Skin and Savagery in The Sign of the Cross: 7 Vicious Pre-Code Moments
An epic tale of decadence, morality and religious persecution adorned with lust, violence, love, and everything in between, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) remains one of the most audacious pictures of the pre-Code period.
Sure, in terms of Production Code close calls, Popea (Claudette Colbert)’s milk bath and Ancaria (Joyzelle Joyner)’s “Dance of the Naked Moon” prompted me to raise my eyebrows a few times during my first viewing. But where it all went to hell for me was the Circus Maximus-set sequences near the film’s finale, modeled after the vicious Arena Games of ancient Rome.
Violence: check. Nudity: check. 10x more violence: check. When it comes down to it, I can’t think of another pre-Code procession that so ostentatiously disregarded the Production Code in such rapid succession. Not only do the proceedings in the arena disturb, but the way in which the Roman crowd interacts and revels in said perverse hostilities adds considerably to the sequence’s shock value; overall, spectator reactions run the gamut from arousal to absorption, boredom to horror. Not surprisingly, these same scenes prompted strong responses from moviegoers – some even screamed! But hey, I’m right there with them. The longer the festivities terrors ran, the more audible my whispers of ‘WTF?!’ became.
That said, below are seven of the most outrageous pre-Code moments from the Circus Maximus sequence, in no particular order (well, save for the first one):
1. Little People vs. the Ladies (referred to in ads as “Pygmies/Dwarfs” and “Barbarians/Amazons,” respectively)
In my opinion, the most unexpected explicit act of violence of the entire games is a Barbarian woman beheading a Pygmy. Yes, we witness the head make a clean break from the body. Beheadings were a rare sight in early cinema; 1895’s The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots comes to mind, but unlike that primitive short, this trick is surprisingly seamless for its time. However, perhaps the most grotesque moment, one that sums up this whole callous display of carnage to me, follows the decapitation: after the deed is done, the perpetrator warily slides the headless man’s still-clutching hand off her torch.
2. Little People vs. the Ladies, Part 2
This supremely vile episode comes in a close second to #1. Not only does a member of the Barbarians stab a Pygmy warrior (like, basically impales him) but she hoists him up as a symbol of victory. The move is totally gratuitous – the guy’s still alive, for crying out loud! – though I’d expect nothing less with a crowd egging the atrocities on; even Nero (Charles Laughton) himself enthusiastically celebrates her conquest.
And I thought the headless man’s hand was bad. The aftermath of this skewering would be at least 5x more ghastly.
3. That’s One Hungry Kitty
DeMille frequently employed cross fades during the arena sequences, and the one at the onset of this episode sizzles with innuendo: the image of an aroused woman gives way to the next attraction, a tiger. Both subjects are hella hungry, though we’re obviously talking different types here. In three rapid fire shots over the course of three seconds we snag a glimpse of the beast attacking and chomping an innocent victim. Though the images flash quickly, the sheer chaos and brevity of the incident prompts one to assume maximum grisliness.
4. Naked Lady Tied to a Stake While Alligators Advance Upon Her
Even on the other side of a TV screen, the sight of a congregation of alligators creeping slowly towards this unlucky, undressed woman is terrifying as hell, and no joke, the hairs on my arms spiked when one lone gator advanced into the frame and menacingly expanded his/her ferocious jaws. Not to mention, the nudity provides the woman another level of vulnerability and the situation a lower level of superfluous repugnance. I can only hope this extra was whisked away the moment they called cut – and that she got paid mad $$$.
I know it’s hard to tell, but the alligator’s mouth is alarmingly close and ready to chomp in the upper right hand corner. (Also difficult to distinguish: Sharp teeth.)
5. Naked Lady Tied to a Stake While A Gorilla Advances Upon Her
Take the scenario in #4, tie the lady to an upright stake, and substitute the alligators for one very dangerous looking (man dressed as a) gorilla. But keep the nudity and implied violence, of course. Though on the surface this is one of the most innocuous of my picks, one look at the gorilla leering at his victim and two aghast responses from the crowd tell us all we need to know. And it’s obviously not encouraging.
6. The Deadliest Brass Knuckles Ever
One warrior leaves a vicious-looking mark on the wall when his opponent dodges a punch, but the next one connects. In addition to shearing off a thin layer of skin, the move inflicts enough damage for some blood to spill out of this unfortunate man’s mouth. Blood we sometimes see in pre-Codes, but such a deathly indication as the latter? Not so much.
7. I Thought Elephants Were Peaceful Animals?
If I glimpsed a several-thousand pound animal lift its leg to crush me while I was chained to the ground, I’d freak the heck out like this man, too. Thankfully, we don’t witness the actual head-smashing, because what we see is about all I can stomach, anyway. But the elephants – plural, another joined in the action – are far from finished here. In a total of three shots intercut with spectator reactions, two elephants transport their winnings: one animal uses its trunk to drag a man along, while the other clutches a victim in its cavernous mouth. I read elephants are herbivores; what will these men be, their new playthings?
Had enough yet? I have, but if you’re the inquisitive type, turn on The Sign of the Cross for the above scenes of senseless brutality – and more!
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.