Title: Caligula (1979)
Director: Tinto Brass
Cast: Malcolm McDowall, Helen Mirren, Peter O Toole, John Gielgud
Caligula is a film whose production was about as excessive as the Romans it depicts in its moving images. The film took four whole years to film, extras had to organize a strike because they weren’t getting paid, veteran actors got angry when they learned that pornographic images were included in the final film, actresses sued the production because their careers where affected, the films costs went above the 17 million dollar mark, writers, producers and directors all fought for the final cut of the film…and then, the film was released, which opened up a whole other can of worms.
Producer/media mogul Bob Guccione (the same guy who founded Penthouse Magazine) wanted to give audiences a film they had never seen before; a film that would change the way motion pictures were made. I guess he mistook nudity for something no one had ever seen before. Still, Guccione was out to shock the hell out of everyone by including as much nudity as you’d find behind the covers of Penthouse magazine and along the way, sprinkle the film with copious amounts of gore and violence. Since it was Penthouse magazine that actually funded Caligula, all the hardcore nudity included in the film shouldn’t surprise anybody. Here was a film produced by a pornographer with millions upon millions to spend! Apparently Guccione was going to make the Gone With the Wind of porn films.
And yes my friends, make no mistake, this film includes explicit sex in its footage. In my book, Caligula is without a doubt, the biggest, most expensive porn film ever made. The production included lavish (albeit campy) sets, numerous wardrobe changes, and extras upon extras committing all sorts of lurid acts on film. I’m pretty sure that if you were to watch this film noting down every sexual act depicted or suggested, you’d end up with a pretty hefty list. It is a film that’s hell bent on depicting characters with no morale whatsoever, they will do whatever amuses them, whatever pleases them, as long as it saves them from boredom. And the nudity? It’s not erotic, it’s not sensual, its depraved, which I’m guessing was the filmmaker’s intent.
Caligula tells the tale of one Gaius Caesar Germanicus a.k.a ‘Caligula’, the most depraved of all emperors to ever get command over Rome, and that’s saying a lot because a lot of Roman Emperor’s were known for going overboard with their despotism and luridness. Caligula ruled for a very short time, yet that time was riddled with atrocity on top of atrocity. You see, Caligula thought himself a God, and so, as God, he had no one to answer to, he could do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted to do it to and no one could tell him otherwise. Everyone would just approve, clap and bow down to his next command. And this is very well depicted on the film, Caligula and his followers all come of as a bunch of self centered egotists, only looking to satisfy themselves and their immediate pleasures. As rulers, they didn’t seek the benefit of the people, but rather, they looked for new ways to trick the people and take advantage of them. Through out this film, you never meet a decent character. You’ll hate everyone on this film, it is a story of people indulging in every sexual and violent desire known to man, and maybe inventing some new ones. It’s a story about an Emperor’s decent into madness; it’s a film about how power completely corrupted Caligula, transforming him into an Emperor known for his cruelty, his extravagance, and his perversity; an insane tyrant in every sense of the word.
In terms of production, Caligula walks a fine line between looking magnanimous, with huge statues, pillars, stairs, temples, and then doing a complete 360 and looking all campy and fake. Some scenes look impressive; others look like a set on the batman t.v. show. In an effort to titillate the viewer, almost everyone on the film is running around either completely naked or almost naked; 95% of the time these characters are right smack in the middle of having sex. Even in scenes where you wouldn’t expect it, nudity prevails. There are many versions of this film available out there, some without the nudity, others with the nudity, some R-rated others unrated. I saw the 156 minute version, which I think is one of the more complete versions that exist. And things do get pretty hardcore, so much so that it turns the film into the most expensive porn ever made. In this sense it reminded me of the seventies revenge film They Call Her One Eye (1973) a.k.a. Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the only other movie that I can recall including hardcore porn in it. Only Caligula is more persistent with its nude scenes.
Does Hellen Mirren look great as a Roman or what??
Technically speaking, the film is a mess though. I mean, this is a film that has obviously been tinkered to death by its producers. It was a film that was taken from its director, who chose to eliminate his name from the credits. Guccione, the producer, wanted the nudity to be sexier, while Tinto Brass, the director, wanted fat, ugly, deformed, old people, which he shot by the way, but Guccione wanted sexier nudity! So he shot the infamous additional six minutes of explicit sex. Gore Vidal, the writer responsible for the original script the film is based on distanced himself from the project as well. He was afraid to be associated with a project that was so out of control. As you can see my friends, Caligula is a film that distanced itself almost entirely from the writer and director’s original visions! This is probably the reason why some scenes are an incongruent mess. Following the plot of Caligula is not an easy task, most of the dialog is badly dubbed, you can tell this was the reason why many of the scenes chosen for the final cut of the film are scenes that were shot from far away, so they could dub whatever dialog they wanted in a take. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this was one expensive mess of a film.
Malcom McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, If…) was the actor chosen to play Caligula, a risky role to play if you ask me. Just being in this film was a risky move for many of the actors involved, four of which where seasoned veterans like Peter O Toole and John Gielgud. They all claim that they never knew that there were going to be explicit sex scenes included in the final picture. This is a believable claim sense the most explicit scenes (six minutes in total) were filmed much later in the production. McDowell played Caligula like a demented nutcase, drunk with power. To him, life is one big joke, nothing is sacred, except for himself. It was a very demanding role, one that called for him to put himself in many a sexual situation. Now, you know a film has gone to far when during production an actor utters the words “I’m not going to do that!” yet, this is exactly what happened in one scene that called for Caligula to interrupt a couple of newlyweds, right in the middle of their wedding celebration. The scene called for Caligula to rape the virginal wife and then proceed to rape her husband as well. McDowell said he would not film the raping of the husband, so he instead went with fisting him. In my opinion, the scene ended up being even more disturbing.
Upon the films release, the critics went crazy with this one. The depraved time of the Romans had long passed. Now, The Conservative Audiences of our time had taken over, and so people where enraged by this film. It had a limited release, which spelled certain doom for a 17 million dollar production like this one. Still, even with its limited release, and its negative response with certain critics, people lined up to see this circus of freaks. The film barely made its money back, but it didn’t loose money either. Some loved it, most hated it. For example, Roger Ebert wrote in his review for it that a lady next to him said that the film “was the biggest piece of shit” she had ever seen. Ebert himself said the film was “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful thrash” and he walked out of the movie at the two hour mark! But even with the media backlash, the film was perverse enough to get audiences in theaters, I mean, at the time, the films notoriety had grown to legendary proportions! This was the film people were daring each other to go see. Still to this day, the film has this mystique of evil and perversity wrapped around it. I told a friend I was watching Caligula and the reply I got was “pervert!”
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Caligula is the worst film ever made. I have seen far worse pictures. I see the sleaze factor, yeah, how can you miss it? Caligula and his entourage are a bunch of depraved characters that you could never get to like, and two and a half hours of depravity after depravity can get to be a bit much. But I guess the film does have an educational side. I mean, after all, the film is depicting Caligula and his life of excesses; of course it wasn’t going to be pretty. This was after all the guy who proclaimed himself a living god. This was the guy who had a love affair with his sister! And slept with his horse! Chances are that what went on in the real Roman Empire was far worse then whatever these filmmakers chose to show us in in this film. But at least the film exposes us to those crazy days. And yes, Caligula is a sleazy film ever step of the way. For example, it's got this really graphic lesbian scene that comes right out of nowhere and apparently has no more purpose then to shock us. But in the end, Caligula also serves as an example of a film gone overboard and out of control, and it's always fun to watch one of those. The film and its production represents excess as much as the Romans it depicts. If you can take that, plus lots of ugly nudity and gory violence, you should be fine. I mean whats the big deal? It's only a little porn, who hasn't seen that?