Directed By: Tinto Brass
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Peter O'Toole
Tag line: "What would you have done if you had been given absolute power of life and death over everybody else in the whole world?"
Trivia: Under the supervision of Danilo Donati, 3,592 costumes were designed for this film
Produced by Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse magazine, Caligula is an elaborate, sometimes pornographic look at the life and times of Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula, the infamous tyrant noted for his cruelty and sexual extravagances. Designed to resemble the historical epics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Caligula is, instead, a muddle of a film, with good actors, gorgeous sets, and remarkable costumes, all of which take a back seat to the movie’s shocking violence and scenes of hardcore sex.
The Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) has named his adopted grandson, Gaius Caligula (Malcolm McDowell), his heir. With the help of Macro (Guido Mannari), the prefect of the elite Praetorian Guard, Caligula conspires to murder the aging Tiberius, thus securing for himself the enviable title of Emperor of Rome. Once in power, Caligula turns his attention to producing an heir. He marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren), a woman of noble birth, yet continues his passionate affair with Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), his sister, who has been his lover for many years. But as Caligula’s thirst for power grows, so does his madness, plunging Rome into a period of turmoil and decadence the likes of which it has never seen before.
Based on a script written by Gore Vidal (who would eventually demand that his name be removed from the film) and directed by Tinto Brass, Caligula stars several well-respected actors, including O’Toole (overacting his part), McDowell, Mirren, and John Gielgud (making a brief appearance as Nerva, close friend and confidant of the Emperor Tiberius). Yet, despite this extraordinary collection of talent, producer Bob Guccione felt the movie needed more sex. So, when the film was in post-production, he fired Brass and shot several hardcore scenes himself, which were then spliced into the movie. Naturally, Caligula suffers as a result.
It’s unfortunate, too, because there are traces of an impressive movie in Caligula, which has a number of scenes inspired by actual events. According to the scholars and historians of that era, Caligula did, indeed, have a sexual relationship with his sister, Drusilla. He plotted with Macro to assassinate Tiberius, and eventually murdered his own cousin, Gemellus (here played by Bruno Brive), his only rival for the crown. Aided by the brilliant art direction of Danilo Donati, who, for years, collaborated with Federico Fellini, Caligula had all the makings of a genuine historical epic.
Instead, it’s a depraved, sadistic, unpleasant movie. Aside from its graphic sex acts (including masturbation and oral), Caligula is incredibly violent. True, Ancient Rome was a vicious place; I made that very point when I defended the violence in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. But with Caligula, the blood and gore is so unbelievably over-the-top that it feels more like a challenge issued by the filmmakers, daring us to keep watching, than it does an accurate portrayal of the time period. As an example, in what is perhaps the film’s most outrageously brutal sequence, Caligula has a soldier named Proculus (Donato Placido) killed, and after an Imperial whore urinates on his corpse, Proculus’ penis is sliced off and fed to a pack of dogs.
I’m certainly no stranger to on-screen gore, but, like its added sex scenes, the violence in Caligula works against the movie, turning what might have been a decent motion picture into an exploitative mess.