A depiction of the reign of Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, AKA Caligula (Malcolm McDowell), from 37 to 41 A.D. During this time, he indulged in much debauchery (including incest with his sister Drusilla, played by Teresa Ann Savoy), treachery, and violence. A bored-looking Dame Helen Mirren plays Caligula’s wife Caesonia, Peter O’Toole plays Caligula’s uncle Tiberius (whom he overthrows as Caesar), Sir John Gielgud appears briefly as Tiberius’ offsider Nerva, and John Steiner plays gaunt financial adviser Longinus.
I saw a slightly cut version of this infamous 1979 film, but for once, it’s much of a muchness because most people would say that the most hardcore scenes in the film (and there’s still debate as to who was aware that they were being inserted into the film) are also the least necessary, and most tacked-on. I don’t think the uncut version can really be called the ‘intended’ version, really. One look at the very confusing credits indeed suggests that no one really wants to take ownership of the film (Gore Vidal doesn’t get full credit as screenwriter, so there’s no real indication of who wrote the damn thing, let alone who officially directed it). And to be honest, even in this slightly softer version (still running fairly close to full-length, I might add), I still think there’s too much sex and nudity. Yep, I just typed that. Me, of all people wanted less sex in a film. But it’s actually true in this case. Some debauchery is necessary for this tale, given its subject, but whatever combination of Penthouse founder Bob Guccione (who produced), and/or director Tinto Brass was responsible for all of the sex (both softcore and hardcore), they’ve over-indulged in it.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think Caligula makes for a good choice for a lead character in a film. He’s much better of as a flamboyant side character. When put front and centre, it results in a film full of orgies, debauchery, incest, possible bestiality, and...frankly not much else. It never really goes anywhere...for around 2 ½ damn hours, just repeating itself over and over. It’s a one-note, boring and inert film featuring a couple of very fine performances that give it a slight lift. Chief among these is the perfectly cast Malcolm McDowell in the title role, even if this is perhaps the film that sealed his doom as a star (Look at his roles before this one, and his career after it. It’s very telling). I’m pretty sure the moment McDowell’s career as a leading man died at the precise moment we see him in bed with a very uncomfortable-looking horse. If Caligula were a supporting character in another character’s story, McDowell would get huge praises for his performance, but here his good performances gets overshadowed by all the debauchery that comes with his character and story. A little of Caligula goes a long, long way, and we see nothing else of his rule. Just the orgies, death, decay, and some anal fisting. Yes, anal fisting, ladies and gentlemen, albeit off-screen. Surely there was more to the guy than this? Perhaps not.
The other performance you’ll remember in this film is by Peter O’Toole, who really does have the perfect porn name, doesn’t he? He’s not long for the film (lucky guy), but looks intentionally ghastly, and despite not being his biggest fan, he’s genuinely good here. In fact, he makes more of an impression than Sir John Gielgud, who is normally brilliant (and is perfectly fine here, don’t get me wrong). It’s when O’Toole leaves that the film really does go to hell.
Unfortunately, two good performances (and one other solid one in Gielgud) can’t ultimately take the film very far. Other performances are variable, with pre-Dame Helen Mirren being just as bad here as she was in “Excalibur”, whilst poor Teresa Ann Savoy hasn’t got a chance, being stuck in a role involving scenes of incest and incestual necrophilia. Poor girl. Most of the other actors are badly dubbed Italian performers (The actor playing Macro, for instance is voiced by the very recognisable Patrick Allen).
It’s a dull and ponderous film, that is neither a good historical film nor a good porno. There’s little to no context for most of the sexual content (a lot of it feels tacked-on), and not enough of anything else to keep one interested. Hooray for flaccid penises, though, if you’re into that sort of thing. But what kind of sick freak likes that? In fact, it’s the art direction of Danilo Donati (“Flash Gordon”, “Red Sonja”, “Fellini’s Intervista”) that manages to steal the show here. It’s great stuff (and he also designed the costumes, his more frequent occupation), but when you’re a pervert like me, and you’re noticing the sets more than the sexual content, something is very, very wrong. The giant phallic statues were way too much, however, and frankly absurd. I’m guessing Guccione instructed that they be built, just a hunch I have. But it’s a good-looking film, and Donati can be genuinely proud of the job he did here. Actually, the work he, McDowell, and O’Toole do here is enough to earn an ‘average’ grade. Barely (and even then, it depends on what you consider average to be).
It’s a one-of-a-kind film, though, so I’m sure you’ll want to see it at least once. It’s probably not as bad as you’ve heard, but it’s all the more unfortunate that it should’ve and could’ve been even better (if still not terribly good), if it weren’t so monotonously obsessed with graphic scenes of sex and torture. Here’s a film that actually could’ve used less sex and violence. I feel ill just saying that.