THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Featuring Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Elissa Landi
What it is: Epic sword and sandal
After the burning of Rome, Nero places the blame on the rapidly growing sect of Christians and orders their destruction. However, his highest military official has fallen in love with a Christian woman...
The Walt Lee guide attributes the fantastic content of the movie to the tortures and sadism, and one has to admit they're fairly shocking. We don't see the torture of the young boy, but we hear it and we see the after-effects. And some of the spectacles in the arena are pretty gruesome; among other things, we see a violent battle between Amazons and pygmies, men crushed by rampaging elephants, and a bound woman menaced by several crocodiles. Though this doesn't make it a horror film, it certainly makes it horrific. I was almost expecting some sort of miracle in the final moments of the movie, but the movie refuses, giving the whole thing a sort of integrity that I like. The coliseum/arena sequence is the centerpiece of the motion picture, and it takes up the final third of the movie. The rest is a hodgepodge of court intrigue and sword-and-sandal setpieces; unfortunately, there's no super-powered Maciste character to come to the rescue. Fredric March and Elissa Landi do all right as the heroes, but it is the villains that steal the show; Claudette Colbert is memorable as the self-serving Empress Poppaea, but it's Charles Laughton that really shines as the decadent Emperor Nero, a role that seems tailor made for him. There's a number of other familiar names and faces; you'll recognize the voice of John Carradine as several different characters, and Angelo Rossitto pops up as one of the pygmies. There's also Joe Bonomo as a mute torturer and Charley Gemora as... well, you'll know him.
And speaking of the latter, I did find one thing quite disappointing. If you're like me, the movie mostly makes you think of a still showing a near-naked woman being threatened by a gorilla. Well, the scene is here... and it lasts about two seconds in total.