Caligula (1979)

Principal Photography by: Tinto Brass

Additional Scenes Directed and Photographed by: Giancarlo Lui & Bob Guccione

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud

I just want to preface this whole thing by saying that the era of the Roman Empire is for me one of the more fascinating periods of history. At a time when the map of the Earth was much smaller than it is today, it was easy for one person to believe himself to be the ruler of the world. That much power will get to a man’s head, no matter how sincere or devious he was when he started. Easily my favorite of all the Roman Emperors is Caligula. This man was quite certifiably batshit insane, but that makes him all the more interesting an historical figure in my eyes. I can watch whole documentaries devoted to this one man’s four year reign of power. Ask any expert on the subject and they’ll tell you that was four years too long. The level of debauchery and violence that went on during this time really helps “Little Boots” (as was his nickname) stand out. No work of fiction could ever showcase all of Caligula’s cruelty and sexual exploits. No movie studio would ever allow it. Bob Guccione of Penthouse Magazine wasn’t about to let that stop him from taking things to a most controversial and extreme level.

As the film begins, Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is first in line to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, with Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) sitting as the current ruler but wasting away due to illness. Eventually, as was often the method of succession, Caligula assassinates Tiberius (or rather, has someone else do it for him). It is customary for those in power to marry and produce an heir. Caligula is more than willing to participate in this ritual, taking the promiscuous Caesonia (Helen Mirren) as his wife and mother to his child. But Caligula’s heart belongs to his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy). He insists that both women be hailed along with the usual “Hail Caesar!” that he is to receive, much to the chagrin of the members of the Senate in particular. Caligula delights in tormenting these sanctimonious lawmakers, even appointing his horse as a member of the Senate. Perhaps he forgot what happened to Julius Caesar, who also fell out of favor with the Roman Senate, on that fateful March 15th of 44 BC. When an illness spreads throughout Rome, eventually taking the life of Drusilla, Caligula goes mad. I know… as opposed to the very calm and reasonable man he’d been up to that point? Eventually, history does repeat itself, and members of the Senate conspire to kill Caligula, Caesonia, and their daughter. Caligula’s uncle Claudius is then quickly appointed the new Caesar.

After seeing the film I had a hard time deciding whether or not it would be worth it to write a review. The intrigue surrounding the movie “Caligula” has nothing to do with its plot, a mere Cliff’s Notes account of Caligula’s reign, and everything to do with the scenes of violence and especially the sex scenes which are quite clearly not simulated. I am very interested in tracking down any movie that carries with it a reputation like the one this movie has. Multiple versions of “Caligula” exist. The two most readily available are the 102-minute R-rated cut and the 157-minute Unrated cut. The Unrated version is the one that gets everyone’s panties in a bunch. As I said, there are sex scenes in this cut which are not simulated. Those scenes were added in post production without the knowledge or approval of the lead actors, screenwriter Gore Vidal or the original director, Tinto Brass, leading them all to distance themselves from the film.

So, where was my problem? My problem was in the fact that the version I watched was the tamer, R-rated cut. This version plays more like a real movie, except that its story suffers from atrocious editing… and that’s before Bob Guccione stepped in and made his “improvements”, turning the movie into the most expensive porno ever filmed! Malcolm McDowell is a fine actor even when presented with dreck material to work with. I can even forgive the fact that, more than half of the time, I feel as though I am watching him play his “Clockwork Orange” character while wearing a toga. That’s not much of a criticism, mind you. I’m certain that Alex DeLarge would have been right at home in ancient Rome. In rating McDowell’s performance as Caligula, I can say that I prefer him to Jay Robinson’s stagy, over-the-top and somewhat foppish turn as the character in 1953’s “The Robe.” However, I still consider the definitive representation of Gaius Julius Caesar to be that of John Hurt in the 1976 mini-series “I, Claudius.”

There is an awful lot of ugliness to “Caligula,” more than I care to see for myself. I have no idea why anyone thought it a good idea to make the movie the way it exists in any of its various forms. I’m a fan of another Penthouse production, the 1971 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” however I credit director Roman Polanski for that. No matter which version of “Caligula” you watch, you’re either going to be subject to a nice try of a movie, or a bewildering, exploitative mess that will leave you feeling like taking a shower afterwards. It’s one of those movies that, because it has this built-up image as a movie not for the faint of heart, curiosity demands that you risk wasting your time in seeking it out. Like the unsound decisions made in the movie’s production process, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.


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