Review by David Carter
Posted on 10 July 2004
Few movies are equally as infamous as they are famous. None however fit this description more completely than Penthouse Magazine’s epic, Caligula. It is one of the most famous examples of a movie that is talked about more often than it is watched. Historic period pieces seem more PBS than Penthouse, but few historical figures have the reputation of Gaius Germanicus Caesar or Caligula. That said, Caligula is one of a handful of films that accurately depicts the Roman Empire. Many of those who are shocked by the graphic nature of the film are probably unaware that, however distasteful, the film is based on fact.
The film’s release was stalled countless times by everyone from the director to the stars to even Penthouse’s own 1975 Pet of the Year, who took her case to the Supreme Court claiming the film had ruined any chance she had of a “legitimate” acting career. The main point of contention for those who worked on the film was the fact that after the original production wrapped, Penthouse owner Bob Guccione authorized several re-shoots. These re-shoots did not have any of principle actors and consisted mostly of hardcore sex. That is not to say that the original film that was scripted (available as the “R” version) did not have its share of risqué moments. Writer Gore Vidal asked that his name be completely removed from the film due to the changes.
Lets push the controversy aside for a moment. Malcolm McDowell turns in a stand out performance, which was par for the course for him in the 70’s (what has happened since then, no one knows). Peter O’Toole (Tiberius) and Sir John Gielgud bring the same caliber of performance as they did to Shakespeare, despite later regretting their involvement. Much like any historical drama, having at least a working knowledge of the historical facts of the story will greatly increase a viewer’s enjoyment. Admittedly, if you don’t know much about Caligula or the Roman Empire, the plot kind of drags and you’ll probably be even more distracted by the sex.
Not much is made of it now, but Caligula was an important film for its time. It was able to cash in on the “mainstreaming” of XXX cinema that Deep Throat had started. So much press was given to the lawsuits and infighting over the film that many people went to see it just to see what the fuss was about. Most weren’t disappointed and many people walked out of the film around the 30-minute mark, shocked and disgusted. For a time an entire Caligula sub-genre sprang up with many unrelated “sequels” that were always filled with X-rated sex and violence. The most ridiculous was Caligula II: Messalina, Messalina, a bawdy Italian sex comedy that was even shot on the sets left over from Caligula. It is important to note however that this film was directly inspired in look and theme by the vastly superior and even more controversial 1977 Pier Paolo Pasolini film Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom.