The Sign of the Cross

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Paramount (1914) 67 min. NR

Director: Frederick A. Thomson

Assistant Director: Harry Jay Smith

Screenplay: adapted from play by Wilson Barrett

Cinematography: Herbert J. Siddons

Stars: William Farnum (Marcus Superbus), Rosina Henley (Mercia), Sheridan Block (Nero), Ethel Gray Terry (Berenice), Lila Barclay (Poppaea), Morgan Thorpe (Favius), George Majeroni (Tigellinus), Ogden Child (Stephanus), Ethel Phillips (Dacia), Charles E. Vernon (Glabrio), Rienzi De Cordova (Philodemus), Madge Evans (Little Christian girl in arena), Kittens Reichert (uncredited child)

The Sign of the Cross represents one of the many attempts by early American cinema to compete with the stupendous epics issuing from Italy in the years preceding the first World War. Titles such as Antony and Cleopatra, Spartacus, Julius Caesar and The Last Days of Pompeii give some suggestion of their dimension. Only the efforts of The Sign of the Cross to emulate them is more blatantly derivative than most.

Released in 1914, the same year as Cabiria, the zenith of the Italian cinema’s golden period of epic filmmaking, The Sign of the Cross bears more than passing similarity in premise, plot and setting to Quo Vadis?, the Enrico Guazzoni directed version which had been successfully imported and distributed by George Kleine the previous year. From the 1896 play by Wilson Barrett, The Sign of the Cross likewise has to do with the illicit love of a Roman centurion, Marcus Superbus (William Farnum) for a Christian maid, Mercia (Rosina Henley) during the time of Nero and his effort to corrupt her while she tries to convert him, before both are thrown to the lions.

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The final scenes of the Christians being led into the Roman arena have actually been lifted wholesale from the Italian Quo Vadis? and apparently inserted here to forestall the necessity of renting lions and rebuilding the Roman Coliseum for this American variation. The Italian scenes certainly do manage to impart the finale with a greater sense of depth and dynamism, but ironically the mid-shot camera pan across the assembled victims with inserts of the American stars cut in after the fact, seems so far advanced beyond any of the other, relatively pedestrian camerawork in this effort, it stands out all the more jarringly by the contrast. This gliding movement simply calls attention to the fact that it doesn’t belong in the film.

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Such a shameless stunt as this reaches beyond homage. It’s grand theft photo, and this blatant plagiarism must have been highly illegal even for that relatively early period in film history. After all, the infamous copyright lawsuit brought by the estate of the late Lew Wallace against Kalem’s unauthorized one-reel production of Ben-Hur had occurred a few years previous, stressing the need for the infant medium to secure legal rights to works adapted for the screen.

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William Farnum, star of The Sign of the Cross, scored a great theatrical success in the original stage production of Ben-Hur, so one would assume he had heard of the court case. However, I’m unaware if any critics of the day, or if the American distributor of Quo Vadis?, took any notice of the appropriation or if any injunction was brought against the film due to it. The version I saw was a Dutch titled print, and though the Library of Congress holds a copy, The Sign of the Cross is such a rarity in this country one suspects its scarcity might have something to do with the unauthorized final scenes.

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As with the Italian epics, spectacle is the whole show here, with The Sign of the Cross coming across as stagy pageant.  The movie is emotionally remote in a quite literal way, virtually keeping the viewer at arm’s length the entire time courtesy of the stationary camerawork and complete lack of closeups. The nearest it comes is when characters stroll past the camera, out of frame. The movie was made during the early tenure of Famous Players Film Company, when the axiom ‘Famous Players in Famous Plays’ was still being taken quite literally.

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Actors were presented in real-time and full figure as if on stage. For the most part, the same holds true for The Sign of the Cross, though there are a few impressive cuts to near mid-shots such as when Marcus first meets Mercia, as his legionnaires disperse the mob attempting to stone Christian missionary Stephanus (who’s made up to resemble the apostle Peter from Quo Vadis?), and again later as Berenice tries to seduce Marcus at the bacchanal in the foreground while the revelers party behind them in a highly advanced shot that foreshadows depth of  vision.

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One of The Sign of the Cross‘ sole pseudo-closeups (actually tight mid-shots) is saved for the cruel countenance of Nero late in the day as he observes his handiwork in the arena. But likely that insert was used of necessity to distinguish the actor cast for the part in The Sign of the Cross, Sheridan Block, from the Italian actor who’d played him in the Quo Vadis? inserts, and who can still be discerned in long shot during the substituted sequences (together with the actor who’d played Petronius, a character not even in this film).

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The most unfortunate thing about The Sign of the Cross  is that the plagiarism seems so highly unnecessary. For sheer scale of production and authenticity of set and costume this movie, released a few months before The Birth of a Nation, is an impressive enough achievement for its time. There are real horse-drawn chariots, flanks of slaves bearing Poppae’s litter, enormous lion head knockers on the dungeon doors, palatial palaces, the reconstruction of a portion of the amphitheatre and a Roman street scene recreated with striking fidelity, including multi-plane depth and sturdy looking stone work.

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Wilfred Buckland, who would become Cecil B. DeMille’s long-standing art director, had been brought out to Hollywood by this time as part of a package deal when the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. purchased rights to many David Belasco theatrical properties he had served as scenic artist on. Though the designer of The Sign of the Cross’ ornate sets is sadly unknown, I wouldn’t be surprised if they could be attributed to Buckland, despite being missing from all his official filmographies. Both Lasky and Famous Players distributed their movies through Paramount so such cross-pollination wouldn’t have been unheard of. Whoever was responsible, the architecture remains quite impressive and authentic, at a time when filming in front of painted drop cloth was nothing unusual (note Famous Players’ version of The Count of Monte Cristo, released the previous year, for example).

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Shot by cinematographer Herbert J. Siddons, the groupings of crowds are aesthetically pleasing, such as that of the Christians huddled around Stephanus who’s delivering a sermon on a mount here rather than in the cave of the remake, immediately before they’re set to flight by the Romans, and later in the dungeon awaiting execution as Mercia (for her quality of mercy) floats among them like a ministering angel in white, her song raising their spirits. From a purely physical perspective, she anticipates Barbara Stanwyck in The Miracle Woman. When her little brother Gideon is arrested and taken away to be interrogated, one member of the crowd flits past the camera just long enough to reveal his face so we’ll recognize him in the next scene when he’s shown running to warn Mercia’s family of the danger. 

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Chariots pull up outside doorways that serve to frame them like proscenium arches, the reigns handed to slaves performing in the capacity of parking valets. Other kneeling slaves proffer pitchers of wine before beautiful botanical fountains that give us picture postcard tableaux, as does the brace of horses racing across that Roman aqueduct in long shot on their way to ambush the Christians. Isolated still lifes of the brunette Mercia dreaming by the window, and a newly aesthetic Marcus who no longer finds fulfillment in his hedonistic lifestyle, framed against an upstanding pillar as the wild party rages about him also linger in the mind. Even the specious arena scenes interspersed with the Italian print appear to feature framings that DeMille and Buckland would appropriate for the bullfight in Carmen the following year.

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The Sign of the Cross was directed by Frederick A. Thomson, a long forgotten name of film history. A former Vitagraph director and occasional actor, he had retired by the early ‘20s and died in 1925 of heart trouble. He’d had the biggest hit of his career earlier in the year with another religious themed perennial, The Christian. While there is the occasional suggestion here of Griffith’s Italian-influenced Judith of Bethulia, those scenes in The Sign of the Cross where Christians are accosted in the street for their passports of protection may have actually inspired Griffith himself during the staging of the Huguenot massacre in Intolerance. Even the little blond girl who hides behind a pillar when the other Christians are thrown to the lions here anticipates that Griffith girl saved by the Catholic priest who shields her from soldiers by concealing her in his robes.

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Though advanced use of parallel editing is employed at one point to contrast the austere Christians singing in the dungeon with the wild revelers on Marcus’ estate, little effort is made to exploit editing to build suspense or heighten tension in The Sign of the Cross, despite the fact that this had become commonplace in the films of Griffith and others of the era. Therefore, when Marcus ‘races’ down the tree-lined Appian Way to save the secret Christian sect Tigellanus’ detachment of soldiers have marched off to ambush, it’s actually at a slow trot with practically no effort made to bring the time element into play by crosscutting. The same is true of the scene where he sets off to rescue Gideon from being tortured into revealing the Christians’ whereabouts. Without the director showing the slightest interest himself, it’s difficult to invest ourselves in proceedings.

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The print I viewed (released in the Netherlands as Het teeken des Kruizes), while meticulously tinted and suffering only slight signs of decomposition, featured Dutch titles requiring translation. But this wasn’t too distracting since I was familiar with the story going in (if you’ve seen any version of Quo Vadis?, you’ll be familiar with it too) and the straightforward narrative made it easy to follow. Astonishingly it hadn’t been edited ragged or shorn to its bare essentials like so many of the other silents that have weathered the years. Instead it played out at the proper speed in its full hour and seven minute entirety, allowing the drama to build at its original pace as audiences first saw it, and today’s viewer to more honestly appraise it.

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William Farnum who starred in Ben-Hur on Broadway around the turn of the century returns to Roman form as Marcus Superbus, in both armored helmet and Tarzan-like tiger skin, discreetly concealed in public by a dark cloak. He had become one of the first stars of the feature film era on the strength of his performance in The Spoilers, which caused him to be lured from the Selig Company by Adolph Zukor before eventually ending up at Fox for the remainder of the decade. The Sign of the Cross, released in December of the same year, his first film following The Spoilers’ colossal success, also proved a hit, cementing his star status.

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The movie is of greater historical significance however for an indirect cause. The Sign of the Cross was remade in the early ‘30s by Cecil B. DeMille, who was just starting out as a director for Paramount at the time the original was released. One feels he must have seen it, for the size and devout religious themes of The Sign of the Cross appear to have left a profound imprint on him, influencing his own later epics to a marked degree. I wouldn’t be surprised if the impetus for The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings, Samson and Delilah, etc. could all be traced directly back to this early feature, with its lurid scenes of sin, sadism and spiritual redemption.

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Apart from Poppaea’s bath in ass’ milk, most of the highpoints of the remake are already in place, the torture of Mercia’s little brother Gideon to make him talk, the revelers attempts to seduce the inviolable Mercia, the staged games at the Circus Maximus, all of which DeMille would expand upon with characteristic aplomb. While the 1914 version of The Sign of the Cross appears to have added little to the advancement of film art, it still affords invaluable insight all the same because in it we seem to be watching, with no stretch of the imagination, the genesis of DeMille’s own signature style, his preoccupation with historic authenticity in sets and costumes and the roots of many of his later psychoses.

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As in the remake, the cross of the title figures as a means for Christians to identify one another. When one etches a line in the sand, the other completes the symbol by crisscrossing it. But the camera is kept at such a distance, without any closeups for emphasis, if we weren’t familiar with the motions they were making, we’d have no idea what was being doodled in the dirt. The cross comes into more spectacular play when Mercia holds it before a lecherous Marcus, whose given in to his base, animal instincts, as if warding off a vampire (“The Power of the Cross”). Though when she converts the sinner by relating the story of Christ, were not shown the events in flashback as one would expect, but through Renaissance portraits of the nativity, the artwork flashing forward several centuries and the flow of the film stopping dead for this anachronistic little slide show.

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Death is the only thing that can sanctify a love so pure it can never be consummated in the physical act (“…Mercia, my bride! … Marcus, my bridegroom!” according to the translated subtitle). Courting death in this manner makes for one hell of a wedding night in the tearing claws and crushing jaws of giant jungle cats. Their martyrs’ end, flowered with inspirational uplift, is not unlike that of Sydney Carton and the little seamstress being led off to the guillotine at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, which Farnum would go on to star in for Fox. Death matters naught when his life isn’t worth living without Mercia in it, anymore than the lovelorn Berenice finds life worth living after Marcus casts her aside.

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His martyrdom, converting for love when he knows it can only mean death is intended to be spiritually inspiring but still casts a pallor over proceedings. It’s something of a downer. DeMille sprinkled his increasingly outrageous Circus Maximus scenes throughout the last half of his version of Sign of the Cross, expending all his surplus energy so that the film went out with a whimper, on the theatrical exit of Marcus and Mercia to their waiting doom, stage left. Here the lion baiting scenes (lifted directly from the Italian film) are saved  to make for a more satisfying big climax, one which the remake (which seemed to be missing a final scene) failed to improve upon.

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Lila Barclay’s haughty, handsome Poppea is far different from that of the slinky vamp Claudette Colbert embodied in the DeMille version, and far less fun. The character has been split with another spurned lover of Marcus, Berenice, who figured in the remake as well in the form of the licentious, Nazimovaesque lesbian who writhed and wriggled through the pre-Code “Naked Moon” dance trying to seduce ice queen Elissa Landi. Ethel Gray Terry, the actress who plays her here is encouraged to indulge in the passionate emoting of a woman scorned with all the outsized, operatic flourishes of some Divisimo film starring Lyda Borelli.

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The scene where she leads the party of revelers to humiliate and try to seduce Mercia still proves a highlight however. She will also shamelessly attempt to make the uninterested Marcus jealous at the party by flirting with a reveler resembling Robert Warwick. The character had earlier joined her and another friend, an amusing Bacchus figure (who goes frustratingly uncredited in the cast list despite his scene stealing comic antics), in mocking Marcus for falling for the Christian he’d saved from the mob.

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Nero, a hallmark of every Quo Vadis? adaptation, barely figures at all, which might be for the best. When he does put in an appearance, he’s overdrawn as outrageously as he was in the person of a deliciously hammy Charles Laughton in DeMille’s campy remake. Apparently not one for understatement, Sheridan Block interprets him through epileptic spasms as a puppet emperor completely under the control of his wife, the spiteful Poppaea, who influences him to ignore Marcus’ clemency plea for the Christians. In addition, Nero’s paranoia is shown already eating away at his sanity as he has his taste testers sample his wine before he drinks it.

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Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, The Sign of the Cross‘ plagiarism helps it succeed even more intensely in its professed aims. It’s not just placed on equal standing with the turgid Italian spectacles it emulates, but fused at least in part into the genuine article. With the stitched in scenes, Famous Player’s version of The Sign of the Cross can legitimately claim to be one-quarter Italian epic itself. And in a backhanded way, I suppose, lifting extensive material from the Italian Quo Vadis? serves as the perfect complement to pay to its source material.

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After all, playwright Wilson Barrett stands historically suspect of plagiarism himself, by sampling so many similar elements from Quo Vadis? back in 1896, clearly seeking to ride the coattails of that story’s phenomenal success in novel form. Thievery is not a very Christian virtue, especially for a movie about the birth of the church, but Hollywood hasn’t changed so much since 1914. When it sees a successful formula, it has no qualms about copying it, in part or in toto.

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The Italian films were a matter of national pride, celebrating the glories of the ancient past and the artistic antiquities that still subsisted alongside the present. Lacking this same pedigree and impetus, The Sign of the Cross, at its best, can only ever be a poor pale copy of the epics that inspired it. American cinema would have to await the appearance of an entirely home-grown epic celebrating this country’s own gloried past to find its unique voice. The Birth of a Nation would be duly released just a few months later. 

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The Sign of the Cross

A print of the film can be viewed at:

Thought Equity

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