Caligula (1979)

Go down on history with Caligula for Valentine’s Day.

Caligula is Bob Guccione’s Valentine to the forgotten pleasures of Rome and he shot quite a load filming it. The magazine magnate who built his empire on the sexiest pages in publishing assembled the classiest actors, the most intelligent writers and the most respected filmmakers to make a film that wasn’t too bright, had no class, got no respect and turned no one on. But Caligula was fucking brilliant. Historically accurate to the point of pain, it was a messily decadent orgy with a vomitorium to die for. Italian impressionist director Tinto Brass bared Rome to its decadent core in a way no Hollywood director would dare, happily fucking and sucking and fisting and twisting the night away. It’s Valentine’s Day fare for the sensualist.

Caligula is a big, heart-shaped box overstuffed with candy of all flavors, gay, straight, threesomes, foursomes, bestiality, sadomasochism, necrophilia, decapitation, evisceration, rape, emasculation (a man’s genitals are tossed to some dogs who munch ‘em down like  beggin’ strips right on screen.) But you never know what you’re tasting until you take a bite. And who but who could slip us the chocolate better than Malcolm McDowell, the most horrorshow droog a malchick could have. Always up for a skorry in-out in-out, great bolshy yarblockos out for all to viddy. We absolutely believe in him, we’ve seen him do this before. Caligula is in so many ways Alex a couple years older, transplanted from a London tenement to the Palace. Leering and smecking all over the finest of the Senator’s wives, or daughters, or sons or horses, or the Senators themselves, McDowell’s Caligula is a man born to bone.

The English are not particularly associated with romance, in spite of their romantic poets. I never understood why Romans are always played by British actors, in HBO’s Rome, on PBS’s I, Claudius and in every Jesus picture except The Gospel According to St. Matthew, including David Bowie in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. For the part of most promiscuous woman in Rome, Caesonia, Caligula’s wife, McDowell lured Shakespearean actor and Bond Girl, Helen Mirren. Sure, now she’ll flash her tits for any magazine promoting one of her movies, but at the time she needed to be scriptually and contractually obligated to show her ass. The pleasantly perverse Peter O’Toole was equipped with enough of the right stuff to lend his double-phallic name to the festivities as the syphilitic Tiberius, Caligula’s father and once and future debaucher. John, sorry, Sir John was clueless about what he was sticking his Gielgud into when he signed on to off his own damn self as Senator Nerva. Teresa Ann Savoy was a sloppy second choice to Maria Schneider, hot off rolling around with former Mark Antony, Marlon Brando, in Last Tango in Paris, to put out as Drusilla, Caligula’s sister and lover (while lounging in bed, Caligula tells his sister that he’s also gotten it on with her husband). Savoy was game, she’d done Tinto Brass before, playing Margherita in the Berlin brothel movie, Salon Kitty, the movie Guccione saw seven minutes of before he shot out with “this is the man I want directing Caligula.”

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The original treatment for Caligula was written by Roberto Rosselini, Isabella’s dad. No incest there. His nephew Franco and Gore Vidal presented a retooled script for Bob Guccione to sniff. Vidal regularly contributed to Guccione’s Penthouse Magazine and Guccione had already pimped such movies as Chinatown, The Longest Yard and The Day of the Locust. But there was trouble in paradise. Vidal wasn’t prepared for the bitch-slap that he got from Guccione and had his name taken off the title. Rossellini instigated an orgy of lawsuits for this movie.

Bob Guccione is Sicilian. Born in Brooklyn, he was brought up in Bergenfield, N.J. Sicilians are like Italians, just a little more Sicilian. Italians are world-renowned as hot, romantic lovers. Sicilians tilt more to the side of hot. And then they turn up the heat. Those who live on the island being kicked by the boot of Italy also have clung more tightly to old Roman ways than their northern counterparts, anyone with a friend of a friend of friend will attest to that. Just not in court. Guccione, like any lover hiding the ring in the chocolates, made Caligula through subterfuge and trickery. He told the actors they were working on a movie with a script by Gore Vidal. He told Gore Vidal he was making a movie about Caligula’s last days. He told a planeload of Penthouse Pets that they were going to Sardinia to shoot The Spy Who Loved Me, but the plane landed in Rome, where the Pets shot the hard-core scenes. This was after Guccione branded the Italian extras as ugly (Tinto Brass ejaculated “This is Rome, for God’s sake. This is Fellini’s Rome!” where apparently everyone is ugly), something no one wants to see on Valentine’s Day. People also probably don’t want to see the miracle of birth right before their Valentine’s date, but we get that anyway. Seven pregnant women were kept on standby during the filming so Brass could capture Caesonia giving real birth to Drusilla in all its gory glory. Guccione probably told them he was making a nature film.


Valentine’s Day is the creation of a conspiracy of candy makers, card stores and gift shops, but who could be a better gift-giver than a Roman Emperor? Caligula won’t just slip on any ring to his beloveds; his stone’s got to be the best, brightest and biggest. And he won’t actually slip it on. He’ll take the care to slip it in, with a little interpretive march on the way. What could be more romantic than some wine? Caligula has his minions tie off a man’s urinary tract (tactically put?), quenches thirst enough for a whole orgy, and then cuts the man’s stomach to pour guinea red from the most unique decanter in the known world. Caligula declares himself a god and, rightfully deduces that, who wouldn’t want to schtup a god? Blessing a wedding with his divine presence, Caligula gets first dibs on the blushing bride. Not wanting to leave anyone out, he dibs the groom too. Magnificently magnanimous of the monarch, I must say.


Thrust into ruling the unruly empire with an iron phallus at the age of 24, Caligula is well-loved by the common Roman. Not so much by the Senate. Caligula mocks the wealthy consulate by appointing his horse to an important government seat and other conspicuous indignities. When Caligula wants to give free food and games for a month for the paisan, the Senate protests that there is no way to pay for it. Caligula turns their wives into cheap whores in a palace cathouse and prostitutes them to the very rabble he wants to feed. He also builds a massive head-chopping machine for their amusement. Caligula means little boots in the Roman language, but it doesn’t take a cunning linguist to see that Caligula is too big for his sandals. Sadly, Caligula gets spent at the end. He doesn’t know when he’s licked.

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When it first came out, critics blasted Caligula as vile, disgusting and not even worth watching as porn. They went to great lengths to warn people away from the sticky, slimy miles of celluloid. They still do their best to cock-block this hard-core history pictorial. But it did very well even in limited release. Sir Johnny Gielgud admitted he saw the movie three times in its first run, at inflated prices, where even movie critics had to pay. The filthy old perv. Cleopatra exclaimed that she loved tits and asp movies. Messalina is said to have squirted her praise all over the imperial canopy. The illustrious historian of all things Roman, Anthony Everitt, quoted Julius Caesar as saying, “Vini. Vidi. Vini.” (I came. I saw. I came again.)  Critics pre-emptively slammed the movie again when the Imperial version came out on DVD, with extra money shots.

Caligula runs about two and a half hours, so it will be a marathon foreplay session for Valentine’s Day. Yeah, it’s hard to watch. And it probably won’t get her in the mood, but if it does, bone for tuna.


Den of Geek Rating: 2 Out of 5 Stars


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2 out of 5