The Strange Saga of ‘Caligula’ (1979) – Retro Review

It’s time to talk about one of the most infamous movies to ever hit the screen, a film based off one of the most infamous men in recorded history. Caligula the man and Caligula the movie both had similar twisted and disturbed paths that led to both of their fates being quite unpleasant. Where to even begin with this one? Let’s start with the man.

Gaius Caesar AKA Caligula (latin for ‘little boots’) was the adopted grandson of Roman emperor Tiberius and was one of the last links to Julius Caesar himself. His legacy was of tyranny, sexual deviation, greed, murder, lust and controversy. Even though he married Milonia Caesonia, the popular rumor was that his true lover was his sister, Julia Drusilla. Scholars have noted in ancient Rome that if you wanted to slander someone, saying they sleep with their own sister was the go-to insult. Depicting him as being his sister’s lover could be their way of slandering him, but whether or not he actually did take her as his lover has been lost to time. The movie definitely took some liberties with its production and Caligula’s character.

Brother/sister bonding time is getting out of hand!

Now for the movie itself. What a mess this was! Legendary Italian director Tinto Brass teamed up with equally legendary writer/actor Gore Vidal to come up with a full-length movie about the life and times of Caligula. It was to be gory, graphic, raunchy and controversial, just like Caligula himself. They picked out a great cast, such as Peter O’Toole to play Tiberius, Helen Mirren to play Caesonia and Malcolm McDowell fresh off Voyage of The Damned to play Caligula. They went with the relatively unknown Teresa Ann Savoy to play Julia Drusilla. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Joss Ackland (The Mighty Ducks, Lethal Weapon 2) overdubbing the voice of Chaerea, played by Paulo Bonacelli (Salo 1975) whose English was a bit too hard to understand. All in all, the film had a good cast, and when filming began, it seemed like they had enough to make a good movie. Then Hustler magazine had to get involved.

“Egg whites, you say?”

Hustler head honcho Larry Flynt wanted to do a porno with ties to the decadent nature of Caligula, so he brought in Bob Guccione to oversee the project. Somehow Hustler and Tinto Brass decided to combine their efforts into one big production. The result was a mess. Guccione brought in all sorts of Penthouse models to shoot raunchy, hardcore sexual footage, some of it while Brass was trying to direct scenes with McDowell and O’Toole in them! Things got so out of hand that both Brass and Vidal left the project, leaving the movie without a true director. Guccione took over from there. Guess what we got? More porn scenes! All in all, the movie turned out to be a 2 hour, 37 minute mess that had severe pacing issues due to the almost non-stop sex scenes. What exactly did they film though?

Keeping it classy in Ancient Rome

The story itself is the mostly accurate portrayal of Caligula’s rise to power and subsequent genocidal lust for more. The movie opens with a sex scene between Caligula and Drusilla, proving that the rumor of their relationship goes right out the window in favor of them being full-fledged lovers. Caligula rises to the top through assassination and enjoys the riches of his efforts by raping, drinking, murdering and all that other family friendly entertainment.

Is this a gory film? You bet your bippy it is! We’ve got severed heads, severed penises, stabbings, strangulations and buckets of blood. Even though a machine like a giant lawn mowing thresher couldn’t have possibly been built in 37 AD, its presence and subsequent beheading of one our main characters was really fun to watch. We also have Caligula peeing on camera, which is an integral part of the movie, as well as a woman urinating on a slain rival’s corpse to keep things ultra classy. All in all, if Guccione stayed away from this, it quite possibly could have been a lot better received, even with all the previously mentioned gore that was not really seen back in 1979 outside of exploitation movies.

“That’s the last time I bet against the Patriots in the Superbowl”

Now for the million dollar question… is the movie any good? Yes and no, to be honest. The studio realized the porno footage severely impacted the run time, so the edited theatrical release was only 90 minutes long. The unrated, original movie clocks in at 2 hours and 37 minutes. If you want to marathon the unrated version like I did, do it at your own risk. Non-stop porn desensitizes you to sex after a while, and that’s never a good thing. Now, if you skip the Guccione footage and head right to the 90 minute version Brass and Vidal intended, you’re going to love it if you’re a sick pervert like myself.

The story itself is very accurate apart from one minor detail only history buffs would notice. The movie depicts Claudius (played by Giancarlo Badessi) as a complete moron, which is untrue. He had a reputation of being eccentric, but when he succeeded Caligula as Emperor, he was very well received in the 13 years in charge. If anything, he was the only one nearly sane out of his predecessors, Tiberius and Caligula, and his successor, Nero. Everything else from his rise to power to his insanity following the death of someone close and his general deviant nature is all true.

You have gore, sex, violence, betrayal and a good watch on your hands. Catch the 90 minute version if you want a damn good movie, but if you REALLY want to be hardcore, marathon the 2 hour 37 minute version. “I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the heavens. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and so…I am a god.”

About Kevin H's number one heel. Favorite horror movies: Insidious, Friday the 13th Part 6, Trick Or Treat (Gene Simmons version), the original King Kong, the Alien/Aliens franchise, Nightmare on Elm Street 3, I've been a writer since middle school and have been so controversial I was suspended in middle school, nearly got suspended in high school and kicked off two websites for bad language or different opinions. I can write reviews, fan fics, real fics, romance, sports writing, critiques and anything I'm challenged to do.

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