John Hurt as Caligula proved a very valuable casting choice for I, Claudius. Not only was he coming off the acclaim of a BAFTA win for 1975 ITV film, The Naked Civil Servant, but he possessed a crucial familiarity with series director Herbert Wise and co-star Siân Phillips.
Wise had directed Hurt on his very first television project some 14 years prior, and knew the rising screen star could execute his vision of Caligula as “one of the most bizarre, flamboyant and cruel characters in the whole [of I, Claudius].” Indeed, 26 years after directing the performance of that vision, Wise recalled (in the documentary, I, Claudius: A Television Epic), “Its realization by John Hurt was nothing short of miraculous and inspired.” Yet, when Hurt was first pitched I, Claudius, the prospect of playing the unhinged role of Caligula seemed, at least, on paper, like a stretch:
When I first read it, I thought, “I don’t believe that the known world could possibly be led by a lunatic of this nature.” I think it must have been something to do, actually, with the whole Puritan upbringing that I had that would not allow my mind to think that this was a possibility — and I passed on it, basically.
However, Wise would not be dissuaded, and Hurt recalled the director’s follow-up attempt to lure him onto the series:
He decided, because of the fragmented nature of the piece, and because people weren’t going to meet each other, that rather than have a party at the end of the whole series, he would have one at the beginning of it — and he invited me. And the atmosphere was so electric, and I can’t tell you, it was quite extraordinary, that I went up to Herbie in the middle and said, “Would it ever be possible if I could change my mind?” And he said, “I hoped that’s what you might say.”
Phillips was a longtime friend of Hurt’s, who was game for his on-set improvs during their scenes. This included his French kiss and breast fondling of the elderly Livia while bidding her goodnight in episode 6, Queen of Heaven. When the shocked and disgusted Claudius asks Livia why she allows Her great-grandson such familiarity, her answer is prophetic of how others will treat Caligula:
Because it pleases him… and because he will be the next emperor.
The combination of Caligula’s position as emperor, and his never being told “no” (For example, making his horse, Incitatus, a senator), produce a spoiled rotten man-child who makes the suffering of his enablers ever-greater, the more they say “yes” to him. With his short stature, extra-thin head of hair, and fey demeanor, Hurt’s Caligula is not at all intimidating physically, or even in behavior — certainly not compared to Emlyn Williams’ casually homicidal 1937 version (director Josef von Sternberg instructing him to play it as “very cruel, degenerate… perhaps, a little bit sissy.”), or the aggressively perverse Malcom McDowell in 1979’s Caligula. Yet, life-and-death imperial power makes even his half-baked musical theater performance in Hail Who? a terrifying experience for its three audience members (including Claudius). To ensure Caligula looked extra-ridiculous while dressed as the piece’s female role of dawn’s light, Hurt took make-up into his own hands:
The BBC make-up girls were being wonderful, I have to say, but they were being just that little bit too tasteful. And I said, “No, no, no, no, no — this has got to be absolutely outrageous. It’s got to hit you immediately. It’s image on screen time. This is film, not literature. So I really got the gold out, and it was totally outrageous makeup.
Again this child-like play at sloppy dress-up is part of a larger pattern of juvenile behavior that composes Hurt’s well-measured interpretation of Caligula. Specifically, it helps explain the impulsive emperor’s otherwise inexplicable choice to bully the military Praetorian charged with his personal protection — which leads to the plot that will assassinate the hated Caligula.
The Praetorian in question is Cassius Chaerea, whose leadership saved 120 Roman soldiers during the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest against thousands of German tribesmen — earning him a reputation as the bravest soldier in the Roman army. Now, however, he serves an emperor who has replaced his personal guard of red-plumed Romans with green-plumed Germans; forces a weeping Chaerea to torture and kill the loyal and well-respected commander of the Roman Army of the Rhine, Gaetulicus (along with six corps commanders, all accused of conspiracy); and needles the prideful Chaerea by forcing him to repeat humiliating watch words to his fellow guards, like “give us a kiss” and “bottoms up”. Chaerea recruits others into an assassination plot, including the senator Sabinus (livid after being forced to contribute his wife to Caligula’s palace brothel) and Caligula’s brother-in-law Marcus Vinicius — who barely escaped random execution after sailing to meet Caligula (thus, “riding with Neptune,” the emperor’s enemy), and lives in constant fear after accidentally offending the emperor’s godly ego by mentioning the low-born heritage of his grandfather, Agrippa. Chaerea’s planned outcome is to “call on the senate to declare a republic, and end this madness.” When the plan is executed, the conspirators do manage to murder Caligula, his wife Caesonia and baby daughter — but not Claudius, who the Praetorians find hiding behind a throne room curtain, and declare to be the new emperor (over Claudius’ strenuous objections), just as Caligula’s German guards enter the room:
Claudius: “Put me down! I don’t want to be an emperor! I want the republic!”
Praetorian sergeant: “Don’t keep saying that, sir — not in front of the Germans. They’ll slit your throat. Now, come on, smile, smile. That’s it, that’s it. Long live the emperor!”
The rest of the Praetorians take up the cheer, and repeat it while marching Claudius around the crowded throne room on their shoulders. Cassius Chaerea watches the spectacle from the doorway, a few minutes too late to finish off the Julio-Claudian family once and for all. His failure will soon cost him his life, and cost Rome a return to the republic that Claudius so craves.