Seen 88 years after its première (thanks to the technical wizards at Kino Lorber Studio Classics who have put together the film—complete with intermission music from the uncredited composers Jay Chernis, Rudolph Kopp, Paul Marquardt and Milan Roder), it is quite fantastic that this epic tale of Romans persecuting the Christians in 64 A.D., coupled with a subplot that can find its way back/front to Romeo and Juliet, proves the universality of deadly bullying and scorned-upon mixed relationships to this very day. Think Black Lives Matter goes to the Peoples’ Games in the amphitheatre.
DeMille’s pre-code extravaganza is awash with skin (Claudette Colbert—the vengeful Empress Poppaea—happy to flash her upper torso in the famous “milk bath” scene) while hubby (Charles Laughton readily looks the part of Nero, but the accent…?) has an eye candy slave that is eager to serve his master in the altogether. Rounding out the wardrobe-light contributions are ill-fated Christians tied to the stake and matinée-idol-in-the-making Tommy Conlon, whose character, Stephan, leads to the deaths of his fellow worshippers (torture can reveal any secret, sooner or later).
But Stephan’s lashings are nothing compared to what Christians can expect while secretly (well, almost) worshipping where they become sitting saints for the Romans’ piercing crossbows.
Binding everything together are the doomed lovers. Frederic March revels in the role of Marcus, Prefect of Rome. Fair but cruel as necessary, effortlessly piloting his chariot with troops alongside and trumpets announcing to the world where he is and what his intentions are (the horns shown on camera being far too long and large to utter such penetrating cries!), he finally runs amok with his first glance of Mercia. In the role of the most comely follower of Christ, Elissa Landi is appropriately luminous, thoughtful and pious. How marvellous that hairdressers and makeup artists were on hand in first century A.D.
Naturally, their love affair earns the unbridled wrath of the Empress whose only goal in life, despite having everything, is to bed her husband’s prefect. Lurking in the narrative weeds is the ever-jealous, second-in command Tigellinus, readily delighted to stamp out all Christians (as ordered by Nero—who, in this version plucks a wee harp rather than fiddles while Rome burns) and usurp Nero’s favourite at any cost.
Everything culminates in one of the most gruesome sequences of life needlessly lost—much to the delight of Nero, his entourage and his citizens. Not since Passion of the Christ (cross-reference below) has overkill been so shamelessly employed to sell seats.
Inevitably, Mercia and Marcus must pay the ultimate price for their unyielding love, walking hand-in-hand to meet the lions’ roars even as Nero grins from ear to ear, Tigellinus smacks his chops, and the Empress must begin her quest for a real man all over again.
Little wonder it took five writers (screenplay, play, novel) to provide the fodder for DeMille’s inventiveness and cinematographer Karl Struss’ unerring eye. JWR