Sign Of The Pagan

1954, Movie, NR, 91 mins

Review

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Jack Palance gives a flamboyant and swaggering performance as Attila the Hun in SIGN OF THE PAGAN, a first-rate '50s sword-and-sandal spectacle that was the first CinemaScope film made by director Douglas Sirk and boasts a more literate script than most of its ilk.

As Attila the Hun (Jack Palance) marches across Europe in his attempt to conquer the world, a Roman centurion named Marcian (Jeff Chandler) is sent to try to stop him from attacking Rome. Marcian is captured by Attila, but the Hun takes a liking to him, as does his daughter Kubra (Rita Gam). Marcian manages to escape on Attila's prize stallion, and he rides to Constantinople where he requests the help of Emperor Theodosius (George Dolenz), who turns him down because of treaties he has made with barbarian warriors to guard his borders. However, the Emperor's sister, Princess Pulcheria (Ludmilla Tcherina), falls in love with Marcian and makes him captain of her guards. When Attila arrives at the palace for a feast for the barbarian kings, Theodosius makes a deal with him to assure that Constantinople won't be attacked.

Meanwhile, Attila begins to fear Christiantity based on a dream and his astrologer's (Eduard Franz) predictions about his death. Kubra rejects her father's way of life after Marcian teaches her about Christ. After Marcian helps Pulcheria overthrow Theodosius, she is made the empress and appoints Marcian general. He returns to Rome and mounts a defense against the impending attack by Attila, but Attila retreats after being visited by Pope Leo (Moroni Olsen), who scares him away by somehow knowing about his dream and exploiting his fear of reprisal from the Christian god. When Kubra admits she told the Pope about the dream, Attila kills her. Marcian ambushes Attila and his troops as they're retreating, and Attila is killed by one of his slave wives (Allison Hayes) while he's having a swordfight with Marcian.

Costume epics and action movies were admittedly not really Douglas Sirk's forte, and he was assigned to direct SIGN OF THE PAGAN at the last moment, replacing another director, which is probably why he always felt that the film was not one of his best, but nevertheless, he brings his usual intelligence and impeccable technique to the project. He had originally tried to convince Jeff Chandler to play Attila, explaining that he was the most interesting character, but Chandler refused to play a "heavy" and the result is that he was thoroughly upstaged by Jack Palance. In any case, the affable, but stiff, Chandler could never have done justice to the part, as Palance proves in what was his biggest role to date. Strutting around with shoulder-length hair, a Fu Manchu mustache, and brownish skin, Palance makes Attila not only truly ferocious, but also vulnerable and psychologically complex, as when he wakes up half-crazed after a nightmare in which he's killed by Christians. It's this quasi-mystical aspect (embodied by the astrologer character) which distinguishes the film from most of its kind, which generally emphasize traditional religious values and spectacular battle scenes over character delineation.

Although the opulent sets and Russell Metty's expert widescreen visuals make the film a constant pleasure to look at, the action scenes are actually kept to a minimum, reduced to a few swordfights and some montages of rampaging barbarians burning and pillaging their way across Europe. Instead, Sirk concentrates on the shifting relationships and political scheming. While inspired by Marlowe's Tamburlaine, he also stages some beautifully stylized studio "exterior" tableaux, such as when "God" sends down a bolt of lightning that kills one of Attila's men, and when Pope Leo appears out of a cloud of misty white fog and floats down the river with a giant cross toward the terrified Attila. Although the film was Sirk's first CinemaScope production, he was also forced to shoot a separate "flat" version for theaters that had not yet installed wide screens. (Other similarly shot early Scope films include THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH, BRIGADOON, and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS). The non-widescreen version of SIGN OF THE PAGAN still exists, and though slightly different in its staging, is also good, but lacks the sweep and grandeur of design of the Scope version. While certainly not a classic, the film is leagues above Hollywood's typical "babes-and-bacchanals" biblical epics of the period. (Violence.) leave a comment

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