might blame him for the fire, especially since Nero says he is glad Rome is burning. Nero suggests that the blame be shifted to the Christians, making it easier to root them out and have them all killed. This is what they do.
In the midst of all that, we have a love story between a pagan and a Christian, where Marcus Superbus falls in love with Mercia, a beautiful woman, whose parents were coated with pitch and burned as torches to light up one of Nero’s orgies. Unfortunately, a child that lives in the same house she does is captured and subjected to unspeakable tortures, forcing him to tell where all the Christians will be meeting that night.
Note 1: The corresponding child in Quo Vadis is not tortured, nor is he later sent to his death in the arena as he is in The Sign of the Cross. Instead, he escapes from Rome unmolested with the help of Saint Peter.
At the meeting that the child told about, there is a Christian who had seen Jesus and heard him speak. He tells of what he learned:
For me, for all men, he lifted the black mist from the face of God. And there was no longer the God of wrath, but only a loving father. All that we had been taught before about the great spirit became suddenly a new understanding, a compassionate God to whom we could turn.
Later on, when they are about to face death in the arena, several of the Christians begin wishing they still had that God of wrath, one who would make short work of the Romans, much in the way he helped the Hebrews slaughter whole nations in the Old Testament. But given their present situation, the most they can realistically believe in is a God of compassion, one who won’t do anything to protect them, but will at least feel sorry for them.
Tigillenus shows up with his men, who start killing the Christians. They would have killed them all, but Marcus and his men arrive and put a stop to it. Those still alive are taken prisoner, including Mercia. They will still be executed, but now it will happen in the arena. Marcus manages to get Mercia out of the prison and bring her to his house. He offers her freedom, but she would have to forget about the other Christians as they go to their death, which she says she cannot do. And she would have to have sex with him without the benefit of marriage. She says she’d rather die with the rest of the Christians. Friends of Marcus, who are in the next room enjoying the banquet he is having at his house, come in and interrupt their argument. Marcus gets a wicked woman named Ancaria to do the “Dance of the Naked Moon,” trying to seduce Mercia, but she is not amused, let alone seduced. Maybe Marcus thought a little lesbian lust would put Mercia in the mood for love. In any event, Ancaria’s dance is spoiled as they hear Christians singing on their way to the arena dungeon. Marcus tells everyone to leave, after which he and Mercia begin arguing again. Then Tigillenus shows up with orders to take Mercia to the arena dungeon too.
Still not giving up, Marcus tries to get Nero to make an exception to his decree that all Christians must be put to death, letting him have Mercia, but Poppaea disapproves and chastises the easily manipulated Nero. She is in love with Marcus and wants Mercia out of the way. Nero says Mercia might be spared if she publicly renounces her faith. He then hastens away, saying he doesn’t want to be late for the games.
The games! This is where you know you could never be a Roman, witnessing the gruesome cruelty presented in the arena. But fortunately, you can be an American watching the depiction of said spectacles in a movie like this one, and not feel the least little bit of guilt. But even more fortunately, the movie was not filmed in Smell-O-Vision. A sign advertising the games promises that the arena will be perfumed between events, and we actually see such perfuming being done. We hear a typical Roman married couple arguing about the seats they will have. They have their son with them, about ten years old, I’d say, because it’s never too soon to introduce your children to the games. The wife complains they will be sitting up so high that they won’t see much, but the husband points out that at least the smell of Christian blood won’t be so strong.
Of course, we know that it is more than blood they will smell. When gladiators kill one another, or when slaves or Christians are killed by one means or another, their corpses will have their final bowel movement, as the feces are let loose into their pants or onto the floor of the arena. Somehow, I just don’t think perfume would be able to fully cope with the foul stench of death that those games produced.
But even without the smell, the games depicted in this movie are the worst I’ve ever seen. We hear a Roman say that there are a thousand coffins ready for the dead. In addition to gladiators killing one another, we also have barbarian women and pygmies engaged in mortal combat. Then we see elephants crushing the skulls of bound slaves. A beautiful, scantily clad woman is tied up as crocodiles are released so they can devour her. A naked woman is tied to a pole, and a gorilla is let into the arena. As he looks at her, the camera shifts to the audience, and from the reaction shot, we know that the gorilla is ravishing her.
As a matter of fact, the worst part of these games is the audience reaction. As a slave slowly dies from having been gored by a bull, his arms reaching out for mercy, the audience is hysterical with laughter. Lovers, on the other hand, are sexually aroused. The intense emotions they experience as they watch gladiators being disemboweled is channeled into the love they have for each other. They gaze longingly into each other’s eyes with sweet affection as they hear screams of death coming from the arena.
Note 2: Writing for the New York Times in 1951, Bosley Crowther, in reviewing Quo Vadis, makes a comment that I can scarcely countenance:
“And for such awesome exhibitions as the historic burning of Rome or the slaughter of Christian martyrs, which was common in Nero’s time, there has never been a picture that offered the equal of this. Even the previous excursion of Cecil B. DeMille in this realm in his left-handed version of ‘Quo Vadis?’, the memorable ‘The Sign of the Cross,’ had nothing to match the horrendous and morbid spectacles of human brutality and destruction that Director Mervyn LeRoy has got in this.”
I’ll admit that the fire is spectacular. But when it comes to the games, it is exactly the opposite of what Crowther says here. It is The Sign of the Cross that has the “horrendous and morbid spectacles,” while Quo Vadis is relatively tame in comparison. I can only suppose that he saw a version of The Sign of the Cross that had been severely edited after the Production Code started being strictly enforced in 1934.
Furthermore, none of the events described above have any corresponding scenes in Quo Vadis: there are no gladiators killing one another, no mortal combat between barbarian women and pygmies, no elephants crushing skulls, no crocodiles eating a beautiful maiden, and absolutely no gorilla raping a naked woman. We see only scenes of Christians being killed.
Finally, the sentiment of the audience in Quo Vadis begins to turn against Nero, disapproving of his slaughter of the Christians, unlike the audience in The Sign of the Cross, which is with him all the way, cheering, laughing, lusting.
It is also unnerving to listen to the Christians being held in the dungeon as they await their turn in the circus, the climax of events, where they are to be devoured by lions. Only Mercia seems to believe wholeheartedly, although even she starts to break at one point. All the rest of the Christians are terrified, though they do manage to sing as they are being led to the lions. To say they only half believe would be saying too much. Rather, their cries to God are pathetic, a desperate clinging to a hope that provides no comfort, like men who at the moment of death cry for their mothers.
Note 3: In Quo Vadis, the Christians go to their death in peace, knowing that the kingdom of God awaits them. After it is over, Nero walks through the arena to look at what remains of the bodies of the dead Christians. He is appalled at the way their corpses all have smiles on their faces. Perhaps this was required by the Production Code, which frowned on showing Christians having doubts, questioning why God does not save them, and experiencing agony in their final moments.
Marcus tries to get Mercia to renounce her faith, saying that Nero will spare her for Marcus’s sake if she does, and then he promises he will marry her. But she will not renounce her faith. Poppaea has saved her for last, the other Christians having already met their end. As Mercia prepares to enter the arena, Marcus chooses to go with her. He is an atheist, but if he cannot believe in any pagan god, he tries to believe in Christ, if only because he believes in her. Together, they enter the arena, and as the doors close behind them, a light shining on those doors forms the sign of the cross, assuring us that they will go to Heaven.
Well, I don’t know about that, but those Romans definitely deserved to burn forever in the fires of Hell.
Note 4: Marcus Vinicius and Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in Quo Vadis correspond to Marcus Superbus and Mercia in The Sign of the Cross. When Lygia’s giant slave kills a bull in the arena, where she was tied to a pole, the audience cheers for them and signals thumbs up, with only Nero signaling thumbs down. But Nero is thwarted when soldiers loyal to Marcus win the day. Marcus and Lydia, who were married by Saint Peter, are spared, and they live happily ever after.
The Sign of the Cross ends with Nero and Poppaea triumphant. In Quo Vadis, however, Marcus declares that henceforth, General Galba will be emperor of Rome. Having been deserted by the Praetorian Guard and the people, Nero strangles Poppaea and then commits suicide.
So, it’s thumbs up for The Sign of the Cross, and thumbs down for Quo Vadis.