Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hollywood Romans #15 -- I, Claudius

Hollywood Romans #15 – I, Claudius

“Few incidents here given are wholly unsupported by historical authority of some sort or other and I hope none are historically incredible.  No character is invented.”
--Robert Graves, from the introduction to Claudius The God (c1035)

I, Claudius
1976 BBC 668 minutes in 12 Episodes (13 Episodes in the US)
Directed by Herbert Wise
Written by Jack Pullman from the novels by Robert Graves
Starring: Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Sian Philips, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart

Robert Graves, one of the “war poets” who emerged from the trenches of World War One, was a writer of prodigious talent.  Beyond several volumes of poetry, Graves published more than 100 other works including translations of the classics (The Twelve Caesars) biography (Lawrence And The Arabs) and even science fiction (Seven Days In Crete).  However, Graves is best know for his works of historical fiction and for two in particular, I, Claudius and Claudius The God.  These two books, first published in the mid 1930’s, are still considered by many to be the high point of the historical fiction genre.

                                          Robert Graves

It should come as no surprise then that Hollywood, in the form of director Alex Korda, came calling and quickly bought the film rights to the books with an eye to producing a new feature film epic.  That production, directed by Josef von Sternberg and staring Charles Laughton, as Claudius, Merle Oberon, as Messalina, and Flora Robson, as Livia, was troubled from the start.  Although Korda was riding high after his recent hits and though the thusly revived British film industry spared no expense when it came to sets and costumes, the production just never jelled.  In particular, Laughton had difficulty “finding the character” and many days were spent with the cast and crew waiting for him to do so.  Neither Laughton, nor von Sternberg were happy, and even though rushes of those scenes that were filmed show signs of true brilliance, giving hints of what might have been, there was nevertheless a palpable sigh of relief when the production was cancelled.  This was due to a near fatal accident suffered by Merle Oberon who, at that point, could not be replaced without substantial additional cost.

                                         Charles Laughton as Claudius

It was not until 1976, when the BBC undertook a new adaptation of the book, this time for television, that Claudius finally made his screen debut.

The series director, Herbert Wise, and producer, Martin Lisemore, chose their cast and crew with care.

Seeing the inherent humor that Graves had infused into his books, Wise had the good sense to hire Jack Pullman, known for his comic writing, to do the adaptation.  Wise and Pullman decided to use the format of the American Soap Opera where the characters are fighting for control of the family business, which, in this case, just happens to be running the world.

Wise then selected actors who could do justice to the script’s subtle wit.  Although many already had solid careers, none were big ‘stars’ and few were well known outside of the UK.  I, Claudius changed all that, and many of the actors are quite familiar to audiences today, though fans are often surprised to learn that these actors were part of I, Claudius. 

                                          Patrick Stewart as Sejanus

Patrick Stewart, best know as Captain Picard on Star Trek, as Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard.  John Rhys-Davies, Sula in Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Gimli in Lord Of The Rings, as Macro, another officer of the Praetorian Guard.  Kevin McNally, Mr. Gibbs in Pirates Of The Caribbean, as Drusus minor or Castor to his friends.  James Faulkner, the Major in The Bank Job, as King Herod Agrippa.  Even the seemingly minor part of Gratus, a Praetorian Guardsman was played by Bernard Hill, now better known for his turn as King Theoden in The Lord Of The Rings.

                                          Bernard Hill as Gratus

Then too, some actors are so closely tied to this production that they have become the characters they portrayed.  Although he does not look anything like Caesar Augustus, it is hard not to see Brian Blessed’s face when thinking of the first emperor of Rome, or of Sian Philips when you hear the name Livia, or even to read the novel I, Claudius without doing so in the voice of Derek Jacobi. 

All of these actors have enjoyed excellent careers on stage and screen, appearing in several note worthy films.  However I would be remiss if I did not mention Brian Blessed’s bravura turn as Voltan, King of the Hawkmen, in the 1980 feature film, Flash Gordon.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

                                                   Brian Blessed as Caesar Augustus

In the initial casting call John Hurt was approached for the part of Gaius Caligula, but he declined, feeling himself not right for the part.  Invited to a cast & crew party held at the start of filming, Hurt was so impressed by the assembly of talent, that he, somewhat sheepishly, approached Herbert Wise and asked if he might reconsider his decision turning down the part.  But of course, replied Wise.  He had invited Hurt to the party in the hopes that he might change his mind.  It is lucky that he did, for John Hurt is nothing short of brilliant as Caligula. 

                                         John Hurt and Derek Jacobi

Initially, critics were rather lukewarm to the series, but by episode five they had changed their tune and were now enthusiastic supporters.  Audiences, on the other hand, had taken to the series instantly, and I, Claudius proved to be popular not only in the UK but around the world as well.   Indeed, it has remained one of the BBC’s most popular hits being re-broadcast several times on US television and enjoying healthy sales on laser disc and DVD.

Now, 35 years after the initial 1976 broadcast, Acorn Media has released a newly re-mastered 35th Anniversary DVD collection of I, Claudius.

The set contains the original twelve episodes, as broadcast in the UK, as well as a re-edit of the first episode into two one-hour episodes as broadcast in the US.  There is also a fifth disc containing supplemental material.

The video quality is excellent and a marked improvement over the previous release on DVD.  The images are crisp with bright colors and sharp detail.  The same is true for the audio, which is much improved over the early DVD release.  This is not to say there are not some minor issues, but these arise not from the DVD’s themselves nor from the re-mastering.  They are in fact due to the limits of the technology in use when the series was originally made.  In that day video cameras were using tubes resulting in ‘comet tailing’ of bright objects (like candles) and some slight image lag.  Likewise, the increased resolution of the DVD format, coupled with large screen HD monitors, makes it easy to spot the limits of the make-up in use at that time.  

However …

These are truly minor technical quibbles and do not detract from the overall quality of the series. I have owned copies of this series on Betamax, Laser Video Disc and DVD, but this new release is by far the best.  Indeed, watching the series again, on a 55” HD monitor, was like seeing it for the first time (even though, in our house, I, Claudius is a perennial that is viewed yearly).  Details missed during previous viewings, on a 32” CRT monitor, are clearly visible now and seem newly added, though in truth they were always there.  But, more importantly, what really stands out is the quality of the acting.

It is always a joy to see good acting and I, Claudius is a shining example of what happens when an intelligent script is put into the hands of talented actors – it is pure magic.

                                          Christopher Biggins as Nero

With a cast such as this, it is impossible to single out any one performance or performer as markedly superior to the others.  This is truly an ensemble piece and the whole is absolutely greater than the sum of its parts.  However, everyone has his or her favorite scenes and for me there are several.

Certainly Livia’s speech to the gladiators is a high point of black comedy, as is Caligula’s speech to the Senators upon his return from his war with Neptune.  Whereas the scene of Augustus confronting the Senators, many of them close friends, who have slept with his daughter is a sublime mix of black comedy and pathos.  Of course, it is Claudius who anchors the series and Derek Jacobi has several wonderful scenes, including his speech to the Senate upon his becoming Emperor by acclimation of the Guard.

I should also note that while the original two hour opening episode, from the UK version, is interesting, I much prefer the re-edited US version of two 1-hour episodes.  These contain some additional footage that is minor, to be sure, but to me glaring in its absence.  Also, the two documentaries on the fifth disc are fascinating and well worth watching in their entirety. One contains interviews with the cast and crew of the 1976 series while the other examines the aborted 1937 feature film with rushes from several of the scenes that were filmed before the project was cancelled.

Inevitably, the question of historical accuracy arises, as well it should.  Additionally, some will also wonder how I, Claudius compares to the more recent BBC/HBO series Rome.  With regard to the latter question it is obvious from the start that Rome had a much bigger budget that allowed for multiple locations and many exterior scenes with a large cast of extras and all that this entails (costumes, props, sets, etc.)

                                         Augustus and Livia at the games.

I, Claudius, working with a more “modest” budget, was shot entirely on a soundstage; so most scenes are interiors with a very limited number of extras.  Likewise costumes, though generally good, tend to be simple with armor worn by the Praetorians being standard issue Hollywood Roman.  Even so, it is truly amazing how much production value they were able to squeeze out of their budget.  It is also obvious that Wise put the majority of the money into his cast.  This was the smart choice for that investment paid off handsomely. 

                                          Statue of Claudius now in the Vatican Museum          

In terms of historical accuracy, I would say that I, Claudius does a better job of dealing with the sweep of time and a large cast of historical characters.  Yes, Rome does capture the sense, the feel, even the apparent smell of ancient Rome, and several characters are very well drawn.  Yet, the liberties taken in Rome (compression of time, amalgamation or elimination of characters) seem more obvious and more jarring than they do in I, Claudius. 

                                         George Baker as Tiberius

Indeed, I, Claudius succeeds on these terms in large part because it has such a solid foundation in the Robert Graves novels.  Yes, some liberties were taken (it is unlikely Claudius ever visited Cumae, Caligula did not eviscerate his sister or murder his own father) and several scholars (most notably Annelise Freisenburch, in her excellent book, Caesar’s Wives), have taken issue with the depiction of Livia as the arch schemer or of Tiberius as the degenerate lecher.  That said, I, Claudius remains well within the bounds of historical probability.  As Ms. Freisenburch notes:

         “ … Graves’ own unflattering portrait of Rome’s leading women was not
        entirely his own creation.  He simply chose to cooperate, for the most
        part, with the descriptions of them written by ancient Rome’s best known 
        and most revered commentators … Indeed the ancient literary sources that 
        inspired Graves seem, on the face of things, to conform with his characterizations.”  
      - Caesar’s Wives, c2010, pp. XVI-XVII

                                   Sian Philips as Livia, with Brian Blessed as Augustus

For those who have never seen this series, or read the books, I urge you to do so – what a treat you have before you.  And for those who are familiar with both, this new 35th Anniversary edition would be a worthy addition to anyone’s collection and will provide the perfect opportunity to discover I, Claudius again, as if for the first time.

Currently I, Claudius is available from Amazon on DVD and as Instant Video for those of you wishing to download the series to your iPad or other mobile device.  Acorn Media also offers I, Claudius as a streaming video, with one episode for free and the others available as part of their “premium” service.

One final note:  After the success of their series Rome, HBO and the BBC are teaming up once again, this time for a new production of I, Claudius.  (This on the heels of yet another aborted feature film project involving, at various times, both Leonardo DiCaprio and Disney.)  The HBO/BBC project is still in development so cast and crew have not been announced nor has a release date.  How will it stand up in comparison to the original?  Difficult to say, thought no doubt the new production will have a much bigger budget, feature more exteriors with large crowds, and, in keeping with the HBO tradition, much more graphic sex and violence.  However, when it comes to the acing, the original will be tough to equal, let alone beat.  Nothing pleases quite like the classics.

                                                Derek Jacobi as the Emperor Claudius

Further Reading and Links of Interest

I, Claudius and Claudius The God by Robert Graves, c1934 & 1935 respectively
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius translated by Robert Graves & Revised my Michael Grant, c1957 & 1979 respectively
Caesar’s Wives by Annelise Freisenbruch, c2010
Augustus by Anthony Everitt, c2006

This review was first posted in August, 2012 on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website.
(c)2012 by David L Reinke

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