Caligula

Dir: Tinto Brass, Giancarlo Lui (uncredited), 1979

4/10

1999-09-17_caligula_fully_resorted

Probably the world’s first, and only ever will be, A-list porno!

What started out as a serious historical epic of the quite mad Emperor Caligula, quickly turned into a multi million dollar, pornographic mess, that alienated an audience and forced it’s Oscar winning stars to wash their hands of it!

Caligula is a Roman emperor, who spends his time frittering away funds, shagging anything with a hole, and participating in random acts of perversion, murder, and torture.

This continues until his assassination at the hands of his bodyguards.

Oh, and somewhere along the line, he makes his horse a president or senator or something. I don’t know, I got bored. It really is tough going.

Let’s be clear, there is nothing special about this film whatsoever.

No, wait! I’m a liar. It’s got a lot of naked girls in it. Doing naughty things. So that’s a plus.

This is really Bob Guccione’s film. Guccione was the owner of Penthouse and supplied an inexhaustible bevy of beauties as extras. Also, forking out millions in dosh was a contributing factor. It might have Brass’ name on the credits but it’s the pornographers moment to shine.

The film is a mess. It was originally the brainchild of celebrated novelist and commentator, Gore Vidal.

Vidal has never had any luck with film. Myra Breckinridge was a notorious bomb, as were several others.

Tinto Brass is not a good director. To be honest, he’s a dirty old man. The vast majority of his films contain either hardcore, or semi-hardcore, scenes. Once he got his hands on the script, it resembled very little of what Gore had written. Furious, Vidal had his name removed from the credits. Originally titled Gore Vidal’s Caligula, it is now, simply, Caligula or Io Caligola in Italy. Vidal’s input is relegated to a mention in the title credits.

Malcolm McDowell is the berserk emperor with Teresa Ann Savoy as his favourite sister and willy warmer, Drusilla.

McDowell certainly has the look of Caligula but recreates him as overtly camp. Prancing about naked, in the rain, pissing up walls and fisting some poor bloke on his wedding day before raping his wife.

It’s hard to see what Vidal was going for. Truth or shock? Was it meant to be a work of fiction with strands of actuality sewn in or a serious biographical account of a ruler with a diseased mind?

Watching this and reading Gore’s script, I’d go for sensationalism. There are elements of the initial writing in the film; the drunk soldier having his penis tied, his stomach filled with wine, and then brutally eviscerated is a memorable one.

Brass reminds me of an Italian Ken Russell. He knows no limits. Bigger is better. The more you can throw in, the more the feature will be improved.

But it doesn’t work, here. Set in the very early years of A.D, Caligula is shown to indulge in spectating a particularly violent game where people are buried up to their necks in soil, while a wall with rotating blades heads towards them.

It’s pretty obvious that this type of entertainment didn’t exist and I’m sure they didn’t even have the technology to even do it.

History texts have written about the ruling family’s love of freaks and freak shows. Brass turns it up a notch or two. He lingers on cyclops’, freaks with three eyes, women sticking snakes up themselves, midgets and all other sorts of stuff.

There is sex galore. It adds nothing to the plot or the narrative. At one point, Caligula is on about something , then it cuts to two lesbians masturbating and performing cunnilingus.

The big orgy scene is a barrage of sexual shenanigans, with blowjobs, wanking and the obligatory cumshot.

None of this was filmed by Tinto Brass. Guccione was unhappy with the footage that Brass had shot and hired Giancarlo Lui to spice it up by filming extra scenes of sex. Hardcore sex, to be precise.

It’s impossible to take any of it seriously. It is true that Caligula had a severe fever and almost died. Whether he did a ridiculous dance in the rain is anybody’s guess, but, according to Brass and Vidal, he did.

Tiberius is depicted as having a penchant for depraved and degrading sex shows. His face covered in sores, an implication of a sexual disease. I can’t find any evidence to support any of this. Did Ennia bathe her face with semen deposited by her slaves? Again, not a clue.

The project was doomed from the start. Everything was wrong. Everything IS wrong.

They should have given up before they even started.

Not unexpectedly, a film as explicit as this was going to cause problems all over the world. In the United States it earned an ‘X’. Bearing that rating, very few (if any) mainstream cinema would show the film so it was primarily screened in porno theatres.

Showing in this type of theatre seriously hurt the profits, so an ‘R’ rated version was quickly assembled. This cut removed ALL the sex and nudity, the gore and a chunk of the plot, bringing the film’s running time down to, roughly, 100 minutes from it’s full length 156 minutes. This muddied the film even more and made it, largely, incoherent, choppy and jumpy. The uncut version was released on video.

In Britain, the film had no chance.

On receiving the reels of film, customs immediately impounded it, fearing the charges of obscenity and indecency.

After talks with the BBFC, the distributor and customs and excise, it was agreed by all parties that the board could review the film at their premises in Soho Square, in order to remove all the contentious material. The viewing guests included customs and excise an lawyers. Over eight minutes of footage was removed. This included; a disembowelment, rape, anal fisting, and all of the explicit sex. This made the film legal in the eyes of the law. However, although the censored version could no longer be prosecuted, it still exceeded the boards guidelines.

This gave the distributors an option; they could, either, show the film in members only cinema clubs or, to gain wider distribution, make more cuts to receive an ‘X’. The distributors opted for the ‘X’ certificate and a further three minutes was taken out, making eleven minutes in total.

The film garnered negative reviews from critics all over the world. Not surprising, really, as it’s crap.

Prior to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act in 1984, soft porn video distributors, Electric Blue, released the full uncut version on VHS, using their Electric Video label. After the act was implemented, the video was withdrawn.

calig-evs (2)
Pre 1984 Uncut UK VHS. Note the disclaimer on the back; “2 1/2 Hour Version”. Also note the false tag “BBFC certificate X”

Sometime in the 90’s, Electric Video asked the BBFC about releasing the uncut version on video with an R18 certificate. R18 certificates are for ” sex works”; videos whose primary intention is to cause sexual arousal and can only, legally, be sold in licensed sex shops. But, at that time, hardcore sex was not allowed to be published under the Obscene Publications Act, so the distributors chose to release the US ‘R’ rated cut. The video was given an ’18’ without further cuts.

In 1999, the British film channel, Film Four, attempted to restore the film closer to Brass’ original version. To do this, they simply cut Giancarlo Lui’s added scenes and reframed, or slowed down scenes, to mask the dodgy stuff that Brass DID film. It’s not a brilliant cut, but it was the most complete that Britain had seen in a long time.

In 2008, the full uncut version was submitted to the board in the hope of gaining a certificate. The BBFC saw no problem with the film under todays guidelines and UK law and was more than happy to pass the film without any interference whatsoever. The Imperial Edition four disc DVD and two disc blu ray was released with a multitude of extras, including the UK theatrical cut and an alternate pre release version. Along with documentaries, there are deleted scenes, 2 of Vidal’s scripts, the novel, interviews and, best of all, commentaries by Malcolm McDowell and Dame Helen Mirren.

The UK edition is superior to the US Imperial Edition, being only three discs and containing only two cuts of the film.

caligula 3 disc
US Three Disc DVD release with an embossed cover

 

caligula 4 disc
UK four disc release that, sadly, didn’t come with an embossed cover

There’s nothing in this film worth watching. Like The Devils, the history and controversy surrounding the film is much more interesting and is keeping the movie alive. If it wasn’t for that the film would have sunk without trace.

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