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The Epic That Never Was (1965)

The story of the aborted 1937 filming of "I, Claudius", starring Charles Laughton, with all of its surviving footage.


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I, Claudius (1937)

The life and times of the Roman emperor Claudius (10 B.C.-A.D. 54).

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Stars: Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Emlyn Williams


Complete credited cast:
Himself - Host / Narrator
Robert Graves ...
Himself - author of 'I, Claudius'
Himself - Director
Herself / Messalina
Herself / Livia
Emlyn Williams ...
Himself / Caligula
John Abbott ...
Himself - Ms. Robson's Host
Eileen Corbett ...
Herself - Script Girl
John Armstrong ...
Himself - Costume Designer
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Claudius (archive footage)
Captain of Caligula's guard (archive footage)


The story of the aborted 1937 filming of "I, Claudius", starring Charles Laughton, with all of its surviving footage.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis







Release Date:

24 December 1965 (UK)  »

Also Known As:

Filmen som aldrig blev av  »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


One of the first documentaries to make use of the opening theme from Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra", later made more famous in the film "2001: A Space Odyssey". See more »


Referenced in DVD-R Hell: Deception of a Generation: Part 2 (2013) See more »


Also sprach Zarathustra
(opening fanfare)
Music by Richard Strauss
Heard at the beginning and the end of the program
See more »

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User Reviews

The Epic That Never Was (Bill Duncalf, 1965; TV) ***
16 March 2011 | by (Naxxar, Malta) – See all my reviews

This is one of the most famous documentaries about one of the most legendary aborted projects in film history. The reasons for the latter were two-fold: definitively by way of a car accident in which leading lady Merle Oberon was injured but, firstly, due to star Charles Laughton's difficulty in "finding the man". There is some heart-breaking evidence here of out-takes in which he flubs his lines and demands pardon of his colleagues: in hindsight, having played so many historical characters – including another Roman Emperor, Nero, in Cecil B. De Mille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS [1932] – and figures of authority throughout the decade (constituting some of the greatest performances on record), one can hardly fault him for failing to strike the necessary balance at first...since he later reportedly drew inspiration from then-recent British events i.e. the abdication of King Edward VIII! With respect to Claudius' physical liabilities, too, Laughton would be vindicated a hundred times over in a couple of years' time with his magnificently poignant Quasimodo in the definitive screen rendition of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

Anyway, luckily for us, this documentary presents all the surviving footage (which is quite brilliant and, frankly, ahead of its time – making the loss all the more regrettable). The film was intended as producer Alexander Korda's ultimate achievement, for which he even imported one of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic directors – Josef von Sternberg. Unfortunately, at this juncture, the latter is played up as the villain of the piece (perhaps because his arrogance is well-documented) – being taken to task especially when he blames the cancellation of the film on actors' 'tantrums'. Oberon herself does not mention this fact, but seems to accept the project's dissolution as a "godsend". However, another principal actor, Emlyn Williams (who, by the way, makes for a marvelously wily Caligula) ridicules his non-existent aristocratic pretensions...while costume designer John Armstrong berates Sternberg over his deliberate disregard for authenticity! I do feel that double standards were applied in this case – as many a star's foibles have been tolerated over the years but a director, apparently, cannot avail of that luxury (especially when vast sums of money are involved)!

The documentary (occasionally accompanied by the powerful strains of Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" a year before it was to be immortalized thanks to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY!) is hosted by Dirk Bogarde who, interestingly enough, narrates of how he had gone on the set as a curious teen. Also on hand to recount the debacle are actress Dame Flora Robson (playing much older than her age as Claudius' mother), the director's script-girl (who, at least, praises Sternberg for his editorial sense), Robert Graves – the author of the two novels on which the script were based, but whose own adaptation had been rejected! – and, of course, Sternberg himself who believes the results would have been great but, in retrospect, having already made his mark on the cinema, his career thereafter would presumably not have been much different (that said, it did go kind of downhill from there – with the 1940s being especially slack for him – though it took another 16 years to fully peter out!). For the record, Korda, Laughton and supporting actor Robert Newton had all passed on by the time this documentary came to be made.

Eventually, the novels would be turned into a massive but celebrated TV series in 1976 with Derek Jacobi as Claudius and John Hurt as Caligula. I own it on 2 DVDs, but the 11-hour length was daunting and I could not possibly fit it in my current Sternberg schedule (as was the case with THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE [1964] during the Luis Bunuel retrospective). Maybe next month will be different, seeing how the usually epic-centered Easter period is just around the corner...

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