Caligula – A Cautionary Tale Involving A List Actors, Historical Drama, And a Whole Lotta Fellatio.

Caligula (1979)

I’m going to admit straight away that I love the famous train wreck that is the movie “Caligula.”

You might be asking yourself “How is that possible? that film is a piece of shit. No one could love it.”

And that opinion would be hard to argue with, but I’m going to try to anyway. It’s true, “Caligula” is a total mess, but it’s a fun mess to behold if you’re in the right mood.

I’m sure on paper, “Caligula” sounded like it was destined to be a great cinematic classic. The cast is chock full of A List talent, a few of which were, and are, considered some of the best thespians in the world. With Malcolm McDowell in the title role, and a supporting cast including Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, and John Gielgud, I’m sure this movie seemed like a sure thing. Then came the pornographers. Wait, what? (more on that shortly.)

“Caligula” also had the benefit of being scripted by famous writer Gore Vidal, who developed the story from an unproduced TV mini series by Roberto Rossellini. When Vidal and Rossellini were unable to find anyone to fund the movie, Vidal made the ultimately terrible decision to approach Penthouse Magazine kingpin Bob Guccione.

What had been originally intended as a modest and realistic historical piece was transformed into a lurid spectacle by Guccione, who eagerly agreed to produce the film if is tone became more over the top, and if a lot more sex and nudity was added. Vidal and Rossellini jumped at the opportunity, perhaps out of desperation, or believing that the increased bankroll might benefit the final production.

After attempts to lure established mainstream directors like John Huston into the project, Guccione brought in Tinto Brass, a relatively new director best known at the time for his controversial Nazi Sexploitation film “Salon Kitty.” Production for “Caligula” began in Rome in 1976, and experienced trouble from the get-go. Vidal and Brass apparently hated one another, and original lead Maria Schneider dropped out after being troubled with the level of sexual content and nudity. The were also problems completing the film’s elaborate sets, which were designed by art director Danilo Danati. So basically, almost no one involved with the film was getting along very well. The original script was frequently altered or improvised on, and it shows in the final cut.

Add to the already messy production about six minutes of hardcore porn shot by Guccione, and edited into the film (it’s telling that during the graphic and real sex scenes, none of the principal actors are ever in the shot) and you have an almost unwatchable and offensive “epic.”

The plot? Well, it’s supposed to cover the rise to power and downfall of Rome’s famously eccentric Emperor Caligula, and it covers a lot of the stories I’ve heard in the past. He was romantically involved with his sister, maybe his horse, forced the wives and daughters of high ranking officials to be prostitutes, and so on and so on. In the end, he’s killed of course, no real spoiler there.

Some of the acting is great, with some of these A-listers putting in good performances. Malcolm McDowell attacks his role of the mad emperor with gusto, and while it’s not his greatest role, often stepping into some serious overacting territory, it works for a character like Caligula. Most of the supporting cast with speaking parts is adequate, and there are throngs of extras, whose job seems to mostly be to stand around naked. They do that well enough. Most of the sets look like sets, and are infused with a sheen of slimy artifice. They look like they were created for an ambitious fantasy film more than anything approaching realism. Basically, “Caligula” works as a series of really horrific set pieces, more than as a cohesive narrative. The film slows down in numerous places just to roll out some atrocity for us to stare at – beheadings, forced sodomy, rapes, very little time goes by without something horrible happening to someone on screen. For what it’s worth, these scenes do possess a certain amount of style, and Malcolm McDowell grants a certain manic silliness to all of it. It’s easy to be offended, but hard to take very seriously, a strange balance indeed.

Then there’s the porn. “Caligula” has almost constant nudity throughout, and a lot of simulated and unsimulated sex and perversion on display. Every once in a while, an ordinary scene will turn a corner, and the viewer will get a brief glimpse of someone sucking cock. It’s jarring and weird.

There are also a few set pieces that are essentially showcases for pornographic sex acts. Weirdly enough, Guccione seems to have had no problem showing lots of cunnilingus and fellatio, but very little graphic intercourse. I mention this because it’s a strange juxtaposition, watching a five minute scene with multiple people giving or receiving oral sex, but in the same shot there are people that are supposed to be fucking, and it looks like it’s faked. There are two or three brief shots that look like real intercourse is happening, but I always wonder why Guccione didn’t show more of that. I mean, he already took the film into X-Rated territory, why not go the distance?

As noted before, none of the major actors are shown in these porno scenes, for the obvious reasons. The dirty stuff was filmed later, then edited in. Again, I wonder why? Was Guccione trying to make sure “Caligula” would receive a limited release? It took three years to complete, did he even care anymore at that point? Was cocaine just way better back then? So many questions, so few answers.

Despite a large budget, and high end legitimate actors, “Caligula” often looks and feels cheap. It has the same qualities that a lot of Italian exploitation films from the late 70’s had – a certain cheapness that is compensated for (or attempted to be) by being transgressive, showing more sex and violence than Hollywood ever would have.

I’ve seen interviews with Malcolm McDowell, and he HATES “Caligula.” Really, who can blame him? I’m sure a lot of the better actors in that film weren’t pleased to have their performances bookended by scenes of guys ejaculating on women’s boobs, or a dwarf getting his cock sucked. In the case of Malcolm McDowell, “Caligula” seems to have been a turning point, where afterwards the good roles just weren’t coming along as often.

Now, me? I find all of it pretty fascinating to watch. Not much is handled very well. The sets are ambitious, but still look fake, all of the naked people are kind of boring after a few minutes, and the only thing propelling the movie along is the steady stream of sex and violence. The movie also runs far too long. I’ve always thought that a pretty good 90-minute exploitation film could be culled from the uncut version. But I find it all interesting, like a cautionary tale of how a movie could just go so terribly wrong, how so many high level actors could find themselves in such a turd, and how one should never ever let a guy like Bob Guccione have any creative control over their movie unless they want scenes of dwarves getting blown spliced into their historical epic.

So obviously, “Caligula” is a terrible movie by any objective criteria. But while a bit long and boring, it can still manage to shock and entertain someone that’s expecting it to be bad. I don’t give out ratings, but if I did, I’d give “Caligula” five fellated dwarves out of ten.

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