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The Sign of the Cross (1932)

The Sign of the Cross. Feature film. (1932, 125 mins) IMDB

...just in time for Easter...


HE SIGN OF THE CROSS is probably an appropriate movie to watch around Easter although I'm sure there are many more that would be appropriate--not that I believe any of it.

The film takes place in Rome around 64 CE. Nero is Emperor (Laughton). Hedonistic. Indifferent to his people. Selfish. A non-Christian. When a massive fire rips through Rome, his thoughts turn to PR--how to get the people to believe the Christians were responsible. If he can do that, the Christians will be targeted for ridicule and death.

As the story unfolds, civilians and Roman soldiers round up Christians. They are killed for their beliefs. To avoid being captured, Christianity is a secret society based on the sign of the cross--hence the title.

If the film were simply about oppression and persecution, it would be tiresome, but the film isn't about Rome and Christians, it's a love story set in this milieu.

Mercia is a lovely, young Christian living with her father and younger brother. Marcus is a high-ranking Roman official. One day while Mercia is a filling a jug with water, he spots her and falls in love. Since one of his jobs is to round up Christians to be fed to lions, she's naturally reluctant to be involved with him.

In an Act I scene to show he has a heart, he turns a blind eye to an obvious lead to finding Christians (her brother returning to a baker to get a loaf of bread). He lets his emotions get in the way of doing his duty.

His rival, Tigellinus, uses this against him and soon Marcus is at odds with Nero. Marcus is sentenced to prison and the Christians in question, including Mercia, are captured. Marcus would die save for the Empress who is love with him. She convinces Nero to be lenient.

Claudette Colbert plays the Empress. It's a small role for such a big star, but I suppose she wasn't as big a star when this film was made.

We are introduced to her when she has a bath. No ordinary bath. Instead of water, servants fill it with donkey's milk. While there are bubbles floating on top, it's not a snow storm of bubbles (so common in films when a woman bathes) and her breasts are clearly visible. I was surprised by it, but apparently the Hays Code wasn't in effect. When the film was re-released and shown on TV many scenes were cut because they were considered objectionable. I don't know how you can object to Colbert's breast. They seem lovely to me.

Act III takes place in the arena. Romans including Nero have come for a day of fighting and killing. First the gladiators enter, shout, "We who are about to die salute thee." They battle to the death and we see the famous thumbs up or down (a movie creation apparently).

From there, animals enter to find people tied down. There are elephants, crocodile (although they used alligators which is an anachronism), bears, tigers, bulls and of course lions--lots of lions. There isn't much in the way of gory details, but a couple of the women wear nothing more than a thin, see-through scarf wrapped around their chest and waist--something Hays I'm sure would object to.

The last to enter the arena are Christians. The film moves to the dungeon where they are kept. They pray and sing and find solace in their belief that death isn't the end. They will find a new, better life in heaven. Okay.

It's in these closing scenes where Marcus comes to Merica. He has made an arrangement with Nero. If Merica renounces her faith, she'll be spared death in the arena. She refuses to give in. Then in a sign off true love, Marcus understands the afterlife. If they can't live together in this world, then they can do so in heaven. He takes her hand to enter the arena with her.

We never see the Christians dying in the arena. The film stays down in the dungeon until the end when the couple walks out.

The dungeon, with its massive steps, leading up to the arena, was designed to give the impression these people weren't just walking up from the dungeon of hell on earth to the arena, but we're walking up into heaven.

I imagine if you're a Christian, you'll enjoy this movie and all it represents.

Posted 2009/04/09 at 19h02ET in Movie Commentary.


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