Caligula (Four Disc Imperial Edition) Review
In all of the grandly staged Roman epics that have graced our screens, only one has felt it necessary to populate their ancient city with a man wearing what can only be described as a hat shaped like a giant cock. There may be a good reason for that. Ridley Scott did not, for example, feel that such a man would have added anything to Gladiator. Nor did Anthony Mann in The Fall Of The Roman Empire and in all the special effects movies magicked up by Ray Harryhausen, never once did he feel it necessary to stick a big phallus on someone's head and have him wander about looking rather ill-at-ease with himself. In amongst the street players, the beggars and the odd Christian having so far escaped being fed to the lions, Tinto Brass has done just that. In all that is written about Caligula, including its tortuous route to the screen, its banning in the UK following a swathe of cuts made personally by James Ferman and the various indignities that were present in the film, including castration, murder and being castrated, murdered and then pissed on, what no one has ever said is how much of a nonsense it frequently is.
"What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world but lose his soul." Mark 8:36 Beginning with a quote from the Bible was as sure a sign as any that with Caligula, Penthouse owner Bob Guccione was aiming very much higher than the average skin flick. Having the likes of Gielgud, O'Toole and Mirren in his cast certainly helped Guccione's case, not to mention a script originally penned by Gore Vidal, but lest anyone forget that sex fuels the engine of Caligula as much as the politics of pagan Rome, Guccione pads out his cast with Penthouse Pets and anyone, frankly, willing not only to undress for the camera but also to masturbate, fuck or piss, or indeed all three. The tone is set in the very first minutes of the film, with Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) and Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) frolicking in the woods while Prokofiev plays in the background. Later, their coupling continues in the bedroom. The pornography is as soft as the film's focus, with Tinto Brass poking his camera between Savoy's legs but matters change soon after. Macro (Guido Mannari) enters Caligula's bedroom informing him that Caesar Tiberius (Peter O'Toole) has demanded his presence on the island of Capri. Caligula despises visiting his grandfather and fears that, as he had done so before, Tiberius will murder Caligula on his arrival. The ill omen of a blackbird flying into his room has given Caligula cause to worry.
Tiberius has been driven half-mad by syphilis and, as Caligula arrives, is swimming within his palace surrounded by naked boys and girls. Sitting around this pool are children, raised only to serve the emperor and his satisfaction. Tiberius guides Caligula through a show of sexual perversion, finally killing one of his guards simply for his own amusement. But Tiberius' killing is not yet over for the day. Giving Caligula a glass of wine, he suspects that it may be poisoned and refuses to drink from it. His suspicions are confirmed when he gives into to a young female servant. She dies of the poison as Tiberius marches from the chamber.
Before Caligula leaves Capri, Tiberius suffers a stroke. Seeing this as his chance to become Emperor, Macro and Caligula hurry to his bedchamber but Caligula is unable to murder his grandfather. Instead, Macro steps forward to strangle Tiberius. Caligula tears the ring from Tiberius' hand and, as he is buried with full honours, is crowned Emperor. Caligula is popular, initially at least. But he also realises the power that comes with his throne. Soon after taking the title of Emperor, he has Macro killed in case the truth about the death of Tiberius should ever be revealed. He asked that his sister marry him but she declines, saying that only the Egyptians do such a thing. Instead, he announces that he will wed the courtesan Caesonia (Helen Mirren) but only after she bears him an heir. He rapes a young bride and her groom in a fit of jealousy but his reign seems that it will be brief after he outrages both the Senate and the army. To one, he rides his horse Incitatus and, turning it such that it faces away from the Senators, tells him that it will give a speech through its ass. The other he sends on pointless wars to humiliate them. There are now many who would act against Caligula.
In spite of Gielgud having his name high on the poster, his Nerva is dead before the first half-hour is out. As he bleeds out in the bath, he talks of the evil that has been and that which is still to come. As one who has doubtless seen the pile of corpses grow under the command of Caesar Tiberius, either by the emperor's own hands or by those of his agents, Nerva tells Tiberius that his greatest wish is to be one who will choose the hour of his own death. Or, it may have been that Gielgud, being a good deal wiser than McDowall or Mirren, saw which way the wind was blowing on Caligula and decided to leave the production early. Nerva's saying, "I now choose to escape!" may be the consul's thoughts on matters within the empire but they might also have been Gielgud's sentiments, all too aware that his reputation would not have been best served by a film in which a man with a large erection walks about on stilts or a group of men ejaculate into a bowl before Adriana Asti applies it to her skin. "Is it good for growing hair?" asks McDowall as he sniffs at the salty-smelling gel on her thigh. Little wonder Gielgud left before even thirty minutes had passed.
In Censored, Tom Dewe Matthews' look at the work of the BBFC (and others), the writer is often sympathetic to the films under discussion, be they The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Ai No Corrida. And yet even Matthews can't resist calling Caligula, "Guccione's two-and-a-half-hour, multi-million-dollar folly". And folly it is. It's hard to imagine quite who it appeals to. Like Salo, the sex is explicit and often violent, which might appeal to some, but only occasionally is it presented as being titillating. However, unlike Salo, which kept a longer-than-arm's length away from the sex, Caligula is right in there, it's swirl of pink labia, the purple of engorged penises and the reds of freshly-spilt blood being closer to the psychedelic sex of a normal porno than Pasolini's more disturbing film.
A good example of this comes early on. An orgy is bookended by a Roman soldier having twine tied around his penis to prevent him urinating, being force-fed wine and then having his belly cut open by Tiberius, the blood and the wine mingling as it is drained away. Later in the film, there is a lesbian tryst, another orgy or two and much unsimulated sex, mostly oral but also straight fucking. Caligula features castration, McDowell sharing his bed with a horse, babies being nursed with cock-shaped bottles and Caligula fist-fucking a young officer after smearing fat over his anus. About the only sexual fetish not touched is that which involves shit. Everything else seems to be fair.
Then again, those watching Caligula for the grandly staged horror, such as the machine that decapitates his prisoners, will doubtless be bored by the unsimulated sex. After the first sight of real penetration, which comes with Caligula's visit to Capri, there's no shortage of erections, ejaculations and other sexual goings-on, all of which are presented uncut in this 18-rated DVD. But watching people have real sex is very dull, much less interesting than the staged sex of Don't Look Now. Some of this is action typical of lesbian pornography, this being two women licking and poking their fingers into one another in such an aimless manner as to suggest cramp will set in long before orgasm. In between this, a lot of men prod their erections in the direction of some young female extras (or male, it's interesting that Caligula doesn't discriminate) or, as happens more often, lie back, their faces hidden from view, while these same extras stroke anything even remotely like a penis. The one surprise in all this comes late in Caligula with unsimulated oral sex, even to the ejaculate dribbling out of the young woman's mouth.
There are moments when Caligula really does work, although these have little to do with the sex or the political machinations of Vidal's plot. Instead, reading something of Caligula, his life seems to have been marked by insanity and it's when the film gets truly surreal that it seems to work best. Early in Caligula, Tiberius tells his nephew to dance, which he does, albeit reluctantly at first. The music, the sight of McDowell dancing and the naked young boys and girls swimming around Peter O'Toole makes for an unusual sight and, this early on, hints at there being much of merit in Caligula. Later, this dance is repeated by Caligula in the rain while Brass rouses himself for a remarkable setting for his decapitation machine, a giant red juggernaut that functions like a lawnmower for those criminals against Rome who are buried up to their necks in sand but on which Roman soldiers stand behind giant paddles that extend over the field of prisoners. Near the film's end, there's a terrific banquet of food and drink brought back from Britain, while an orgy is accompanied by soldiers marching beside a boat that has been built, complete with oars, within Caligula's castle. The sex itself isn't that interesting but how surreal the setting is shows the madness that Caligula ought to shown much more interest in. Unfortunately, it doesn't.
However, there is a bigger problem with Caligula, one that will be hard to overlook should you have any interest in this beyond masturbating to it. And that is how ineptly it is made. Tinto Brass may have spent a vast amount of Guccione's fortune on making the film but it didn't buy him the means to keep all his shots in focus, to stage the action or to frame his scenes to best suit his action. The camera zooms in on characters for no good reason while they lurch into focus a second or two after, as though Brass had given his camera a swift kick and its focusing struggled to keep up. The actors range from the very good (like Gielgud) to the hopelessly awful (any one of half a dozen Penthouse Pets that you might pick out of the film) while the effects, including the decapitations are as nothing when compared to the likes of that in The Omen. It only convinces when it is both explicit and real. When one sees a woman pissing on the body of a dead soldier, it works because we see, in detail, exactly where the urine comes from. And it's real piss.
But is it worth watching? Yes, it is. It's not a unique experience, owing bits and pieces to Salo, Salon Kitty, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments and its production is sometimes inept but it's still a film that ought to be seen. What's been interesting in watching it for this review is that it does get better the more it's seen. Granted, it takes several viewings and McDowall's commentary to get the best out of it and to know what's happening as the film jumps between locations, scenes and characters. It was only by listening to McDowall that one can know the two men fellating one another were spies who simply became bored on duty. Similarly, watching the Making Of gives one a better idea of the film's structure, which seems more straightforward than in the hodgepodge of the Unrated Version. And if it seems as though Tinto Brass simply let himself be carried away by phallus-shaped bottles on which to wean the babies in Tiberius' palace on Capri, it's worth reading Suetonius' The Lives of Twelve Caesars (Life of Tiberius) to hear how, "unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction." Expend some effort on Caligula and there is something to admire in it.
Versions Of The Film
There are three versions of Caligula included in this set, two of which have been brought over from the Imperial Edition released about this time last year in the US. The third version of the film is the UK Theatrical release (101m47s), which was originally passed for release in this country in 1980, four years after it was made. Compared to the other versions of the film, this is relatively tame. There is nudity but it has been greatly reduced from what is shown in the uncut version with what there is often being seen only from a distance. The violence is equally curtailed. For example, the Roman soldier force-fed wine now has his bootlaces tied around his penis off screen while his murder is only heard (and not seen) in this version. Meanwhile, a scene like the rape of Prolucus and Livia ends with Caligula giving Livia a playful slap on her rear, a far cry from the fist-fucking that, in the uncut version, he would give to her husband. None of these cuts are handled at all well with there being flaring errors in continuity and in the story as well as quite obvious jumps in the film.
The uncut version of the film (155m58s) is the one that contains everything that you've read about here, including the sex and violence, the orgies, ejaculation, urination, masturbation and so on. That might sound an unlikely sort of thing for the BBFC to have passed but they have, according to their website, waived all previous cuts, saying that the sex and violence in Caligula, though still shocking, has dated and may not be as shocking now as it was in 1979. The reputation of the film probably precedes it, though, with there being few coming to this film now who are not aware of what it contains. Still, just in case anyone approaches it unaware, there is a warning on the back of this 18-rated film to say that Caligula contains, "Strong real sex".
Finally, there is an Alternative Version (152m58s), which, though close in running length to the unrated version, actually includes none of the hardcore footage added by Guccione. Instead, it contains the material shot by Tinto Brass, so it features much more symbolic sex than the cumshots of Guccione's but there is still much in it capable of upsetting people. There are other differences between this and the Unrated Version. Several scenes are moved to different points in the film, such as McDowall and Savoy gambolling through the forest, which comes ninety minutes into the Alternative Version but which opens the unrated cut. This is far and away the best of the three versions of the film, largely because it makes the most sense. Events are presented in a certain order, the film avoids jumping around quite so much and the continuity is unaffected by hardcore sex.
All three films have been digitally remastered for this release. Or two of them were done so for the US Imperial Edition with the UK Theatrical Version remastered to accompany them. Remastered or not, though, the film still looks very soft on DVD with more than its fair share of marks on the prints. Of course, if you know the history of Caligula, then this isn't much of a surprise. Even before the film's release, Guccione had hacked the film about. What actually made it into the film is, according to rumour, a small part of what Tinto Brass shot and it's likely that all those reels of film may not have been treated with due respect over the years. Indeed, much of that footage is now lost so Caligula is not likely to look any better than it does here.
Inasmuch as there are some obvious problems with how Caligula is presented on DVD, there are still moments when it looks impressive. Tinto Brass clearly made good use of Bob Guccione's money. The sets aren't far off those of de Mille, albeit with the kind of giant phalluses that would have looked out of place in The Ten Commandments, with the highlights being those in which Caligula addresses legions of Roman soldiers or watches as his giant decapitation machine deals with those who committed treason against Rome. The problem with the orgy scenes is that they often bear Guccione's hand as much as Brass's. Guccione is not, however, on a par with Brass, even in accepting the latter's tendency to zoom in and out without good reason. These scenes, particularly the lesbian scene late in the film, is so soft that Vaseline, or something of a similar consistency but more organic in origin, may well have been smeared over the lens. There are exceptions but that is all to frequently the way of Caligula.
The three versions of the film come with different audio specifications. The Unrated and Alternative Versions come with a choice of original DD2.0 and DD5.0 soundtracks while the UK Theatrical Version, possibly due to it being exclusive to this set, only has a stereo track. There's very little to get excited about with any of the options. True, they do a good job of presenting the dialogue and carry the sound of the action reasonably well but there's very little ambience. Neither is there much to distinguish the two soundtracks from one another. There is some use of the rear channels to bring the soundtrack out from the front speakers in the DD5.0 audio but, otherwise, nothing. None of the three versions of the film have subtitles.
With so much spread out of the set, I have split up the writing of the extras into what's available on each disc, with there being no bonus features alongside the Unrated Cut.
Accompanying The Theatrical Cut: This disc includes three Trailers, the Theatrical Trailer (1m45s), the Teaser Trailer (1m07s), which comes with a voiceover from Bob Guccione saying that Caligula is a new kind of motion picture, and the X-Rated American Trailer (1m00s). This is followed by the North American Bonus Footage (31m33s), which includes full scenes not included in any of the versions of the film available in this Imperial Edition. None of these scenes have been restored in the manner of the three versions of the film. The footage is scratched, dirty, jumps about and is often framed such that it's clear that it was meant to be fixed at a later date. Some of the footage also lacks dialogue with the producers of this DVD covering for that with music.
Guccione said of Tinto Brass that he had shot enough footage to make Ben-Hur fifty times over and various (and sometimes rumoured) edits of the film have surfaced over the years. As such, thirty minutes of bonus footage seems somewhat brief when put against what is meant to be out there but this still offers much more of the spectacle that one associates with Caligula, there being more glossy sets, more blood, not so much more sex and a woman carrying a giant cock around. However, with none of this footage being placed in the context of the film, it could have come from anywhere. Then again, part of the problem with Caligula is that much of it really could have gone anywhere in the film without really changing its overall impact.
Finally, there is a look Behind The Scenes (79m37s). With a Making Of elsewhere in this set, this really is a glimpse behind the scenes with someone, armed with a Super 8 camera, filming the crew as they set about making Caligula. All of the footage is structured in the timeline of the film's production, with it beginning with the arrival of the cast and crew, the building of the sets and to make-up and the fitting of costumes. Then it's on to the actual, which begins in Capri and goes through many of Caligula's set pieces. The problem with this footage is that there is no context to it, no narration and certainly no interviews. Indeed, there is no dialogue at all with this feature covering for that by the use of music from soundtrack.
Accompanying The Alternative Version: The main extras here are three commentary tracks, one each from Malcolm McDowall (with documentary producer Nick Redman), Helen Mirren (with critic and journalist Alan Jones and James Ellis Chaffin) and on-set reporter Ernest Volkman (with Nathaniel Thompson). Of the three, McDowall's is the best. In particular, he's the one who tries to get to what Caligula is, saying to Tinto, "Why all the nudity? Why is the army nude?", to which Brass replied, "'cos you wanna see a lot of cock and balls!" McDowall's commentary is hugely entertaining. Unlike that of Mirren, who only arrived on the set after O'Toole and Gielgud had departed, McDowall was there throughout. Also, he makes no pretence at being well-mannered, telling stories about his father visiting the set on the day he had to piss on it - his father praised his son for being able to piss on cue like that - about how his horse gave the best performance of the entire cast and explaining some of the many jumps in the film's plotting and continuity. It's a rude, funny and detailed commentary and is the best of the extras in this set.
Mirren's suffers a bit from her not being on the set for the whole of the production and from, it would seem, her wanting not to upset quite so many people but there's still much of interest. Volkman, unlike McDowall and Mirren, has dialled his contribution in, which makes it hard to listen to (and to hear) sometimes but, like McDowall, has a good memory for the time but, unlike McDowall, lacks some of the knowledge gained from really being within the actual production.
Otherwise, this disc includes yet more Alternate & Deleted Scenes (48m08s), which includes all of the sex and violence that the North American Bonus Footage does not. Again, there's nothing new here, except it does make one wonder just what's wrong with those scenes of a giant phallus rubbing a young woman's derriere in silhouette and how different they are to what eventually made it into the finished version.
The Bonus Disc: The first bonus feature on this last disc is a Making Of (61m47s), which dates from the time of the original production. We know this, not just because of how dated this documentary is, but because Gore Vidal was still involved in the film. Later, he would fall out with Guccione, who sided with his director as the two became involved in one disagreement after another. Guccione's reason for siding with Brass is a fair one. Vidal was basically finished whereas Brass was still working on the picture. So Vidal walked from the film, demanding that this name be taken off the film, but clearly did so after completing his scenes for this feature. It is, though, somewhat sketchy. There are good interviews with the likes of McDowall, Guccione, Vidal and Penthouse Pets Jane Hargreave and Lori Wagner but it jumps from some of the early weeks in the production to Guccione bringing his Pets onto the set. Some of the hardcore sex is shown but the documentary avoids the behind-the-scenes subterfuge involved in filming them.
This is followed by another Making Of (9m55s), albeit shorter. However, there is still some replication between them, most notably the behind-the-scenes footage and the interviews. Next is My Roman Holiday With John Steiner (24m21s), who looks back at the making of Caligula from his playing of Longinus, who is seen by Caligula's side for most of the latter two-thirds of the film. Now Steiner is an estate agent but this feature catches up with him to learn how he went from playing the inspector in a school play to being a star in Italian cinema and to the madness of Caligula. Steiner didn't enjoy his experience on Caligula and explains why, going on to discuss other films he was involved in before retiring as an actor.
Caligula's Pet (28m19s) is an interview with Lori Wagner, one of the Penthouse Pets in the film. She talks about her first nude pictures and to Guccione offering her a part in Caligula. Not a speaking part, she explains, but had expected something more than a glorified extra. Wanting her own spot in the movie, she stepped forward to piss on Prolucus and goes on to describe what happened as regards the hardcore inserts and Guccione's directing of them once Tinto and his crew had left the set. She then goes on to talk about Messalina Messalina - some clips from the film are included - but she's unhappy about her parts in these two films. "Too young and too naive!" is what she says about her time in Italy and simply looks disappointed about what happened to her there. The final feature is Tinto Brass: Orgy Of Power (34m28s), which interviews the director of Caligula about his involvement with the film, his thoughts on what happened immediately after he finished work and the resulting fallout. Brass stresses that he and Guccione were making different films. Brass made Caligula to examine the orgy of power in which Caligula lived whereas Guccione was only interested in the power of the orgy. He describes his version of the film as being in ruins and does well here to make his point as to how the film that bears his name is, ultimately, not his. Finally, in this section, there are four Stills Galleries, including Colour Film Stills, Black & White Film Stills, Behind The Scenes and Promotional Stills.
Finally, there is a sizeable amount of material included as DVD ROM content. As well as Biographies of the main cast and crew, there are two Scripts, Press Material, the novelisation of Caligula and a two-page piece entitled The Real Caligula. There are also some scans taken from Penthouse magazine to publicise the film's release, including nude shots of Penthouse Pets Anneka Di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner.
This could well be as good as this film gets on standard DVD. I accept that Arrow Films, who are responsible for Caligula's release in the UK, may well be building on the work of others but it's no less impressive for them and for Image Entertainment to have brought together several versions of the film as well as so much bonus material in a single package. For that, they are to be congratulated.