Never, in the history of the world, will there ever be another movie like Caligula. And never, in the history of this website, will there ever be a movie more difficult than Caligula to describe.
It all began with Gore Vidal writing a screenplay about the life of the infamous Roman Emperor Caligula, based on an unproduced television mini-series by Roberto Rossellini. Though Vidal and Franco Rossellini (Roberto's nephew) originally only intended for it to be a modestly-budgeted historical drama, they were unable to attain funding for it and sought help from none other than the founder of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione. And it's actually not his first film, either; Guccione previously produced Chinatown. Yes, really.
Guccione agreed to finance Caligula on two conditions: 1) that it would be tarted up into a lavish, flamboyant spectacle akin to the Sword & Sandal epics of the 50s; and 2) that sex would be incorporated to promote the magazine. During the rewrites, Vidal's screenplay was rewritten to tone down the homosexual content, at Guccione's insistence.
Federico Fellini's art director Danilo Donati was hired to build the expensive and complex sets and costumes. Renowned acting talent, including Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and Sir John Gielgud, was cast. Maria Schneider was originally cast as Caligula's doomed sister Drusilla, but later dropped out and was replaced by Teresa Ann Savoy. After Guccione was unable to come to an agreement with more established directors John Huston and Lina Wertmuller, Tinto Brass, a relatively young Italian director who directed an artsy big budget progenitor to the Nazisploitation genre called Salon Kitty that Guccione had taken a shine to was made the head instead. Shooting commenced in September 1976 in Dear Studios, Rome with plans for a 1977 release.
From the start, Caligula was plagued by difficulties. According to Guccione in a 1980 Penthouse magazine interview, Vidal (whom Guccione called a "prodigious talent") started trouble with a Time magazine interview in which he called directors parasites living off writers, and that the director need only follow the directions as provided by the author of the screenplay. According to Guccione, an enraged Brass responded to Vidal's comments by throwing Vidal out of the studio. Guccione was forced to side with Brass (whom he called "a megalomaniac") because "Gore's work was basically done and Tinto's work was about to begin."
Casting and logistical issues were problems. Uncomfortable with the sex and nudity in the script, the female lead Schneider quickly resigned from the film, to be replaced with Teresa as said earlier. It was soon apparent to the filmmakers that the aggressive shooting schedule developed by the inexperienced Rossellini and Guccione was unrealistic for a film of such scope. Donati had to scrap some of his more elaborate original ideas for the sets and replace them with such surreal imagery as bizarre matte paintings, blacked-out areas, silk backdrops and curtains. This resulted in significant script changes, with Brass and the actors improvising scenes written to take place in entirely different locations, and sometimes shooting entirely new scenes (such as the frolicking scene that opens the film) in order to show progress while the incomplete or redone sets were unavailable. The production was plagued by delays due to disagreements between Brass and Donati over Brass not using Donati's completed sets, as well as Brass and Guccione disagreeing over the sexual content of the film. Mc Dowell and Brass' rewrites of the script changed the tone from a more factually based historical drama to a more surreal Black Comedy satire based on the premise that "absolute power corrupts absolutely"; Brass depicted Caligula as a man who becomes a tyrant after gaining absolute power, then after realizing what he had become, uses his political power to disrupt the political elite to the benefit of the poor citizens of Rome, leading the wealthy Romans to assassinate him.
By the time the principal photography on Caligula had completed, Vidal (having a previous issue with his involvement in the infamous Myra Breckinridge) was concerned about being associated with such an out-of-control production, but also disliking the political satire Brass and Mc Dowell had inserted into the story, Vidal distanced himself from the project. Of Vidal, Brass concluded, "If I ever really get mad at Gore Vidal, I'll publish his script." (An early draft is included as an extra on the Imperial Edition DVD release.)
As the film entered post-production, Guccione took control of the film footage, fired Brass for running up huge costs (Guccione claims Brass shot enough film to "make the original version of Ben-Hur about 50 times over"), casting anarchists and criminals as Roman senators, and using what Guccione considered "fat, ugly, and wrinkled old women" in the sex scenes instead of his Penthouse Pets. (In actuality, the women weren't "ugly" or "old" at all, just not as beautiful as Guccione's models.) Guccione hired friend Giancarlo Lui to reedit the film. Lui was instructed to refashion the film into something more in keeping with what Vidal had first scripted, while delivering the sexual content demanded by Guccione; they shot and added hardcore scenes. Guccione's recut also removed Brass' satire and much of the humor (and context which would have indicated that the film was meant to be funny), simply painting Caligula as a man mad with power without Brass' subtext, turning the film into an erotic drama.
With much footage improvised and rewritten from the original draft of the film, Lui further scrambled, re-cut, and deleted scenes altogether. Many of the sex scenes shot by Brass were removed, replaced by approximately six minutes of hardcore sex shot by Guccione and Lui. In the end, the final cut of the film had strayed far afield from what either Vidal or Brass had intended.
In the unpleasant aftermath, both Brass and Vidal launched independent tirades against the film and lawsuits against Guccione, delaying the release of Caligula. Vidal, who was paid $200,000 for his script, agreed to drop his contractual claim for 10% of the film profits in exchange for having his name removed from the title of the film (original billing was to have been Gore Vidal's Caligula). In 1981, Anneka Di Lorenzo, who played Messalina, sued Guccione for sexual harassment and damage to her career, claiming that he pressured her to have sex with his business associates and used hardcore sexual scenes in the final cut of Caligula without her knowledge, thereby associating her with a pornographic film. After a protracted litigation, in 1990 a New York state court awarded her $60,000 in compensatory damages and $4,000,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the punitive damages were determined to be not recoverable and the court vacated the award.
So, just to recap, Caligula was a film with a costume and set designer from Roman period epics, director from Italian exploitation films, Shakespearean actors, and an executive producer with a background in porn. Where else are you gonna see that?
In late 1979, three years after production began, Caligula made its debut. While critics panned it, it was a commercial success, due to the fact that Guccione released it in a limited amount of theaters in theatrical space Guccione himself paid for (because many theaters had legal concerns over the X-rated content and refused to screen it) and charged more than tickets usually cost at the time (for example, $10 as opposed to $3). That, combined with increased interest due to the controversy resulted in the film turning a profit, even with its large budget and Guccione paying for theaters to screen it.
There exist many, many, many different cuts of the film, all varying in length and legality; R-rated versions run around 98-105 minutes, while the "uncut" version with Guccione's hardcore footage has a runtime of 156 minutes.
The movie's sets, costumes, and some actors were reused by Rossellini in his film Messalina, Messalina, a slapstick comedy telling the story of Messalina's marriage to Claudius, conspiracy against him, and death on his orders. Because of the legal troubles with Caligula, it was technically released first, even though it was filmed and takes place after.
Caligula provides examples of:
- Adaptation Dye-Job: Blonde-haired blue-eyed McDowell as Caligula, who we know◊ had brown hair and hazel eyes.
- Adapted Out: No mention of Caligula's previous two wives before he married Caesonia.
- Advancing Wall of Doom: The head chopping machine is a diabolically crafted work of art.
- All There in the Manual: According to the production notes, two of the characters played by Penthouse Pets were supposed to be Messalina (who would go onto marry Claudius) and Agrippina (mother of Nero).
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: The scene where Tiberius refers to the sex slaves in his bath as his "little fishies". Most viewers would think it's just another one of those over the top sexploitation scenes put in to shock audiences. In actual fact most historians will tell you he did have something like that, and they were mostly little boys. So this is one case where the movie actually toned it down from the real thing.
- Ambiguously Gay: A gay sex scene involving Gemellus and one of the guards was actually filmed, but left on the cutting room floor. Some hints as to Gemellus's sexual preferences remain in the film, but nothing that specifically identifies him as being gay.
- Ancient Rome: The film takes place from the beginning of Caligula's reign in 37 AD to his assassination in 41 AD.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: So, so much:
- In the June 28, 1976 issue of Variety, an ad announcing the beginning of filming included the words, "What better proof that I am God. I have a husband. And a wife. I am all that is and shall ever be."
- Nothing about Caligula's husband or his homosexuality made it into the film. So, you could have Malcolm McDowell play a character who engages in rape, torture, murder, incest, bestiality and other horrible acts, but they couldn't say he was gay. Somewhat downplayed, because the film was made in The '70s when acceptance of homosexuality was very low.
- The film itself became notorious for scenes of hardcore pornography, graphic violence and...poor editing.
- Ax-Crazy: Caligula and Tiberius don't shy away from torturing and executing anyone who remotely annoys them.
- Badass Boast: "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."
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: The final orgy scene shows the senators' wives and daughters really going to town on men with nigh-comically enormous penises.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Drusilla likes to act as Caligula's Morality Pet, but she definitely has a scheming and manipulative side.
- BrotherSister Incest: Caligula and Drusilla are a little too affectionate with each other.
- But Not Too Gay: Bob Guccione ordered the script to be rewritten several times to tone down the homosexual content in Gore Vidal's original script.
- Captain Obvious: Despite torturing and killing several people, not to mention making his horse Incitatus a senator, it's only after Caligula declares himself a god in front of the senate that Longinus exclaims "he's mad!"
- The Caligula: Three guesses, no prizes. Tiberius also qualifies, as the film implies that Caligula learned much of his depravity from the previous Emperor.
- Costume Porn: Caligula alone has roughly ten different costumes.
- Death of a Child: Caligula's daughter gets her entire face smashed in during the assassination scene.
- Den of Iniquity: Tiberius's grotto is a grotesque "museum" of pedophilia and deviant sexual acts.
- Depraved Bisexual: Downplayed. While he had several homosexual encounters in Gore Vidal's original script, depending on which cut of the final film you're watching, Caligula's bisexuality ranges from briefly shown (kissing Macro, telling Tiberius that he likes "both nymphs and satyrs," and anally fisting Proculus after raping his wife) to totally nonexistent.
- Digital Destruction: The digital remastering on the 1999 DVD mutes and distorts all of the colors and flesh tones, while the 5.1 surround sound audio remix obliterates many of the sound cues, including whole lines of dialogue.
- While the subsequent video releases have corrected the color issues, the audio still remains distorted.
- Driven to Suicide Nerva who has had enough of Tiberius's reign and can't bear the fact Caligula will be the next emperor.
- Droit du Seigneur: In what is widely considered his most sickening act of the movie, Caligula exercises droit du seigneur by raping both Proculus and his new wife.
- Epic Movie: Possibly the only Epic Movie, and the only movie starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and Sir John Gielgud, to feature unsimulated hardcore sex.
- Euroshlock: Its writer was American, but its director, setting and filming-location were Italian, and its actors were British. And its producer was American but of Italian descent. Therefore, it counts.
- Fan Disservice: To give a general summary of the Disservice this film provides: There are two major orgy sequences. One features midgets, grossly disfigured women, and children. The second consists of ordinary adult men and women. Both of them are equally arousing.
- A God Am I: "Aye!" "Aye!" "Baaaah!" "Baaaah!"
- And of course, there's the first quote of the movie: "I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the heavens. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and so I am a god!"
- Gorn: This film is infamous because of the gorn, and other things we would rather not describe. Including what the IMDb Parental Guide describes as a particularly nasty one: A WOMAN IS SLAPPED.
- Gratuitous Disco Sequence: The soundtrack is a combination of the kind of boombastic classical music you expect to see in a Roman period piece, and '70s Porn Music.
- Heroic BSoD/Villainous Breakdown: Depending on your character interpretation of Caligula, he suffers one of these following the death of Drusilla.
- Hollywood History: The film is often mistakenly lauded to be "historically accurate," but that is far from the truth.
- Most of the characters are condensed versions of various different historical figures and many have their real roles in the historic events were changed for dramatic purposes.
- Nerva did not slit his wrists, he starved himself to death in 33 AD, four years before the events of the film.
- Similarly, Drusilla died long before Caligula even met Caesonia.
- Caligula's previous marriages before Caesonia are never mentioned.
- The sets and costumes have more in common with stereotypical Hollywood Epic representation of Ancient Rome rather than the real Pagan Rome of that time.
- Caesonia and Caligula's young daughter were not killed at the same time as him. They were cornered by the Praetorian Guards in their chambers several hours after Caligula's assassination.
- Bob Guccione's mangling led to some events being presented in an order that would have been chronologically impossible.
- King Incognito: After Drusilla's death Caligula takes to the streets in Rome.
- Large Ham: Peter O'Toole chews through the scenery and nude bit actors throughout his short appearance as Tiberius. Malcolm McDowell's portrayal of Caligula also has his hammy moments, especially towards the end when he begins to mercilessly mock and antagonize the upper class and the military.
- Male Frontal Nudity:
- Mononymous Biopic Title: After Caligula, obviously.
- Morality Pet: Played straight with Drusilla's influence on Caligula, but slightly subverted when she orchestrates Macro's downfall.
- My Girl Is a Slut: Caligula doesn't have a problem with Caesonia's history of promiscuity.
- Nipple and Dimed: Completely averted. Fully nude men and women are practically used as set decoration throughout the film.
- Only Sane Man: Nerva seems to be both Tiberius's only real friend and the only person who dares criticize his reign to his face. It still doesn't stop him committing suicide.
- Porn with Plot: Bob Guccione intended for Caligula to be the pinnacle of the 70s "porno chic" trend; needless to say, the sheer infamy of this film made it a Genre-Killer instead, not helped by the Reagan/Thatcher conservative revolution that had started around the same time.
- Praetorian Guard: After Caligula gets rid of Macro, he makes the timid Chaerea head of the Praetorian Guard and has him wrapped around his finger. It doesn't last.
- The Queen's Latin: The main cast consists of such classic British actors as Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, and Sir John Gielgud.
- Rage Against the Heavens: Caligula trashes the statue of Isis after Drusilla dies of the fever.
- Re-Cut: The film first received one in 2007 with the "Imperial Edition" DVD and Blu-ray release, which contained both the 1979 Porn with Plot version of the film and a new edit that changes up the scene sequencing and completely removes the porn scenes shot by Guccione, intending to bring the available footage in the final cut closer to Brass' original vision. A second re-cut was announced in 2018, edited by Alexander Tuschinski from Brass' original workprint and produced in cooperation with the Brass estate and Penthouse. This new cut is meant to improve on what the Imperial Edition started, and bring the film even closer to Brass' artistic intentions (meaning, again, no unsimulated Roman hanky-panky); no confirmation has been given as to what involvement, if any, Brass will have with the new edit.
- Sanity Slippage: Even before Drusilla's death, Caligula is on a downward spiral towards insanity.
- Schizo Tech: Wow, they never taught us in history class that the Romans had a giant wall/car/thing with lawnmower blades on the bottom that could move forwards and decapitate people buried up to their necks in the dirt in front of it!
- Scenery Porn: Say what you will about what's happening in the film, many of the sets are rather beautiful.
- And in the case of the orgy scenes, it takes on a literal meaning.
- The Starscream: Longinus. Macro is set up to be this early in the film, but Caligula decides that he's too much of a potential liability and disposes of him.
- Take That!:
- According to Malcolm McDowell's commentary track on the DVD, the scene where Caligula lines people up and has Gemellus identify the culprit who killed Tiberius, was a jab at Guccione who did something similar after one of the dancers shoved one of the Penthouse Pets.
- Likewise, Tinto Brass used plain looking people in the orgy scenes and deliberately shot the sexual footage as comical and softcore to spite Guccione. This backfired horribly.
- Tears of Blood: Frequent imagery used to promote the film showed a coin with Caligula profile that is bleeding out of his eye. Same logo was used in the opening credits.
- Three-Way Sex: At one point Caligula has a threesome with his wife and sister.
- Unproblematic Prostitution: The senators' wives and daughters don't seem to have much of an issue being pimped out by Caligula.
- Villain Protagonist: Caligula gradually becomes one.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: When Caligula comes down with the fever he pukes into the camera. Making matters worse, according to Malcolm McDowell it was real vomit.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Played with. The film leaves it ambiguous whether Caligula is truly going mad with power or if he's an anarchist using his power to destroy the status quo.
- The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: Nerva commits suicide because he thinks Caligula will be such a bad Emperor.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Caligula is quick to dispose of Macro after the latter helps him become Emperor.
- Your Head Asplode: A baby's head is smashed on a staircase. Something the IMDb Parental Guide makes sure to mark as "UNRATED VERY BLOODY DISTURBING".