Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 October 2012

The Sign of the Cross

I watched the ridiculous Cecil B. De Mille picture The Sign of the Cross the other day.

The picture is pretty much a mess for most of its running time. It unfortunately manages to do several really stupid things.

First, it conflates 20th-century Christianity with 1st-century Christianity, which – let's be honest – makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Also, The Sign of the Cross's version of Christianity mostly involves singing hymns, as far as I can tell. The idea here was just idiotic. And the film actually needs its version of Christianity to make sense, because The Sign of the Cross is a film about the Roman emperor Nero's persecution of ancient Roman Christians. As it is, the Christians all just sort of go to their deaths, but I couldn't quite figure out why they did.

All of the good stuff in the film is related to De Mille's normal predilections: ostentation, expense, costumes, gorgeous cinematography, and excellent direction of supernumeraries.

For example, Claudette Colbert takes a bath in a swimming pool of milk:
So that's fabulous.

The last 25 minutes of the film are dedicated to a pageant of gladiatorial games that are an absolute delight, though they have absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell, to do with the actual plot of The Sign of the Cross. Still, they are nearly the best thing in the picture, so I was glad they were there because the love plot (which is ostensibly the film's focus) between Fredric March (cute) and Elissa Landi (who?) is completely boring from its first minutes.

Here's a pair of elephants eating some guys at the Coliseum.

And here's half-a-dozen crocodiles about to devour a girl wearing only garlands of flowers:

And this is a tiger eating a girl:

There is all other manner of decadence. A small army of "pygmies" fights a group of "Amazons". And whenever the camera finds Nero (Charles Laughton, queening it out), he is applauding stupidly and being served grapes by this naked man:

My favorite images, though, are the lions that are released to kill the Christians at the very end of the movie. We don't see any of the Christians meet their deaths (thankfully), but check out this shot of lions running up a staircase to the main floor of the Coliseum:

And this one of a lion leaping over a bunch of his fellows:

Such great photography! I couldn't help but think of the lions in all of those amazing ancient Assyrian reliefs of King Ashurbanipal II.

Anyway, you can feel free to skip this.