It may be some time, if at all, since you last delved into the vicious and lethal grandeur of Rome as it was portrayed in I, Claudius. After all, Robert Graves’s book was first published in 1934. The 12-part BBC series first aired in 1976. In Pittsburgh, it ran on WQED, the local PBS station. My father watched it religiously. So it was with more than a little nostalgia that I recently took to the series again. First of all, the cast list is a who’s who of film and television:
Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart (with hair!), John Hurt, Brian Blessed– These lads have been around a long time.
George Baker– Curse Of The Fly, several Bond movies
Kevin McNally– Pirates Of The Caribbean series
Ian Ogilvy– Witchfinder General, And Now The Screaming Starts
Siân Phillips– Clash Of The Titans, Dune
Patricia Quinn– Rocky Horror Picture Show
John Rhys-Davies– Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Princess Diaries 2
Margaret Tyzack– 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange
Sheila White– the Confessions Of series
The point is, there’s a metric shit-ton of recognizable faces. That alone makes I, Claudius fun as hell to watch. Fair warning though–the first three episodes? Slow going. But you owe it to yourself the wade through them. That’s when the intrigues, mayhem, and bloodshed take off exponentially.
This includes what I consider to be a number of fine horror sequences which is why I, Claudius gets a spot on this blog. The plot includes any number of things that are horrific not so much in terms of gore (there really isn’t any, though some is strongly implied) but more often malevolence on a psychological level. There’s implacable Kafka-esque bureaucracy as in, say, The Trial. General free-flowing ickiness. Or just death on a grand scale.
Here, then, is a wee sample.
Livia, The Serial Poisoner– Played by Siân Phillips, Livia is possibly the most interesting character after Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and sometimes more so. She has a long string of victims, pretty much anyone who might even remotely become a political obstacle to the rise of her son, Tiberius (George Baker). Okay, “obstacle” isn’t the right word. Livia even bumps off a few people who would have been, at most, speed bumps on the road to the reign of her son. Eventually she even ices her own husband, Augustus (Brian Blessed, who I always see as Vultan from Flash Gordon, but nevermind that now).
The Godfather, Roman Empress Style– Remember what happens after Marlon Brando dies in The Godfather? While Al Pacino attends his godchild’s christening, his hitmen wipe out all the New York dons as well as Moe Greene. Well, when Augustus dies, Livia does pretty much the same thing. Keep in mind, though, that Graves wrote this in the 30s, long before Mario Puzo. Woulda been nice, though, to hear something along the lines of, “Leave the sword. Take the spira (or whatever the ancient Roman equivalent of cannoli is).”
Pretty Much Everything About Caligula– Livia and Claudius are interesting, complex characters to be sure, but Holy Roman Crap is John Hurt fascinating. Once his segment of the series is over, you feel like you need a long, hot shower. He’s not just evil, like Livia, but crazy, weird, slimy, cruel evil. Highlights, if you can call them highlights, include turning the palace into a brothel, making his horse a senator, giving a truly bizarre hermaphroditic dance performance, and cutting his unborn child out of his wife and swallowing it because he thinks he’s Zeus and fears the child will be greater than he is (as in the myth of Athena’s birth). Sheesh.
Beheading Of Messalina– This is a simple scene with no bloodshed, yet it remains one of the most chilling things I can remember. Messalina (Sheila White) was Claudius’s beautiful and much younger wife (a marriage arranged by Caligula as a cruel joke–what a merry little prankster). She was also ambitious, scheming, and evil. Ultimately she is rounded up with a number of other conspirators and beheaded. What makes the scene so effective is her scream-queen-like shrieking, “Not my head! Not my head!” right up to where a guard grabs her hair and swings his sword, at which point the camera spins away. I don’t know why, but that scene always makes me shudder.
Ah, the glory that was Rome.
Several offscreen wars
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