Desperately seeking Caligula
I was probably about 12 when I first heard of Caligula. That applies to both the movie and the Roman Emperor for which it is named. As young movie fan with a ravenous appetite for discovering new things, I liked to peruse movie review books and the description for Caligula sounded like a goldmine. A biopic on an infamously insane Emperor, it was described as a “$17 million dollar porn extravaganza” but with recognizable actors in the cast: Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell. You have to remember that this was before the internet. Information was not easy to come by. The only information I could gather came from these review books. They all agreed that Caligula was sexually explicit, graphically violent and frankly, not very good. Roger Ebert broke it down in the first sentence of his review:
“Caligula is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash.”
Now I really had to see it.
Caligula was not the kind of movie you found in the “Drama” section of your local video store. It was an “Adult” film but it was also a 2.5 hour historical epic so it was sparsely stocked on shelves. Every once in a while I’d stumble across a photo of the film, giving me a rare glimpse at the enigma that was Caligula. As the years passed, the internet evolved into a new avenue to pursue information but would I ever get to see what was perhaps the ultimate cult classic?
Every May the Novi Expo Center hosts the “Motor City Comic Con.” It’s a gathering of geeks, most of who are in rare form. As a geek myself, one fateful year, I strapped on my camera, filled my wallet, and headed to the Con with dreams of buying some sort of action figure that I’d likely never remove from the box. After my usual perusing of vendors, I found myself at one of the booths selling VHS tapes. I scanned the table looking for nothing in particular. Caligula wasn’t even on my mind. I’ll never forget when I spied the box. Nestled in line with all the other tapes, it had unassuming cover art; it could have easily passed me by. I felt like my heart had stopped. I couldn’t believe it. After all these years, this was my chance. I was actually going to see Caligula. I paid twenty dollars for the tape and eagerly headed home. The ride had never seemed longer.
Production on Caligula began in late July of 1976 at Dearwood Studios in Rome. The production was as opulent as the titular Emperor with 3592 costumes, 5000 hand-crafted boots and sandals, a set the size of 3 football fields, and the largest prop ever built at the time: A full-scale Roman vessel over 175 feet long and 30 feet high with 120 hand-carved oars. It is estimated that it took over 2500 people to mount the production. Budgeted around $17 million, the film was fully bankrolled by Bob Guccionne, the owner of Penthouse Magazine, who also bankrolled Roman Polanski’s MacBeth in 1971, to classier results. Noted historical novelist Gore Vidal wrote the script and his name coupled with the ample budget drew mainstream actors to the film. The director, an Italian named Tinto Brass, was hand-picked by Guccione. Shortly after production began Rome was awhirl with rumors about Caligula. Security on the set was tight so the press could do nothing but speculate. Reports of bestiality and orgies were not uncommon (or unfounded once you see the film). The difficulties that Caligula faced during and after production sent the press into a fever pitch. Gore Vidal sued to get his name taken off the film after believing that director Brass had mutilated his script. Later, Brass sued after Guccione wrestled control of the edit from him. Feeling it wasn’t sexy enough, Guccione and a skeleton crew sneaked back into Dearwood Studios in December 1976 and filmed 6 minutes of hardcore pornographic footage. The film finally premiered in February 1980 where it made headlines for its raunchy subject matter and inflated ticket prices ($7.50 when the average ticket was going for $3.50).
All the information that I had learned about Caligula ran through my head as I rushed home. I ran upstairs to my room, pulled out the tape and popped it into the VCR. I could barely stand the excitement. Even before the opening credits, Caligula treated the viewer to nudity. This was a film that knew how to capture an audience! But as I kept watching, a funny thing happened: I got bored. Here was a film with so much nudity that even I grew numb to it – a 16 year-old boy! I’ve often thought a funny drinking game would be to have a drink whenever a bare ass appears on screen. You’d be drunk within minutes. Caligula was everything I had heard it to be. It was sexually explicit (6 minutes of hardcore? Funny, it felt longer). It was graphically violent (If you’ve ever wanted to see 2 dogs fight over a severed penis…) and it was bad (at 156 minutes, a whole lot of bad). The cinematography was muddy and the camera never seemed sure where the action was. Sequences seemed to be placed in random order and scenes often ended obscurely, leaving the viewer perplexed. Save for the impressive sets and the costumes, Caligula was a pretty bold failure but it fascinates me to this day. I’ve since upgraded my VHS to a DVD (it’s even on Blu-Ray now!) and I like having it around to show to friends. I sometimes dream about being present on the set of this madness. I can only imagine the craziness that went on behind the scenes. I’ve seriously only scratched the surface on the depravity and decadence of this film. I’ll leave you with this: If anything you’ve read here about Caligula piques your interest, seek it out. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you…