Caligula (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

(All comments refer to the uncut 156 minute version, not the r-rated 105 minute version.)

This is not just any old copy of a Caligula DVD in my possession, nosireebob. This is the 20th anniversary edition, a jubilee which must have been marked with great festivities at the Guccione place, and undoubtedly attracted more tourists to NYC than that dowdy old Statue of Liberty thing. Interestingly, it is not mentioned on my Year 2001 Hallmark Calendar. Probably just an oversight.

What a strange hybrid of a movie this is. To illustrate that statement, let me ask one question. How many other porn movies can you name starring Sir John Gielgud?

And both halves of that implicit claim are literally true.

  • It is a porn movie. It has cum shots, penetration, open beaver shots, oral sex male to male, oral sex female to male, and oral sex female to female. all of those are as explicit as any which may be seen in porn, with real live erections busily hammering away in several scenes.
  • It also stars Gielgud, not to mention Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell, and Peter O'Toole

Here's the story: 

Bob Guccione swore to produce a movie about Caligula that told the real story and showed all the details. To show he was completely serious, he hired noted aesthete, iconoclast, and antiquarian Gore Vidal to create the story and the script. Vidal did so, and stayed quite faithful to Suetonius's account of Caligula's rule.  In general, the events and people you see in this movie are consistent with the accounts of them rendered by contemporary historians. Those four esteemed actors I mentioned play four of the key roles. So far, an interesting project.

Problem number one then crept in. Guccione hired Tinto Brass to direct. Tinto is basically a director of soft-core titillation films, and not a guy you'd hire to make a serious but explicit movie. The sets in this thing look like Hugh Hefner's concept of a Roman theme party at the mansion. Think Caesar's Palace in Vegas, or Mama Leone's restaurant, and it will give you the general idea. 

To understand this in today's terms, imagine if you had an explicit script in your hands by a top novelist, and you hired Zalman King to film it. That's about what they did. On the other hand, imagine what an interesting project it might be if you hired Phil Kaufman to film it as an accurate, thoughtful, explicit film.


Malcolm McDowell is completely naked, including a frontal scene

Donato Placido shows his penis in the scene where he is raped by McDowell's fist

Helen Mirren did a dark full-frontal, and appeared in a see-through top.

Theresa-Ann Savoy shows her complete body several times.

Lori Wagner and Anneka diLorenzo do an explicit, naked lesbian love scene, showing everything possible.

Mirella D'Angelo shows her breasts and buns when raped by McDowell.

Many, many extras expose their privates in great detail. see the main commentary.

Problem number two then crept in. Producer Guccione thought that the film didn't really reflect the level of debauchery in Caligula's pagan Rome, so he himself shot additional footage. Hard-core footage. Real, honest-to-goodness porn! And some of it was just plain tacked on. For example, one of the additional scenes is a long lesbian love scene between two Penthouse pets. The way they worked it into the script? The two girls observe another scene in the movie through a peephole. That makes them so horny that they just have to seek instant gratification with each other. Pretty slick, eh?  

Well, I think Vidal had already asked to have his name removed by the time they were adding the porn, and the final film was a tremendous embarrassment to many like Gielgud, who didn't know that his eloquent speeches would be surrounded by blow jobs. 

For the record, Gielgud and O'Toole do not get naked or participate in sex scenes, although O'Toole (as Tiberius) is surrounded by naked young chippies, and feels some of them up. In fact, Gielgud managed to retain his dignity, and departed early in the plot. McDowell and Mirren participate in soft-core scenes, both providing frontal nudity, with McDowell getting especially daring.

The best thing about the DVD is the "making of" commentary, which is a separate one hour film which was actually filmed concurrent with "Gore Vidal's Caligula", as the film was then known. Guccione narrates. Vidal provides lots of commentary. Film critics weigh in. Even Helen Mirren is on camera quite a bit. There is a great deal of detail about set construction. I'm not an expert, but I don't think the sets in Caligula are accurate. On the other hand, they are surprisingly impressive. There are also many fascinating looks at the scenes being filmed, including some scenes which don't appear in the final cut. For example, the documentary shows a dance in which Mirren's butt is exposed, and how it was done. She never learned the dance. The choreographer was just off-camera doing the dance, and Mirren simply mimicked his movements.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • one hour "making-of" film - fascinating

Bottom line - it doesn't matter whether the film is good. It is unique in film history.

Where else are you going to see Malcolm McDowell dancing stark naked, and placing his fist up a guy's butt? Where else can you see John Gielgud in a movie with cum shots? if you're interested in film history, this is on your required watching list. 

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 4.5 
  • With their dollars ... it was made for $17 million dollars, grossed $23 million.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. I won't claim it is good, but it is worth seeing just because there has never been anything else quite like it. 

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