When Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) blames Christians for burning down Rome, the lives of all Christians in Rome are put in great jeopardy. Anyone who openly admits to being a Christian can be arrested and when Marcus (Fredric March) sees Mercia (Elissa Landi) defending a couple of fellow Christians, he instantly falls in love with her and tries everything he can think of to seduce her, but her devotion to her faith doesn’t waver.
Marcus’ newfound love for Mercia puts him in a very precarious situation. Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) is madly in love with him and is incredibly jealous when she hears Marcus is in love with a Christian girl. Poppaea wants Mercia killed and Marcus has a rival who wants to use this information to push him out of favor with Nero. Since Mercia refuses to turn her back on her faith, she is ordered to be fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Marcus begs her to renounce her Christianity to save herself, but she would rather die and Marcus would rather die than live without Mercia.
“My head is splitting! The wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!” This is a line delivered by Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero, but the phrase “delicious debauchery” is a perfect summation of Sign of the Cross. This is a movie that stars Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, and Charles Laughton, but let’s be honest here — the real star is Cecil B. DeMille; his unmistakable style is all over this movie.
Sin and debauchery never looked better than when it was being directed by DeMille. He made it all look incredibly lavish and decadent. DeMille was responsible for some other rather notorious pre-codes (Cleopatra, Madam Satan), but Sign of the Cross is definitely the most sinful of them all. On the whole, I think Cleopatra is a better movie, but Sign of the Cross has it beat as far as pre-code content goes.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moments
Claudette Colbert’s milk bath.
The lesbian dance scene.
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
Censors had a field day when Sign of the Cross was first released and many scenes had to be removed for post-1934 re-releases, which have since been restored. Many religious groups despised Sign of the Cross because not only was it full of violence, skimpy costumes, nudity, and one scene that is widely referred to as “the lesbian dance scene,” they loathed DeMille for taking a story they felt should be “theirs” and turning it into this movie that is jam-packed with depravity. Regardless of the fact that the movie condemns Christian persecution, Sign of the Cross still pretty much made censors’ heads explode.