Swords, Sandals and Sex
Caligula (1979), Dir. Tinto Brass (Image Entertainment, 2007)
Caligula is the stuff, or rather the spunk, of legend. The 1979 epic T&A-fest is based on real-life legend: the rapid ascendancy and downfall of Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (“Little Boots” for short). Caligula is also a Hollywood legend, revered and ridiculed from the moment of its cinematic conception. The film’s production history is difficult to piece together, but goes something like this:
Gore Vidal wrote a screenplay. Unable to secure adequate funding, he appealed to Penthouse founder Bob Guccione. Fiduciary aid was provided on one condition—that Caligula take the orgy to the next level. Vidal accepted Emperor Guccione’s demands. Italian director Tinto Brass, of Salon Kitty (1976) fame, signed on. Danilo Donati, a favorite of Fellini’s, was hired to construct ostentatious sets and render trompe l’oeil backgrounds. An all-star cast was assembled. Debaucheries were orchestrated and shot. Chaos soon descended. Guccione championed the inclusion of several minutes of hard-core pornography. Vidal and Brass both renounced the film, at different times and for different reasons. Malcolm McDowell has described his experience of Caligula as rape-like. Helen Mirren has more positively invoked an acid trip.
Like much mediocre porn, Caligula is a vehicle for sex. Its narrative is of minor importance, useful mostly because it provides ample opportunity for fucking, bloodletting, castration and other extravagant atrocities. Caligula (McDowell) accelerates his accession of the Roman Empire by inciting one of his henchmen to murder his sickly uncle Tiberius (Peter O’Toole). Upon taking the throne, Caligula continues his incestuous relationship with his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) and marries the notoriously promiscuous Caesonia (Mirren). As he grows nuttier and nuttier, the Empire becomes even more hedonistic than it was during Tiberius’ reign and that’s saying something. When Drusilla dies of a fever, Caligula’s grief pushes him over the edge. He pronounces himself God, kills all who irritate him, fashions an imperial brothel of Senators’ wives and attempts to “conquer Britain.” Before he can run the Empire into the ground, Caligula, along with his wife and young daughter, are stabbed repeatedly. The End. Two hours too late.
Caligula could have been a contender. A description of its storyline makes the film sound campy, sexy, tragic and, best of all, perverse. Unfortunately, Caligula’s attempts at depravity are not polymorphous enough to remain captivating. Guccione’s obvious additions, visible only in the unrated version of the film, are stock porn fare. There are glimmers of interest in a graphic lesbian sex scene skillfully intercut with Caligula, Drusilla and Caesonia’s comparatively chaste threesome. Guccione’s other major contribution—an interminable blowjob in the imperial brothel—is forgettable, to say the least. Brass’ treatment of the film’s extended banquet and orgy scenes is repetitive. As his camera crawls, snail-like, over piles of pasty, writhing bodies, one’s eyelids begin to droop. “More conviction!” one wants to shout, but Peter O’Toole, whose performance is one of Caligula’s rare gems, already used the line.
O’Toole is convincing as Tiberius, a repellent old codger who glories in his own moral bankruptcy. He rounds out the role with the appropriate hint of existential despair. But what to do with Malcolm McDowell? His piercing, blue-eyed stare and chronic ADD grate on the nerves, but perhaps it must be so. After all, he does play a spoiled man-child who inherits the Roman Empire. And when McDowell shines, he shines. An uncharacteristically brilliant scene has him rape a virgin bride on her wedding day. “Open your eyes,” he taunts the groom, whom he sadistically forces to witness his future wife’s deflowering. This disturbing act is carried out on a butcher’s table, as wedding guests celebrate the “happy union” just beyond the kitchen door. Unable to bear his exclusion from the joy of others, Caligula wreaks havoc and returns to the festivities. He suffers from a void at his center, much like the film.
Image Entertainment’s appropriately excessive “Imperial Edition” release includes three discs, bearing two versions of the film (one “unrated” cut and one “alternate” cut), several droll commentaries and endless special features. Immaculate DVD transfers draw attention to Donati’s skillful deployment of color in the film’s mise-en-scene. Every little bit helps.
Sarah Kessler is currently completing her Master's in English at the University of Wisconsin. She will migrate to sunny Los Angeles after her defense.