The Sign of the Cross: The Devil has all the Best Tunics

Poster - Sign of the Cross, The (1932)_07A slideshow of images from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 epic of persecuted Christians in ancient Rome. I’ve been testing out the compatibility of the various pieces of my online “presence”, e.g. Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and all those other bits and pieces that should make online life more coherent rather more fragmented. These slideshows allow me to include more images to illustrate a film text when a single still image just doesn’t make the intended point. By uploading frame grabs to Flickr, I can then use another website, Vodpod, to automatically generate a slideshow that I can embed in a WordPress post. It sounds complicated, but once you get the hang of co-ordinating the various sites, it’s pretty quick and easy. Let me know, though, if you don’t like the new approach. You can see more of these pictures, with labels, download them or enlarge them by following this link, or click on the slideshow to watch them in sequence. You can fast forward, pause or enlarge to fullscreen:

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OK, so I’m really just testing out a little gadget, but hopefully you’ll enjoy the contents of the slideshow, too. It’s a real cavalcade of debauchery from DeMille, for whom the best way to illustrate the importance of virtue was to catalogue a veritable spaghetti of sins. The question will always linger that maybe the Biblical advocacy on its surface was really just a disguise that allowed him to draw the crowds to a sensational parade of violent erotica. There would certainly seem to be more flesh and blood and show than is absolutely necessary, and a worryingly imaginative commitment to the full range of naughtinesses, whether it’s the titillating spectacle of Claudette Colbert, almost revealing all in the asses-milk bath sequence, Elissa Landi being tormented for her virtue at a lascivious Roman orgy, or the elaborate execution methods in the Colisseum: nearly-nude women attacked by crocodiles or a gorilla, Amazons impaling/decapitating pygmies, lions eating Christians etc., etc.

Rather than try to resolve the issue of DeMille’s sincerity, I instead see the film illustrating the ambiguities and intricacies of spectatorial positions in cinema studies. Surely DeMille has given us a vision of a dangerously seductive world and shown the fate of some of its victims (the Christians), persecuted for their passive resistance to Roman reiligious prohibitions. It is then up to the viewer whether or not to disregard its righteous message and revel in the rush of disgraceful scenes: DeMille shoots all of them with the same ecstatic overflow of style that he uses for his enlightened martyrs. Whatever the sincerity of DeMille’s Christian mission, he seems to embrace the commoditisation of epic cinema, and its use value as a vessel for  religious messages; there is little division between the raptures induced by communion with either divinity or spectacle and illusion.