"I'm the emperor's most urgent business."
In 64 A.D. Marcus, (Fredric March), the prefect of Rome, falls in love virtually at first sight with Mercia (Elissa Landi). The problem is that Mercia is a Christian,as is her entire household, and Marcus causes all of Rome to gossip and watch in dismay as he defends her, although he doesn't share her beliefs. Another problem is that Emperor Nero's wife, Poppea (Claudette Colbert), has a thing for Marcus and is perfectly willing to commit adultery with him, which he refuses to do; she is not thrilled by his interest in Mercia. In the meantime hunky Tigellinus (Ian Keith), who should certainly pique the empress's interest but apparently doesn't, is already plotting against Marcus before the latter gives him plenty of ammunition due to his passionate interest in Mercia. If you can get past the pious nature of some of the scenes -- and some of the Christians do seem nuts -- this can and should be taken as a study of cruel oppression. The scenes of Christians being herded into an arena only to be mauled and eaten by lions are still quite raw and disturbing (if not as graphic as they would be today) and one can't help but think of the later Holocaust and its atrocities. [Ironically, Hollywood parties were probably more like Roman orgies than Christian prayer meetings.] Charles Laughton is excellent, as usual, in his brief appearances as Nero. Charles Middleton has a small role as the panicking Christian Tyros, who feels that God has forgotten his people. Tommy Conlon is excellent as the boy Stephen, who is tortured until he gives away the Christians' location. Colbert is as good as she was in Cleopatra, but March, frankly, never quite seems to get a handle on his character, perhaps because as written Marcus is a little unreal. There's a supposedly "lesbian" dance in which a woman seductively drapes herself around Mercia to music. The coliseum scenes are intense and harrowing and even if you're neither Christian or even religious it's hard not to be affected by the awful deaths of so many innocent people. [Ironically, many Christians today are similarly intolerant towards others.]
Verdict: DeMille has his cake and eats it, too! ***1/2.