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The Epic That Never Was…

June 19, 2015


I finally got around to it.  I dug out the extra DVD that came with my box set of Jack Pullman’s BBC adaptation of I Claudius and played it. In 1965, the BBC got Dirk Bogarde to narrate a documentary about the attempt in the late 1930s by Alexander Korda to make a movie of I Claudius by Robert Graves starring Charles Laughton.  We are now rather further from the documentary than the documentary was from the abortive film, giving the documentary a peculiarly distant feel.  Dirk Bogarde is, of course, supremely elegant and seductive as a guide and we meet many of the principles – though not of course Laughton who had died just a few years earlier. Merle Oberon (Messalina) looks as though the intervening 28 years had made no mark on her.  The film was abandoned after she became involved in a near fatal car accident.  Flora Robson also looks unchanged, but that’s because she was far far younger than Livia when she was playing the part back in the 30s.

Veteran dramatist and actor Emlyn Williams is in fine form.  He would have played (did play) Caligula in the film.  The necessary concentration of the narrative involved in making a movie appears to have involved a decision to make Caligula the single focused villain of the piece, making Flora Robson’s Livia more of a spirited crotchety high-minded matriarch. Von Sternberg was, by all accounts, a proper movie director.  He dressed up as a movie director – beret and riding breeches and all.  His intimidating German accent only added to the effect.  I believe he got very cross if people neglected the “Von” in his name.  “Vons” tend to.

Graves is there in the documentary, Majorca tanned and cheerful and for once not being too snooty about the pot-boilers he always resented being primarily associated with.  You get the distinct sense that he would have been far less happy about contributing to this documentary had the film been completed and been a massive critical and commercial success.

In the footage that has survived of this 1937 epic, the sets look remarkable and the costumes are an (ahistorical) treat.  And above all there is Laughton.  If this film had been completed then Laughton’s Claudius would have been regarded as one of the great screen performances of the decade and would have stood alongside his Quasimodo and his Rembrandt proudly.  With Laughton’s Claudius we would have seen the apotheosis of Laughton in Prince Myshkin mode, his most characteristic mode.  Oddly enough, there is a kind of childish innocence even in Laughton’s villains – Bligh and Henry VIII, a kind of petulance born of vulnerability.  Laughton’s Bligh and Henry VIII, like Laughton’s Quasimodo and Claudius – could not have received many parental hugs as a child.  The documentary records that Laughton put Von Sternberg through Hell during the filming as he struggled, in the most stereotypically pretentious thespy way to “find” his character.  His moment of breakthrough came, apparently, when he replayed a recording of Edward VIII abdicating.  Now I can think of nobody less like Edward VIII (arrogant, selfish, Nazi) than Graves’ or Laughton’s (or Jacobi’s) Claudius.  But it worked for Laughton (or would have worked had the film been completed.  It just goes to vindicate my long standing belief that many theories and techniques of acting can withstand no sort of logical analysis whatsoever, but have a mantra like efficacy.  A few seconds of silent screen time with Laughton’s Claudius conveys a sense of endless ages of admirable resilience and patient suffering.

When Merle Oberon had the car crash, the film was wound up and the insurance was claimed.  One remote grateful beneficiary was Derek Jacobi of course.  Now it’s possible that the 1970s TV I Claudius would still have been made, even if the Sternberg-Laughton film had been completed.  But poor Derek Jacobi would have had to contend with Laughton’s portrayal – act against its massive unignorability.  “He’s good but he’s no Charles Laughton” would have been the instinctive opening sentence for just about every reviewer of the series.

Josef Von Sternberg’s I Claudius is truly sublime, because the sublime is all about incompletion and extrapolate.  Failure is always more sublime that success because it forces us to strain our imagination to conceive of what might have been.  On that basis, on the basis of the hints that we have, I Claudius must be considered the most sublime epic movie (n)ever made.


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  1. Fantastic! I knew nothing of this, but I’m an “I Claudius” devotee (books and series). I would have loved to see Flora Robson as Livia.

  2. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Today is Claudius’ birthday.

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