“Caligula” (1979)


There’s only one word to describe this film, unbelievable. It really defies all explanation. I am of course referring to Caligula, the controversial epic about the third emperor of Rome. This is the high water mark for the smut-exploitation sub genre. A film that combines the size and scale of period pieces such as Ben Hur with the gratuitous sex of a Jesus Franco film. This is the only time you’ll see ladies who graced the pages of Penthouse, and classically trained British actors in the same film.

To get a full idea of how this came to be, here’s how it began. It all started with a screenplay, written by Gore Vidal. It was placed into the hands of filmmaker Tinto Brass, famous for helping the “Nazi-sploitation” sub genre get its start with Salon Kitty. The film itself was funded by the editor of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione, who wanted to create a film that was sexually explicit, and yet contained a deep underlying political message. Once Guccione got a hold of this one, however, any resemblance to a political statement was thrown right out the window.

The film’s plot is somewhat close to the exploits of the mad emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12 CE-41 CE) nicknamed Caligula (‘little soldier’s boot‘), and contains several historical facts. I should add, however, in between said facts are scenes one might find in a rough porn from the era. To sum up the historical chain of events, here it goes: Caligula came to power in Rome by murdering the aging emperor Tiberius, with the help of Macro, who was head of the emperors’ bodyguard. Macro was then removed by Caligula, by execution (and no, it wasn’t from a giant head chopping machine).

Head-chopping Roman shenanigans
Head-chopping Roman shenanigans

Caligula eventually would take a wife Caesonia, and at the same time carry on a incestuous relationship with his own sister, Drusilla. Caligula’s reign would be cut short by the new head of his bodyguard, Cassius Chaerea.

As I mentioned earlier, this film contains one of the most recognizable casts ever assembled. Caligula himself, is played by Malcolm McDowell, who add libbed some of his more memorable scenes. HIs wife Caesonia, is portrayed by English screen queen Hellen Mirren. In one of his drunkest performances you’ll ever see on camera, Peter O’Toole hams it up as the emperor Tiberius. In the strangest twist of confusion, there’s even a brief role from Sir John Gielgud as Nerva, soothsayer and assistant to Tiberius. McDowell, who was disgusted by the end of production, asked Gielgud what he thought of all the explicit sexuality the film contained. His response? “Jolly good fun.”

The only way to sum up the film’s cinematography was nailed perfectly by Newsweek in a typically indignant review: “Seems to have been photographed through a tub of Vaseline.” Which is what I’m sure many people used after their first viewing. Most of the scenes Brass filmed are interspersed with what is essentially pornography filmed by Guccione, and inserted later during post production. Many of the actors’ voices are even dubbed over, in a vain effort to preserve continuity. Bruno Mattei would be very proud.

It also was an enormous train wreck in post production, which resulted in Brass disowning the film. It remains one of the biggest cult classics of all time, and remains Penthouse‘s highest selling film to this day. It even spawned a brief run of “in name only” sequels to cash in on its popularity. These “sequels” include Caligula II: Messalina, Messalina, which used many of the leftover sets without permission. Some of the more lesser known entries include Bruno Mattei’s Caligula Reincarnated As Nero and Joe D’Amato’s Caligula: The Untold Story aka The Emperor.

This is truly a one of a kind film, a gem from the days when exploitation was most prominent. It really is something that has to be seen to be believed, and If you’re like me, you’ve seen it a few times. More than you’re willing to admit.


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