The sleaziest of the sleazy epic films of the Pre-Code era…and it’s a Biblical epic at that!

The Sign of the Cross–C+

During the Pre-Code era (which lasted in Hollywood until mid-1934), many topics were discussed in films that would shock many of us today. While most of us are familiar with the more sanitized and nice films of the Post-Code era (up to about 1960), many just aren’t familiar enough with these earlier films to realize that abortion, promiscuity and much more could be found in films. One of my favorite of these jaw-dropping scenes might be when Frank McHugh’s character was trying to hitch a ride in Parachute Jumper. When a car passes him without stopping, Frank’s thumb quickly became a middle-finger! Another favorite is the insane ending in Three on a Match, where a drug-addicted mother jumps to her death to save her baby–and the camera follows her as she plummets! These films are not especially subtle and might shock you, but you won’t fall asleep watching them!

These Pre-Code excesses are particularly shocking when the film purports to be a Biblical epic, like this film from Cecil B. DeMille, The Sign of the Cross. This film is about the early Christian church under Roman persecution and it is simply amazing since it is chock full of sex and violence. In fact, had the film been made just a few years later, the new Production Code surely would have forced MASSIVE re-editing in order to get the film approved–and even then, approval would have still been doubtful. Believe it or not, this Biblical epic is a film that most likely would have been avoided or even picketed by Christians at the time it debuted! Why DeMille has a reputation of making classic Bible stories is beyond me–especially when this film includes brief glimpses of nudity, has MANY scantily-clad victims of the Roman persecution waiting to be ravaged in a wide variety of sick ways, features a lesbian dance meant to entice a nice Christian woman to a famous prostitute’s allures, has an implied rape of a woman by a gorilla (I am NOT kidding about this one–watch the film and you’ll see I am correct) and some of the more amazingly well done but disturbing scenes of Christians and gladiators being killed!!! I doubt if the Catholic Legion of Decency, Pat Boone or my mother-in-law would recommend this flick because of all this insanely salacious material.

So if the film is such an extreme example of pre-Code excess, then who exactly was the audience when it debuted? After all, Atheists and Agnostics probably wouldn’t have been interested in a film about the early Christian church and many Christians would probably have been deeply offended. Well, I don’t know who went to see the movie back in the day, but today the only big audience would be lovers of the pre-Code films and perhaps historians. Actually, as far as historical content goes, this is a pretty interesting film, as it doesn’t show Nero as the usual one-dimensional evil jerk as he is shown in many later films. While he’s no saint in the film, he isn’t portrayed as a total whacko either–and offers a nice contrast to the later and more lurid depictions in movies. The only weird thing about him is prosthetic nose worn by the guy playing him, Charles Laughton–that IS a sight to see. And, while possibly disturbing, the sequences in the arena and in the dungeon with those awaiting the arena are superbly done and are very moving. They did not clean it up to make it seem ‘nice’ as so many older films did and it shows much of the horror these people must have experienced.

So what do we have left if we ignore all the sex and violence? Well, for the most part it’s a typical ‘love at first sight’ type of plot (which are very clich├ęd, I know), but it also has lots of amazing and eye-catching DeMille-inspired sets. Also, while I didn’t like all the melodrama and terrible dialog, I thought the end actually worked pretty well. So as you can guess, I felt it was a very, very mixed bag and not the sort of film I would rush to see. But, for the curious, it might well be worth finding. The film is occasionally shown on Turner Classic Movies and also is available on DVD. Let me know what you think after you see it.

By Martin Hafer