Italy/US | 1979 | Directed by Tinto Brass, Bob Guiccione, Giancarlo Lui

Logline: The sudden rise and spectacular fall of Rome’s most notorious emperor. 

“What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul.” --- Mark 8:36

Behold, the glorious disaster that is I, Caligula! Not so much an unmitigated catastrophe, but the beautiful ruins of a once proud beast, the most expensive hardcore movie of all-time, Bob Guccione and Tinto Brass’s Caligula took four years to make, enjoyed a briefly successful theatrical run in a handful of theatres before becoming the white elephant in the offices of Penthouse magazine, the bane of screenwriter Gore Vidal’s career, the thorn in Tinto Brass’s side, and the embarrassment of core cast members, not to mention, the ridicule of most critics. Throughout Caligula’s checkered history – and, it is oh, so checkered – the movie has been continually, and unjustly, banished from serious appraisal. But I champion this movie; warts, deformities, excesses, and extremities, in all its muddled, self-indulgent, hardcore wonder! Vivat Caligula!

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am a God.”

Caligula traces the swift and sudden rise to power of Gaius Germanicus Caligula, and his (relatively short) reign as the third, and most infamous, Caeser of Rome from age 24 to 29. He was assassinated in 41 AD, along with his wife and daughter, after madness got the better of his judgment, and he’d betrayed one too many of his colleagues, a trail of murder and confusion left in the wake of his corrupt and ineffective leadership. But oh, what a fascinating period of decadent, violent history this movie traces. The abuse of power amidst the insanity of Pagan Rome. 

At the time Caligula was the most expensive independent movie ever made (it probably still ranks pretty high). Producer Bob Guccione, the editor of Penthouse magazine, had a deep-rooted desire to make the most spectacular and adult movie ever. But telling the story of Emperor Caligula wasn’t his idea. Producer Franco Rosselini invited scribe Gore Vidal to pen an original perspective on the story that would make no concessions to producer’s whims. Vidal incorporated his name into the title, and convinced underground filmmaker Paul Morrissey to direct. Enter Guccione as co-producer. Immediately the new affair rocketed the budget into the multi-millions, and Guccione got rid of Morrissey, not wanting the Warhol crowd hanging around. 

Rosselini saw Tinto Brass’s brazen Salon Kitty (1976) and had it screened for Guccione. They’d found their director. Also on board was production and costume designer Danilo Donati who supervised the manufacture of 3592 costumes, 5000 handcrafted boots and sandals, and wigs made from more than 1000 pounds of human hair! Donati was also in charge of a full-scale Roman vessel, complete with 120 hand-carved oars, the largest prop ever built at the time, at over 175 ft long and 30 ft high, and the stadium arena which spanned the length of three US football fields, and featured the notorious “headclipper” execution device that was five storeys high and 150 ft wide! That’s right, Guccione was sparing no expense! 

Gore Vidal was appalled at what was happening to his baby; gone were the muddy streets and dirty togas, replaced by majestic palaces and glamorous ladies-in-waiting. He resigned from the project and asked for his name to be removed from the movie, but Guccione had always intended for Vidal’s name to give the movie a veneer of respectability, and refused to discredit him. Later Guccione would alienate director Tinto Brass when he had him locked out of the editing suite. Caligula was quickly running into trouble and out of control. Principal photography was completed at the end of 1976, where it then entered a protracted post-production hell. The most infamous part of which was Guccione adding several minutes of inserts (pun intended) of sexually explicit footage he shot himself to take the movie to the next level (or baser level, depending on your sensibilities), chiefly in a legendary Sapphic tryst, and during the imperial bordello orgy sequence. 

I remember seeing full-page ads in my father’s secret stash of Penthouse magazines for several years before Caligula was finally released. The most commonly seen version was the R-rated theatrical cut which had all the graphic sexuality removed and was also the version released domestically on VHS. In 1999 the original uncut 156-minute version was released on DVD. However, neither of these versions do any justice to the intended shooting script, which was the heavily-tampered Gore Vidal version. And this is where I use the “disaster” description again. Not so much because the movie was ultimately a box-office failure and created so much disdain, but because Bob Guccione’s arrogance and ineptness lead him to constructing the movie in the editing room (after banishing Tinto Brass), ruining any kind of narrative continuity or cohesion which Brass had established during the principal shoot. Guccione and editor Nino Baragli chose many shots that were never meant to be included (zooms, out-of-focus shots, etc), cut up scenes and put them in the wrong order, deleted background characters, cutaways, and re-dubbed some scenes with entirely new dialogue! The final cut was three hours (with the lesbian and bordello scenes lasting twenty minutes each!), but that version only ever played at a few private trade screenings, and all traces of it vanished (oh, the humanity!)

Guccione had put together an impressive cast; Malcolm McDowell as the repugnant Caeser, Peter O’Toole as Tiberius, his ailing father, Sir John Gielgud as Nerva the elder, Helen Mirren as Caesonia, plus Teresa Ann Savoy and John Steiner who had been in Salon Kitty. Rounding out the rest of the support cast were mostly Italian actors, and Penthouse pets. After the movie was released both O’Toole and Gielgud wanted to disown the movie for its outrageously lewd and lascivious content, which only gave the movie more kudos within the underground circuit. Other actors who were considered for parts included Charlotte Rampling, Katherine Ross, Peter Firth, Orson Welles, Isabelle Adjani, Jack Nicholson, and Maria Schneider, who was actually cast (as Drussila) and shot some scenes only to walk off-set and quit in disgust when she discovered just how much nudity was actually required of her (apparently she’d not been happy with what Bertollucci had demanded of her on Last Tango in Paris).

Caligula is an extraordinary movie; the sumptuous sets and art direction, the saturation of mood and tone, the melodramatic performances; the whole production looks and feels like a strange phantasmogorical pantomime, a fabulously grotesque parade and elaborate façade of excesses and indulgences. Caligula is a marvel of decadence in every sense of the word; gorging on hedonistic pursuits, amidst the decay of morality and sensibility. The narrative is disjointed and at times infuriating in its lack of continuity, but it adds to the perverted fantasy of its depiction of history. That’s not to say much of this didn’t really happen, but I’m pretty certain the glamour of pagan Rome is an anomaly. 

Caligula is a movie to be admired for its set-pieces rather than a successful narrative. It is a movie to be experienced, to let its sensual decadence pour over you like sticky molasses and rich claret. There will probably never be another movie quite like it, despite the continuing desire of filmmakers, such as Gaspar Noe and Catherine Breillet, to make sophisticated adult movies that might crossover into the mainstream (I know, I’m one of them). These kinds of movies will always exist in the shadowy territory of underground, transgressive cinema. And perhaps that’s the best place for them, otherwise we have to listen to fuddy-duddy prats like Roger Ebert who walked out of his screening, yet still reviewed the movie, describing it as “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash. If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty." He gave it zero stars, and ended with a quote from another viewer who told him "This movie is the worst piece of shit I have ever seen.” 

But hey, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Or in my case, the deepest, trashiest of pleasure treasures, with absolutely no guilt attached. All hail, Caligula!