Impulse Buy Theater - Caligula
Updated: Mar 14
For the last 153 minutes, that’s two and a half hours folks, I’ve seen so much dick that I think it broke my mind.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of breasts and vagina in Caligula too…but there’s a LOT of dick. I mean, are there any history majors or historians out there that can tell me whether or not first century A.D. Rome had…oh god, forgive the pun…such a hard-on for dick? I mean, if there’s not an actual dick on screen, then you can damn sure bet there’s a facsimile or replica or at least a phallic symbol that’ll be entering the frame soon. Seriously, you’ve got the late Peter O’Toole, the late Sir John Gielgud, Malcolm McDowell and Dame Helen Mirren in the same film as a circle-jerk.
Okay. I’ll be okay…just give me a second. [Take your time, man, that was a LOT of dick. – Ed.] Right. So. Caligula. Nothing of what I typed above should’ve been any surprise. The film was funded by Bob Guccione and his Penthouse Productions (yes, THAT Penthouse)…and not only did he have final cut, but he was the director of…ahem…additional scenes. We’ll get to that…even though I really don’t want to. We’ve already talked about interfering producers before and, sure enough, Caligula also becomes an instance where this occurs, as director Tinto Brass had a different vision of the film. As he says it, he wanted the film to be about “the orgy of power…not the power of orgy”. So that’s two distinct visions for the film…do we have a third? Of course we do. You see, the thing that got all of this started was the screenplay written by Gore Vidal…which is what attracted the aforementioned star-power. Vidal wrote seven drafts of his screenplay before departing the project, which would then have the screenplay altered by both Brass and McDowell prior to principal photography beginning. The thing is, in the contemporary advertising materials associated with the film, the ‘making of’ documentaries and such, the film is referred to as ‘Gore Vidal’s Caligula’.
While this clash of egos helps to explain this train wreck of a film, it also does bring up an interesting philosophical conundrum that modern Hollywood has yet to resolve…and likely never will: Who is responsible for a film? Who is its author? Obviously, there is no film without the seed that is the screenplay, nor the vision of a director, nor the money from producers. Sure, it’s easy in some cases, most notably John Carpenter, but elsewhere? Perhaps it’s another article for another time. Regardless, we have three conflicting visions: Vidal was going for a straight historical drama, Brass was looking to make a satire and commentary on power and Guccione was looking to make a porn film with major motion studio production values and costs. Given that the film’s final cut was contractually guaranteed to Guccione, it’s no surprise we got the film that we did.
That’s a shame, really, because you do catch glimpses of the other two visions amongst all the genitalia. The set design is larger than life, certainly comparing to the cinematic epics of old…well, except for Tiberius’ Capri getaway, that looked more like a set from a stage play…not quite as low budget as a porn set, mind you, but getting close…and really standing out (in a bad way) amongst all the other amazing sets. You can very easily tell the scenes Brass filmed, mainly because the stars of the film are in them…if you don’t recognize anyone or their junk, then it’s a Guccione portion of the film. That’s not to say that Brass’ segments are cleaner than a preacher’s sheets, heck no, as his prior film experience (and future) tended to lean more toward avant-garde and erotic cinema, so sure, he had nudity, sex and what-have-you in his scenes as well. And, you have to give the guy credit, he knew EXACTLY where to place the camera to get more junk for your buck. That’s a talent. While we’re going through this exercise, I’m sure Vidal’s screenplay likely had some of the decadence of Rome present from this time period as well…that’s pretty much the one thing this portion of Roman history is known for. What ends up making this film a train-wreck is that whatever Tinto Brass was aiming for was completely ruined in the final cut. Pacing goes out the window as Guccione throws in sex scene after sex scene, money shot after money shot. That’s not to say that Brass’s vision of the film would have even worked…but we’re never really given a chance to see it. I’d wager that perhaps the edited R-rated version might be at least some approximation, but I’d also speculate that version is likely a truncation of the Guccione final cut, and thus, just as befuddling but with only half the boobs. [I think that might be the very first time you’ve ever championed an edited cut of a film over an extended one. – Ed.]
So let’s narrow our view just a bit. Even with its high production values, excellent sets and costumes, maybe we should be viewing this as a B-movie. Well, it’s certainly got all the requirements…plenty of breasts and blood…and, well, you can either consider Caligula or his trusted horse as the beasts here. [Or, given his complete butchery, Guccione himself. – Ed.] There’s plenty of stabbing, slicing off of dicks, ho boy, don’t forget the one instance of fisting…and, oh yeah, big kudos to the decapitation machine…that was actually really rather impressive. See, you’ve got people buried up to their necks and then this wall-like machine moves forward with blades made to resemble the tentacles of a squid…with metal hooks and grating above said tentacles to guide the severed heads into the machine itself…that was pretty cool. Oh, and in fine B-movie tradition, it’s VERY easy to tell that Peter O’Toole is completely shitfaced throughout his small portion of the film. Whether it’s his dead eyes or his slurring, oh yeah, he’s lit. Not that I can blame him, really. But even B-movies have a story to tell. While all the ingredients are here for a B-movies, well, it ends up being like baking, sometimes you can have all the ingredients in place and the damn thing just doesn’t turn out right. I’m convinced that this movie is trying to tell a story but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what that was. Maybe ‘hey man, did you know orgies were really big back in ancient Rome?’
Is it worth it to track this down? I…I can’t. I don’t think I can recommend it. Don’t get me wrong, there are things here that are great. Malcolm McDowell is great casting in the lead role, Helen Mirren…holy shit, she’s two big reasons to see the film right there…but even her Drive-In Award winning rack isn’t enough to save this film. Seeing her make out with Teresa Ann Savoy is also a step in the right direction but…just…I can’t. The complete and utter dysfunction of the narrative, thoroughly demolished by the injected sex scenes, honestly, all you’re going to get from this film is a little bit of arousal and a big headache. Look, I was able to purchase the film for $12 on blu-ray…and that’s about all you’d want to pay for it. If the only way you can find it is for its list price of $30…forget it. Even Helen Mirren nude in her prime slightly lezzing out just can’t justify the resulting headache…and the dicks.
Seriously…so many dicks.