Sign of the Cross (1932)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Fredric March (Marcus Superbus), Elissa Landi (Mercia), Claudette Colbert (Empress Poppaea), Charles Laughton, (Emperor Nero), Harry Beresford (Favius), Ian Keith (Tigellinus), Arthur Hohl (Titus), Vivian Tobin (Dacia), Nat Pendleton (Strabo), Jozelle Joyner (Ancaria).
Christians in Rome under Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) are blamed and persecuted for the Great Fire of 64 A.D.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
Third night of the Great Fire in Rome, 64 A.D.
Emperor Nero, looking at the fire, says: "Burn, Rome, Burn." He plays a hand-held harp and is very jubilant. Tigellinus comes to see him and Nero tells him to go away. But Tigellinus tells Nero: "The fire is spreading." But Nero cares more about a broken harp string than the fate of Rome. Nero says: "Growing? I'd hoped it would. Rome will be destroyed when I die. Why not while I live and can see it and enjoy it?" Tigellinus tells Nero that there have been some ugly rumors going around that Nero himself set fire to the city. It would be wise to avoid the blame.. Nero responds: "Let us hope that most of the dead are Christians." The fear is that the Christians are taking over in Rome. Although they have killed many Christians, the empire still "swarms" with them. Then Nero comes up with the idea of shifting the blame for the fire to the Christians. "If the populace could learn to fear and hate them, they might destroy them."
Servillius, the buddy of strong man Strabo, informs him that they are paying "200 pieces" for a Christian. The apostle Paul sends Titus to Rome with a message. He talks with Favius, another Christian. Favius tells Titus to hold the message until they get to a private place. Since the great fire, the Christians have lived in terror. The Christians will meet near the Cestian Bridge.
Tybul the bakery shop owner hears that the Romans have caught some Christians. They have caught Titus and Favius. A crowd starts to stone the Christians. Strabo, who caught the Christians and wants to make sure he gets his money for them, fights the crowd to stop them from killing the two prisoners. A young Christian woman named Mercia also tries to protect the two men. The Prefect of Rome, Marcus Superbus, arrives. He demands to know what the two men have done. Marcus asks the pretty Mercia who is this man Favius. She tells him that he is her teacher and she lives with him. Marcus then gives the order to "clear the streets". He then tells Mercia and the two men that they are free to go. Marcus really likes Mercia and asks if there is anything more he can do for them. No. Marcus tells his guards to follow the three to see where they are going and where they live.
The Empress Poppaea is talking a milk bath in a huge pool. Two kittens drink some of the milk. Dacia, who knows Marcus, tells the Empress that Marcus is with another woman. The Empress wants to know if it is serious. To find out, she tells Dacia to take off her clothes, come into the milk bath and tell her all about Marcus and the other woman.
Tigellinus wants to know why Marcus let the Christians go. Servillius and Strabo have just informed him what Marcus did. Tigellinus tells the two men to go back to the bakery shop and find the young woman Marcus saved. Tigellinus tells one of his staff: "This is what I have been waiting for, to break his favor with the Emperor and to restore mine. "
Marcus visits with Mercia at the water fountain. Mercia starts to leave. Marcus tells her not to run away: "You're not afraid of me." He gets a bit aggressive with her: "In such things, I always have my way." Tigellinus arrives and gives a message from Nero to him: "No Christian must escape." Marcus is skeptical of Tigellinus's motives. He asks: "Did you make the Emperor anxious, Tigellinus?"
Servillius and Strabo wait at the bakery shop for Mercia to show up. The shop owner does not tell them much, and they remind him that the penalty for hiding a Christian is death.
At the home of Favius, live Mercia and Stephan. They are not brother and sister. Their parents were coated with pitch and burned as torches to light up Nero's orgies. Favius and Titus confer together. They send Stephan out to inform other Christians about the meeting. Mercia tells Stephan to stop at the bakery to pick up the bread she had paid for but had forgotten to take with her. Stephan goes to the bakery and is caught by Servillius and Strabo.
Marcus knocks at the door of Favius. He comes in and wants to know where is Mercia. He has come to take Mercia away to safety. Favius gets Mercia and Marcus tells her that she is in great danger in Rome. Mercia tells Marcus that she belongs in the house with Favius. Marcus says that she has strong convictions. The news of Stephan's arrest is brought to Favius. Marcus tells Favius and Mercia that he will save Stephan.
Stephan is tortured. They want to know where the meeting of the Christians will be held. Stephan stands his ground against the torture, so he is sent down into the dungeon where he will really be tortured. Stephan cannot take the pain and tells the Romans that the meeting will be at the grove at Cestian Bridge. He then faints. Tegellinus tells the others: "We will destroy this band of Christians." Marcus arrives after Tegellinus leaves. He asks what the men have been doing to the boy.
At the Christian meeting place, the believers sing hymns in low voices. Titus arrives to speak to them.
Stephan awakens. He tells Marcus that he told the Romans the location of the Christian meeting. Stephan then tells Marcus the location. Tigellinus leads his troops to the meeting place. Marcus takes his men and rides toward the meeting place. On his way he runs into the Empress's carriage, destroying it. The Empress is very mad and tells the guards to bring the culprit to her. The culprit is Marcus. That changes her demeanor immediately. She asks him where he is rushing off to this night. But Marcus is in too much of a hurry and soon leaves, much to the annoyance of the Empress. She tells her guards to follow them. Above all, she wants to know who "she" is.
Tigellinus's men kill the Christian look-outs. A soldier with a bow and arrow delivers a mortal wound to Titus. From among the Christians, the shout "We are betrayed" is heard. The soldiers start to kill the Christians with their bows and arrows. Favius is killed. Marcus arrives to stop the killing of the Christians. The troops run away when they see Marcus and his men arrive. Tigellinus tells Marcus that his favorable treatment of the Christians is "traitorous". Marcus tells his rival to withdraw the remark. Tigellinus says: "If I was too hasty, I'm sorry." The Christian survivors are send to Martian prison. Marcus tells the commander of his troops to bring the girl from the prison to his house. Stephan is thrown into the prison too.
The Empress plays with her leopard. Marcus comes in to see her, as requested. She wants to know if he put "all" the Christians in prison, including the baby-faced Christian girl. Marcus gives a slow "yes" to her question. She then tells Marcus that all Rome knows the Christian girl is in his house. The Empress tells him: "I've loved you. You've never returned that love." She admits that she is jealous and hurt. Poppaea wants to know if he loves the Christian girl. Marcus says: "I don't know." The Empress could force him to forget the girl, but she is reluctant to do this. Marcus says he has stayed too long and takes his leave of the Empress.
Tigellinus tells Nero that the Christians have been conspiring against his life. To add oil to the fire, he also says that Marcus has released the most dangerous of the Christian prisoners. Nero says that he will have his men grab Marcus: "I'll make an example of him." Poppaea comes to the rescue. She tells her husband that Marcus is just a man with a thrilling weakness. She adds that she thinks it's all very amusing: "Rome is amused and you're alarmed. Shame on you." The Empress tells Nero to kill the girl, not the very valuable Marcus.
Marcus excuses himself from his own banquet. Mercia is brought in to see him. She says "How can I live now?" Mercia just cannot forget the other Christians in prison. After all, she says: "I'm one of them." Marcus tells her: "Not any more." Mercia accuses him of just wanting to make her one of his slaves. Marcus, of course, denies it.
The banqueters force their way into Marcus's private area. A dancer/singer named Ancaria comes in with them. She sees Mercia and wants to know if this is the infamous girl he has been keeping. Marcus says he has unsuccessfully tried to woo her and asks Ancaria to try. She starts to sing a love song to Mercia, but she soon has competition from the Christians singing their hymns on their way to the arena dungeon. Ancaria is very distracted and says she cannot sing with all that other singing. But Marcus tells her to keep going. But as the Christians come closer, the voices outside get louder. Mercia is now smiling and Ancaria slaps her across the face with a piece of material.
Marcus throws all the revelers out of his private room. He tells Mercia that Ancaria had been frightened by the hymn singing. Mercia says: "I want to die with them." This is what Marcus does not want to hear. He tells her that her beliefs are an illusion and that Christianity has deformed her, since she is not free to return his love. Tigellinus and his men enter the room. The rival tells Marcus that Mercia is a condemned Christian and she must go to the arena to die like the others. Marcus cannot stop the men from taking Mercia away.
Marcus appeals to Nero to let Mercia live. He asks the Emperor for mercy. The Empress shakes her head no as a sign to her husband. Becoming more desperate, Marcus says that he will take steps to move the world of Caesar. He adds: "I demand that you spare their girl!" This is seen as a threat to Nero and Marcus is in danger. Once again, the Empress comes to his defense. She tells Nero that Marcus's love for the girl has made him insane. Marcus asks Caesar for forgiveness. Nero laments: "If only she wasn't a Christian." Marcus tells the Emperor: "She will not renounce." "Then she dies", says Nero.
Later Marcus meets with Poppaea and tells her that she is a harlot. Poppaea only says: "I love you."
The Romans go to the arena to see the Gladiator games. At the arena Mercia tends to Stephan. Some of the Christians feel as though God has deserted them, but Mercia keeps insisting that God has never been closer to them. The games begin. People place bets on those gladiators they think will be victorious. All kinds of terrible spectacles are performed: elephants crush men's heads with their feet; men fist fight; bull wrestling; fighting tigers; crocodiles eating a young girl who has very little clothing on; fighting against bears; wrestling to the death; and women fighting for their lives against dwarfs.
The time has arrived for the Christians. The guards push them out and onto the stage. There they are killed and eaten by lions. By orders of the Empress, Mercia will be saved by herself until all the other Christians are dead. Then she will take the stage.
Stephan does not want to die and stays behind with Mercia until the guards force him to go. Mercia tells him she will join him in heaven and Stephan goes out to the lions and his death. Marcus comes in to try to save Mercia. He tells her to renounce her faith and she will be saved. He loves her and Mercia says she loves him. So, says Marcus, "How can you do this?"
Being unable to stop Mercia from going to her death, Marcus decides to go out and face the lions with her. Together they go to their deaths.
The movie may have been a good one in the director's time. But now it seems old-fashioned. It is a little too schmaltzy. My wife said the acting was terrible and I can't disagree. The only thing I liked was Claudette Colbert who was very sexy, especially considering the times in which the film was made. There is no sophistication in the movie. It just presents the old tales of the Christians being eaten by the lions. And I did not care for the love story either. Where could it possibly lead when the woman is Christian and the Christians are all to be killed? Wouldn't it have been better if Marcus and Mercia just left Rome and gone elsewhere where they could have lived their lives married and at peace? But that choice would not have celebrated the great Christian martyrdom as displayed in Mercia.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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