Movie Review: Caligula (1979)

Look at anyone’s list of the most controversial movies ever made, and chances are, Caligula will be near the top, or occupying the number one slot. For a movie that starred so many marquee actors, such as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and John Steiner, it is hard to imagine why.

Few movies have had production stories as crazy as this film. When Bob Guccione of Penthouse Magazine approached legendary author Gore Vidal to write the screenplay, he agreed, under the impression that his work would actually be used. Upon completion if it, however, it was so drastically changed by Guccione that Vidal would later go on to disown the film, not wanting to be associated with the filth that was added in.

Upon completion of the script, Guccione then hired Tinto Brass to direct the film. Brass knew of the producer’s intention of the film, to take a tale of ancient Rome and load it with lots of sex, but he did not know to which extent Guccione wanted. When Brass was finished with the film, it clocked in at 102 minutes. The film was sent to the post-production team, so that it could be viewed by the staff.

Guccione was not pleased with what he saw, and along with Giancarlo Lui, went out and shot several hours of hardcore pornography which he then edited down and inserted into the final cut of the film. As he was doing this, Brass went to stop him but was locked out of the editing room. He quit the production and did not want to be associated with it.

The actors themselves were not aware of this either, and scenes of them were carefully spliced in with the pornography so that it appeared they were really there. The premiere of the movie was a disaster, because the actors, the director, and the author all publicly detested the film.

The movie to this day still does not have a single credited director. It reads, “Principal Photography by Tinto Brass”, “Editing by the Production”, and, “Additional Scenes Directed and Photographed by Bob Guccione and Giancarlo Lui”.

The final cut then measured 156 minutes, after the sexual content was added to it. All of this was done without Gore Vidal’s knowledge, and when he found out, sued the Penthouse corporation to have his name removed from the credits. They paid him a settlement, and as a courtesy, left his name in, although Vidal publicly disowned the film.

There are still three versions of this film available for purchase, and depending on which one you view will give you the impression with which you must rate it. There is the 102 minute R rated version, the 123 minute extended version, and the final 156 minute full and unrated version.

I had always heard of the storm of controversy surrounding this film, and there was never a way to get it. Netflix did not carry it at the time, and copies were terribly expensive on Ebay. So I waited and then stumbled upon the “Uncut and Unrated” edition in a DVD shop in the mall. It was $20, and although I never pay that much for a movie, let alone one I had never seen, I purchased it figuring that it would be good because of all the actors.

After seeing it, I am left with mixed feelings. You can clearly see what scenes were in the original Brass film, and which were edited in by Guccione and Lui. So to rate this movie, I will keep in mind that separation.

McDowell gives a decent performance as the title character Caligula. Through tantrums and episodes of madness, he is actually quite convincing. Peter O’Toole is also pretty good as the emperor Tiberius, although the makeup they gave him really detracted from his performance.

John Steiner and John Gielgud are also solid in their supporting roles.

Even amidst all the chaos in post production, the costumes and set designs are top-notch. They really add to the lush setting of ancient Rome and it is a shame that what happened to this film, because due to their immense budget, had they stayed faithful to Vidal’s script, they could have had a masterpiece on their hands.

I will rate this movie a 7 out of 10, because I can differentiate between the two different stages of this movie; the real, and the extravagant. Although orgies were a mainstay in Rome, the length to which they are taken do nothing but draw out the movie. To rate this movie as a whole, I would have to go with 5 out of 10. The excellent cinematography does not allow me to rate it any lower.

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