Cecil De Mille combined showmanship, debauchery and reverence in many of his biblical features. An early important figure in early Hollywood, De Mille was a storyteller and in his 1932 classic, Sign of the Cross. De Mille told a timeless story of love and persecution. De Mille, like Mel Gibson 72 years later with Passion of the Christ, was not shy about using violence and sex to advance his message of Christianity triumph. The movie begins with Nero, played by Charles Laughton, reciting poetry as Rome burns. Throughout the film, Roman debauchery is contrasted to Christian virtues. And in Cecil De Mille’s films, violence and sex gained the edge in air time when compared to virtue. Using various tricks, his cinematographer managed to make mob scenes larger that they actually were and as additional treats for the audience; there are Christians being eaten, orgies, sex both straight and gay and plenty of murder and palace intrigues.
After witnessing the burning of Rome, Nero is advice to blame the Christians and begin wholesale reprisals. Christians find themselves in hiding. There is one scene that when two Christians are identify by a mob, they deny their faith and pretend to be philosophers. De Mille notes that even among Christians, courage is not always present in the face of death. A Roman Imperial Prefect saves them from the teaming mob. The reason for this has nothing to do with justice but that the Prefect catches the eye of a Christian woman, who is defending the two Christians (one of whom is her stepfather) against the mob.
The Prefect, named Marcus Superbus, pursue the woman and this only gets him in trouble with the Emperor, his rivals in the royal court and the Empress, who desires him. Marcus is pitted against his main rival Tigellinus and the Empress, Poppaea. We are treated to two worlds, those of the Christians hiding in the underground and the Romans, who constantly seem to be engaged in political intrigue and orgies. De Mille seem to have fun with debauchery and in one scene, the seductress Ancara conducts the infamous “Naked Moon” dance, which combines eroticism and lesbian lust. Ancara dances around the Christian Mercia in an attempt to seduce the young woman into Lesbian sex acts, while other Romans look on in delight. Her dance is eventually drowned out by the hymns of Christians on their way to arena and death.