Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Epic That Never Was (1967)

Back in the 1930's Alexander Korda left Hungary where he had been a film producer to settle in England and began a film studio in 1933 that he hoped could compete with Hollywood. What he thought he could beat them at was historical epics and over a few short years produced such classic films as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Rise of Catherine the Great, The Private Life of Don Juan, Rembrandt and Fire Over England. But he wanted something even better - even bigger - so he settled on the book from Robert Graves called I, Claudius.

So in 1937 he hired Josef von Sternberg - famous for his films directing Marlene Dietrich - to helm it. One source mentions that he did so because Dietrich promised to forgive Korda's debt of $100,000 if he did so. They hired Charles Laughton, who had been in a few of the aforementioned classics from Korda, as Claudius, Flora Robson as Livia, Emlyn Williams as Caligula and Merle Oberon (who two years later married Korda) as Messalina. Huge sets were built and filming began.

But it went badly. Laughton kept complaining that he could not find his character and days would go by as he stewed frustrated with himself and filming would come to a halt. Yet some scenes were shot and still exist - and Laughton is terrific especially in the speech he gives to the Roman Senate upon ascending the Roman throne. Then Oberon was in bad car accident and Korda used that as a reason to shut down the production and get reimbursed by Lloyds. And so a possible classic never made it to the big screen.

This documentary is narrated by Dirk Bogarde and there are interviews with members of the cast and crew who were still alive in 1967. It is up on YouTube.

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