Sign of the Pagan (1954)




Director:    Douglas Sirk.

Starring:   Jeff Chandler (Marcian), Jack Palance (Attila), Ludmilla Tcherina (Princess Pulcheria), Rita Gam (Kubra), Jeff Morrow (Gen. Paulinus),  George Dolenz (Emperor Theodosius),  Eduard Franz (Astrologer),  Allison Hayes (Ildico),  Alexander Scourby (Chrysaphius),  Howard Petrie (Gundahar),  Michael Ansara (Edecon),  Leo Gordon (Bleda),  Moroni Olsen (Pope Leo I),  Fred Nurney (Chamberlain),  Sara Shane (Myra).

Story of Attila the Hun. En route to Constantinople, Attila captures Roman centurion Marcian.  But Marcian escapes and travels to Constantinople.  But once in Constantinople, Marcian finds the eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II plotting with Attila to look the other way while Attila marches against Rome. Marcian falls in with the sister of Theodosius, the beautiful Pulcheria, who favors a united Empire.

As Attila marches on Italy, the future for Rome looks very bleak.  But maybe Rome has a secret ace in the hole  --  the awe that Attila feels for the Christians' God.


Spoiler Warning:

"It was 1,500 years ago, shortly after Christianity had been established as the official religion of the Roman Empire, that the empire itself has been split into two with rival capitals, one at Constantinople and the other at Rome, and weak because of its division.  Stories of the weakness had reached the Barbarians who roamed Europe, when suddenly there appeared, like a plague from the north, a fierce race of Mongol horsemen, the Huns.  They began to vanquish the Barbarians, spreading terror and bloodshed under the pagan sign, welding them into a merciless horde led by the most ruthless conqueror of all times, Attila, the Hun."

After pillaging and burning a village Attila returns to his encampment.  A soldier tells Attila that they caught the Roman soldier who fought bravely.  Attila asks the prisoner if he is a Roman?  The prisoner says his name is Marcian and he is a centurion of Emperor Valentinian in Rome.  He was carrying an official message to Emperor Theodosius in Constantinople.  Attila tells his daughter Kubra to release the Roman. She cuts his ropes and Marcian falls to the ground.  Attila asks him what was the message he was bringing.  Marcian says it was to warn Emperor Theodosius about Attla.  Attila likes the centurion's courage to speak the truth.

Marcian has an arrow in his right thigh.  Attilla is going to cut out the arrowhead.  Marcian goes unconscious as Attila digs into his thigh.  Attila says he wants to learn from this centurion how the Romans fight their enemies. 

A pretty female prisoner is brought into the encampment. Attila tells the soldier who caught her that he said that he didn't want any prisoners.  The soldiers says that the young woman, accompanied by an old woman, are part of the family of the local King.  Attila asks the young woman for her name.  She says she is Ildico.  Attila tells his men to put Ildico in his harem and kill the other woman.  Marcian asks why the other woman must die?  The leader of the Huns says to his daughter that he just doesn't understand these Christians.  He then tells Marcian:  "An enemy who remains alive is always an enemy!"

Attila wants Marcian to share in a toast to Attila's many victories.  Marcian replies:  "I would drink to your victories, but not your massacres."  Attila says he learned his tactics from the Romans:  "I use only what I learned when Rome held me hostage.  Held me to force my father to do your Empire's bidding."

Marcian is admiring Attila's horse.  Kubra says she is surprised that the Roman cares for horses like the Huns do.  Marcian says the horse looks like a fine one, but he knows very little about horses.  Kubra says that no Roman owns such a horse and no Roman could ride the horse.  Marcian goes closer to the horse.  Suddenly he swings into action, jumps up on the horse and takes off with it.  Attila comes running out of his tent and is furious that someone let Marcian get his horse.  He demands to know who let Marcian get to the horses.  Kubra has to report that it was she who is at fault, but she says that Marcian used soft words to trick her.  He even said he knew naught about horses. 

Constantinople (today's Istanbul).  Marcian arrives and goes to the palace.  He first speaks to General Paulinus.  The General asks Marcian why did he come first to him?  Marcian replies that the Emperor Valentinian bade me greet you.  Valentinian is concerned over reports that Emperor Theodosius is planning to split from Rome.  General Paulinus confirms that Theodosius plans to rule the Eastern Eempire as his own, independent kingdom.  He has made secret treaties with the Barbarian tribes. 

Marcian says that Valentinian is also disturbed about news of Princess Pulcheria.  Has the Princess turned against Valentinian too?  The General tells Marcian:  "Let me warn you, Princess Pucheria is no ordinary woman."

The Princess has been called in to see the Emperor.  She comes into the room, is announced and sits down on a chair.  Her brother, the Emperor, has forgotten what he called the Princess for.  His advisor says the Emperor called his sister in about the feast.  The Emperor now remembers and he tells the Princess that he is giving a big feast for the Barbarian chiefs.  The Princess will be there to entertain them.  Princess Pulcheria tells her brother that she certainly will not be at the feast.  The Emperor gets angry, tells her that she will be present at the feast and tells her that her audience with him is now over. 

At this point the General and the centurion come in to speak with the Emperor.  Marcian says that his Emperor deplores how the Emperor Theodosius has made treaties with certain Barbarian tribes.  And now, a leader has risen up among the Barbarians and that's Attila the Hun.  Theodosius says that he will rule here without benefit of advice from Valentinian.  He now says the envoy's audience has ended.  The two Romans bow to the Emperor and leave.

Now Lucius Agrippa comes in and is announced.  The Princess tells her aide to go see General Paulinus and tells him to send the envoy to her garden. 

Marcian comes to speak with the Princess.  She says she wants news of Rome --  the gossip and fashion.  Marcian admits that he is just a soldier and does not know much about these topics.  He adds that she could go to Rome by sea.  The Princess says she cannot even leave the palace, much less travel to Rome.  Marcian says he should proceed to the General for his orders.  She asks him to spend a little time with her, but she lets him go.  She writes out a message to the General and has Marcian take it to him.

The General reads the message and says that Marcian is to take command of Princess Pulcheria's guard.  Marcian says that he needs to be serving Rome.  The General explains:  "You may still be doing that.  Pulcheria is her brother's prisoner. Once they were co-regents here, but he took all power to himself."  The Princess believes in a united empire and that's a problem for Theodosius. 

One of Marcian's first duties is to escort the Princess to the feast for the Barbarians.  She has the Chamberlain point out the Kings of the Barbarians.  There is the King of the Khazars, Gundahar; and there's Sangiban, who poisoned his father for the crown; there's King Tula of the Bashkirs, troublemakers and thieves.  Their conversation is interrupted with the forceful appearance of Attila and his daughter.  The Emperor does not know who this man is.  Attila is commanded to give his name.  This makes Attila angry:  "Name myself?  Name myself?  These lesser men owe allegiance to me.  They stand at my command."  He calls out the names of his underlings and they stand up.  When the supreme chief tells his name, the men of the court know who he is now.  Emperor Theodosius immediately becomes the charming host and invites Attila to have dinner with them.  Attila sits at a table and tells the people there to make room for his daughter. 

Marcian is seated near Attila and his daughter.  The daughter asks where is their horse?  Marcian says he is well and will return him in the morning.  Attila speaks up saying strange hands spoil a horse.  And now he has an even better horse, so Marcian may keep the horse he has. 

The Emperor has the mightiest warrior of the Eastern Empire, Herculanus, come forward.  Herculanus will challenge any and all to combat.  There are no takers, until Attila steps up.  The fight begins.  Attila with greater speed and agility easily defeats Herculanus.  He then says he does not want to take the life of Herculanus.  He wanted only to show the Hun way of fighting. 

Emboldened by the defeat of Herculanus, the Barbarians now start making trouble for their host.  To quiet them down, it is announced that there are gifts for all the Kings in the outer chamber.  The Kings start to go there, but Attila tells the Kings that they do not need such trifles.  Instead, he wants to learn of
Roman tactics and strategy in combat and he wants Marcian to be their instructor.  Theodosius agrees to this.  Marcian protests saying that why provide such information to one who may become an enemy of Rome.  Theodosius replies that he doesn't need any advice from a mere centurion. 

A showing of the use of Roman weapons will ge given by Marcian.  His first volunteer is none less than Kubra.  Marcian looks to Attila to see if this is okay.  Attila has no objections.  So, Marcian has Kubra lunge at him many times, as he demonstrates how he wards off the blows and then how he could deliver a fatal blow to his opponent.  Kubra becomes angry and really goes after Marcian, but he keeps deflecting her thrusts and hitting her with the flat side of his sword on her buttocks.  He then disarms her and takes her to the Princess to teach Kubra more fitting things for a woman.  He takes her over to the pool and throws her in asking that the Princess have her bathed. 

The Princess sent a message to Attila and he comes to speak with her.  She tells him that she is very anxious to speak with him.  She offers one of her fantastic rings to get her centurion back.  The Princess says the Barbarians have need of the centurion.  Pulcheria says the Romans fight on foot, while the Huns fight on horseback.  And the weapons of the Huns are different from those of the Romans.  All Attila will learn from Rome is their weaknesses.  She then asks Attila to join forces with the Eastern Empire and Attila will rule all the land from Persia to Spain.  Attila says the Princess is proposing a secret alliance with Valentinian, Attila, the Barbarians and her against Emperor Theodosius.  She asks the Hun how can she persuade him?  He grabs her and gives her a passionate kiss.  The Princess doesn't like that and says that Attila is indeed a savage.  Attila is not phased by this. 

The Emperor talks with Attila.  He will pay tribute to Attila, but Attila must guard the borders of the Eastern Empire and never attack the Empire.  Attila agrees.

Marcian tells Attila not to move against Rome.  He fears that Attila will attack Rome and then come back and attack Constantinople.  He says that Rome itself has been conquered.  Conquered by Christianity.  So Rome can never fall.  Attila asks why not?  "Because man cannot conquer God."  Attila laughs at this.  The Huns now leave Constantinople, but Kubra wants to stay behind.  She is attracted to the Christian faith and the sense of peace it brings her.  Attila, however, yells at her to come with him now. 

Attila gathers the Barbarian kings together and tells them it is time for them to cease doing the bidding of Rome.  Rome has been divided into two already and is weaker by half.  He tells the Kings:  "Before the leaves turn brown again, our army shall meet on the shores of the Danube  --  a horde so mighty, that the rumbling of our horses' hooves will make the world tremble. "

The Huns capture two holy men from Scotland on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  When Attila finds out about the holy men, he gets really angry at the two Hun captors.  He says he has no wish to anger the Christian God.  He tells his men to hang the two captors.  The holy men say if he wishes to please the Christian God, then Attila will forgive their captors. Attila says he'll never understand these Christians.  He spares the captors. And he asks the holy men to put in a good word for him and what he did for the Christian God. 

The Huns are on the march again.  Marcian tells the Eastern Emperor that Attila is on the march headed to the River Danube. From there Attila will march against Rome.  The Emperor is sick of hearing this kind of talk.  So Marican asks for permission to go to Rome to warn the Roman Emperor.  The Emperor says that Marcian will not even leave the palace.

General Paulinus hears Marcian's words and tells him that he fears for Marcian's life now.  Marcian says he is leaving for Rome even without the Emperor's permission.  He goes to see the Princess to tell her goodbye for now.  They kiss.  They are interrupted by soldiers who have orders to put Marcian under arrest.  Marcian makes a break for it, but he doesn't get far. 

Attila has made considerable progress.  It is said that the Saxons and Franks bowed to the sword of Attila.  One King says that have journeyed to the northern sea and then east to the great marshes.  When they return to the Danube thousand of warriors will meet them there.  And then they will march on Rome.  Attila says he wants to rule the earth itself. 

Attila speaks with the seer, who says that he sees the centurion wearing the Imperial purple of Rome.  "The Roman crosses swords with you, bringing you to a fall."  Attila doesn't like this prophecy.  He says the only way the centurion will sit on a Roman throne is if he, Attila, decides to make the centurion an emperor.  And he might just do that.  That way the prophecy will be fulfilled. 

The centurion is to be hanged tomorrow at daylight, but General Paulinus comes to his rescue.  He frees Marcian and tells him to go with his 100 guards to Rome.  That way the guards will be blamed and not the General himself.  The centurion, however, says he won't go.  What is needed is a new emperor for the Eastern Empire. 

The General and Marcian go to see the Princess.  Marcian says that Theodosius must abdicate.  Then  the Princess will become the Empress. So a revolt begins.  The 100 guards provide the muscle.  They take the Emperor prisoner.  Now Marcian tells a group of influential citizens that Theodosius has made a secret treaty with Attila, whose hordes now move against Rome.

Theodosius is brought in and Marcian tells him that he must sign an instrument of abdication.  Sign or order legions westward to the aid of Rome.  Theodosius says he still has the army behind him.  He tells the officers to arrest Plucheria, Marcian and Paulinus, but the officers just ignore him.  So Theodosius signs the instrument of abdication.  And now the troops of the Eastern Empire can be moved to the aid of Rome. 

The Huns are pillaging and burning again making their way toward Rome.  In one of the villages, he starts to go inside a Christian church while still on horseback.  He sees a shining, golden cross (on a black staff) in the darkened church and thinks the cross is floating in the air.  He asks the seer what does it mean and the seer says it's a warning.  What else does the seer see for Attila?  A holy man all dressed in white will come out of he mist to see Attila.  Behind him will come a lot of men and women who are bloodied, dead and yet not dead.  He says to Attila to turn away from Rome. Attila is not convinced and will move on to Rome. 

Marcian receives news that Valentinian is leaving Rome and his legions are going with him.  Marcian says then the Emperor is abandoning Rome to Attila.  He decides to take a few men with him and they will ride for Rome and stop for nothing.  So he has to say goodbye to Pulcheria again.  She tells him that she cannot rule alone.  She says to come back to her and rule with her.  They kiss.  Marcian leaves with his escort. 

The soldiers make it to Rome and Marcian goes to talk with the Emperor, who is occupied with making sure everything is packed.  Marcian wants to resist Attila.  So, when the Emperor learns that Attila is close by, he tells Marcian to take command of the city for Valentinian is leaving Rome.  Marcian tells his troops that now the city of Rome "depends upon us".

The Huns are camped not far from Rome.  Kubra begs her father not to destroy Rome, the holy city of the Christians.  Attila wants to destroy the city.

Messengers tell Attila that the Roman Emperor has gone from the city.  Furthermore, the city has a new commander, the Roman Marcian.  He is here taking the place of the Emperor.  This worries Attila a bit, but he plunges along saying they will attack Rome tonight.

A messenger comes form Rome out of the mist as prophesized.  And a man approaches standing up in a boat.  It's Pope Leo.  Leo says that Rome is a Christian city and a temple of God.  Attila answers:  "A city cannot be a temple."  The Pope replies that men and women are praying both in the churches and in the streets of Rome. He tells Attila to remember this:  ". . . a God who can smite lightning, striking your false prophet dead at your feet, can as easily destroy any man who provokes His wrath."

Now Attila doesn't want to attack Rome.  But he wonders how did the holy man now about the lightning that killed his seer?  At first he thinks Ildico told the holy man.  Ildico says nothing.  Then he thinks that Kubra told the holy man.  Kubra says she did tell the holy man.  Attila says Kubra has betrayed him.  He asks why?  "I am a Christian, says she."  And Rome is a Christian city!  Attila takes out his knife and throws it into Kubra's mid-section. She dies.  Attila says:  "Of all the world I loved none more."  He decides to lay down.  When they awaken him in the dark hour, he will decide what to do. 

Attila is awakened by a nightmare.  He tells the Persian seer that he saw the horde of martyrs all bloodied following the holy man.  He says:  "We will turn back."  They will ride north. 

Marcian learns that Attila is heading north and taking his wagons.  He decides to try to join up with the Eastern Empire troops and try to ambush Attila.  They stop at a small town and await the arrival of Attila.  When Attila and a vanguard of his troops arrive, the Romans close off the entrance/exit and they attack Attila's smaller group.  Attila kills a number of Romans and then goes after Marcian.  The two fight on the stairs.  As Attila retreats up to the next floor, Ildico is there hiding.  She knifes Attila in the mid-section.  He falls over the wall on the side of the steps and crashes onto the ground.  Attila says to Marcian:  "Your God brought me to my fall.  It was in my stars."  He dies in the shadow of the cross sticking out of his mid-section. 

And now Pulcheria and Marcian are re-united.



This is an okay film.  There wasn't all that much action in the film.  There's some but the fighting is not the main theme.  The main theme was how are they going to save Rome from Attila the Hun.  It shows Attila as a very superstitious man who always wants his insights confirmed by seers and prophets.  And it was his fear of the gods that kept him a bit in doubt and saved Rome from destruction by the Huns.  Jack Palance as Attila is usually a bit over the top, but still he did a good job.  One thing for sure I liked was that the film dealt with the Eastern Empire and there are not that many films about this Empire.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



Historical Background:


See Attila (2001).



379-395  --  reign of Theodosius I "the Great".

395-408  --  reign of Arcadius, the eldest son of Theodosius I. In 395, the Roman Empire was permanently divided between the West Roman Empire and the East Roman Empire.

408-450  --  reign of Theodosius II, the only son of Arcadius.  He died in a riding accident.  He became wed to Augusta Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II, following the latter's death.

450-457  --  reign of Marcian.  He generally ignored the affairs of the Western Roman Empire.

451  -- with the Council of Chalcedon, Marcian endeavored to mediate between the rival schools of theology.

453  --  death of Attila. 

455  --  Vandals sacked Rome.

457  --  Marcian died of a disease, possibly gangrene, contracted during a long religious journey.  The Eastern Orthodox Church recognized him as a saint.



Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)