I want to focus on other aspects of the film though because whilst it certainly showcases the worst of DeMille's excesses (titillation offset by faux piety, over-wrought melodrama and a kitschy sense of spectacle) it also displays some of his trademark touches and some of his best work.
The plot is, like so many Roman-Christian epics the story of two people from different backgrounds meeting, falling in love with the Roman finally converting to Christianity. And it's to this film's credit that it doesn't import a whole bunch of biblical characters as various versions of Quo Vadis? do. The only character mentioned in the Bible (aside, I suppose, from cryptic references to Nero in Revelation) is Titus, who has been sent by Paul from Jerusalem.
Interestingly though Titus' entrance suggests that he is Peter. He walks in, the sunlight illuminating his bearded face, and clutching a huge staff. Titus meets Favius, the two are arrested as part of Nero's post-fire crackdown on the Christians and the two are saved by the intervention of the Christian girl, Mercia, and Nero's second in command Marcus. The two fall in love and the rest of the film is driven by their growing love and the resulting negotiation about who is going to adopt to who's world.
As is often the case with these early-Christian films there are various quotations from the New Testament: a compound version "blessed are the meek" and "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" ("The meek will take the place of the mighty"; exhortation to be like children"; recitation of some of the beatitudes in the background; and a summary of Luke's account of the second thief on the cross.
The looseness of these quotations is certainly acceptable - after all the film tells us at the start that this is 64 AD and, according to most scholars, the gospels are yet to be written. We are also given Titus' account of seeing Jesus on the road to Calvary.
However the real triumph of this film is it's use of the camera. The print available in the DeMille collection is really good, and it reveals some beautiful composed and lit shots. Colbert in the milk bath is tawdry; but the shot of Mercia's and Marcus heading up the steps to their deaths I could look at for a good while. The various underground prison scenes are also wonderful, eerily lit and often shot from a low angle.
But it's after 95 minutes when there are three shots that are simply stunning - the kind of innovative and tricky long shot that would have been particularly difficult to execute in 1932. They pre-date Welles and most of Hitchcock's work and in that light are certainly innovative. The first is a pan down a three story section of the Colosseum stair well. It starts fairly close to capture one couple's conversation before panning down to capture a conversation on the next level before descending to ground level and coming to rest just behind a stall where various other conversations of passers-by are overheard.
There's a brief close-up of one of these conversations before the film's finest shot. The camera begins with a close up of a poster detailing the day's events. It then zooms in panning down at the last minute to go through the bars of the Coliseum's cells starting with a high shot before zooming in close to some of the conversations amongst the frightened Christians. It's an immensely impressive piece of camera work as evidenced by the acclaim that Orson Welles gained for a similar shot 9 years later in Citizen Kane.
The third such shot is that opf gladiators processing out at the start of the games. Here the camera starts wide, takes in a lot of the procession before zooming all the way in on Nero (Charles Laughton).
Once the games begin the scenes in the coliseum are also very interesting. In contrast to these long takes leading up to the games, the fights themselves feature a lot of short shots. But for most of this segment the focus is actually on the audience. It's true that from time to time DeMille can't help but dwell on the spectacle he has laid before us (a little like Nero perhaps?) but overall it's the crowds reaction, some horrified, but most enraptured, or focussed on gambling that is what seems important, and it's certainly a damning indictment of the coliseum's punters. These are very well constructed montages for the most part. The close up shots of rabid crazed viewers, occasionally mixed with a more 20th century reaction or a shot of what they are watching make disturbing viewing. This contrasts with more recent films such as Gladiator which want us to enjoy the fighting and in which the audience is largely faceless and very much in the background.
It's also interesting to see some of DeMille's touches from other films (particularly 1927's The King of Kings. The love of exotic animals goes into overdrive here: lions, leopards, elephants, bears, bulls and crocodiles (shown from ground level). We also see the technique from King of Kings whereby writing initially in a foreign language dissolves into English. And then there are the wire bikini tops...
So Sign of the Cross is a film full of contradictions. The publicity revolved around Colbert and Laughton, but they are only supporting roles to Fredric March and Elissa Landi. It's an exhortation to Christianity and Christian values but revels in it's titillation and erotic imagery. It's best known for that fact, but should be more widely celebrated for showcasing some of DeMille's best work. And then whilst it tells us so much about what made Emile tick it also asks some probing questions about our tendency towards inhumanity. And the scandal of the film, as well as the gospel is that the true sign of the cross is for those in the baying crowds just as much as those brave enough to go to their deaths without even a whimper.