Judge Brett Cullum wonders how much PBS could take in during a pledge drive which featured Caligula on Masterpiece Theater.
Our review of Caligula (Blu-Ray), published January 15th, 2009, is also available.
Caligula: I hear you have a taste for little boys. Is that not so?
The sensation around Caligula is bigger than the film itself. No small feat when you look at the size of the sets and costumes, and consider how much money was thrown at the production to make it larger than life. People speak of it as an unbelievable cinematic atrocity where low porn meets high art, and only the puerile elements win out. In the end its legacy is more about the sick and twisted elements rather than the artisan efforts of the cast and crew. Caligula is a tough brutal movie, where every fetish is explored in depth, and most you'd rather not see depicted on film. It's been released bare-bones on DVD before, but Image finally gives the devil his due. With Caligula (Three-Disc Imperial Edition), it gets a full treatment with two full-length cuts of the film and tons of bonus materials, including commentary provided by stars Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. Finally the eternal question of "What the hell were they thinking?" just might get answered.
Facts of the Case
Caligula is a sprawling, graphic retelling of the rise and fall of one of history's most infamous Roman emperors. Formally known as Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Caligula ruled for only four years from 37 to 41 A.D. in a reign that was infamous for outrageous acts and overreaching ambition. According to historians he was an egomaniac sexual pervert and a man who believed he was a god. This cinematic vision of the emperor is created by three men who thought they were gods—literary legend Gore Vidal, porn impresario Bob Gucionne, and Italian exploitation director Tinto Brass. The result is a pornographic historical epic that is neither sexy nor accurate, but always a fascinating mess of overindulgence and over-the-top elements. It is a prime example of what happens when huge egos clash with millions of dollars to throw around.
The film has an amazing pedigree when you consider it was first conceived by Gore Vidal as a modest historical drama or miniseries along the lines of I, Claudius. He could not find any studio willing to produce the film, but Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione expressed interest in mounting the project on an epic scale. The two men were friends, because Bob published Gore's work in his magazine. Guccione wanted to make the production much more lavish, and wanted to push the envelope of sexuality on film. Thanks to Vidal's reputation and Guccione's endless supply of cash, a top-drawer cast and crew were assembled. Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) was cast as Caligula, Teresa Ann Savoy (Salon Kitty) played his sister/lover Drusilla, Helen Mirren (The Queen) appears as Caligula's wife Caesonia, Peter O'Toole shows up as Tiberius, and John Gielgud (Arthur) makes a brief appearance as Nerva. Peppered throughout the film are Guccione's Penthouse Pets in naked non-speaking roles, and quite a few recognizable Italian and European actors. Legendary Fellini designer Danilo Donati (Flash Gordon) produced 64 incredible sets and over 3,500 costumes. Negotiations with directors John Huston and Lina Wertmuller broke down early on, and Tinto Brass (Salon Kitty) was offered the immense job.
The production was a mess from the start, and Caligula has the distinction of being a film that most of those involved want to disassociate themselves from. Gore Vidal distanced himself quickly once he caught wind of what they were going to do to his script; he backed out, demanding his name be taken off the final product at one point. However, he does seem placated enough to appear in the 1980 documentary praising the film's intentions. Gore Vidal's original treatment included more homosexuality, and Guccione would never allow his film to drift in that direction. The production took years to complete, and the shoot dragged on forever, spanning four years. Once filming wrapped with Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione screened the film and decided it was not sexy enough. He orchestrated XXX shoots on the sets, using his Penthouse Pets to add more spice to the final product, much to the disdain of all involved. Worse still, Guccione locked Brass out of the editing room and assembled the film himself. Sequences were inserted out of order, and the narrative was left in tatters. There were countless cuts of the film released, including a trimmed down R-rated version to get wider distribution in America and the U.K. None of them honored either the script or original vision of those who worked so hard on the project. The real failure of Caligula is that it has no joy or celebration. Even though the orgies and carnal acts are meant to be sexy, they come off as depressing and grim in the film. In the end it all just feels sadistic and dispassionate about everything. Nobody looks like they want to be there.
There are different versions of the film found on the DVDs of this set. The first disc has the longest cut available, running 156 minutes to retain the controversial Guccione-inserted porn sequences. The second disc offers the alternate prerelease version of the film, which clocks in three minutes shorter and skips some of the hardcore scenes, making it closer to the original director's vision. The editing differs on the two versions in several sequences, and the second version uses a lot of alternate footage. Some of the disjointed scenes from the uncut version are in their proper place for the prerelease cut. It's the one to watch if you want the narrative to be clearer, while the uncut version offers the most sexual thrills. Commentaries are provided by Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and on-set writer Ernest Volkman, who all speak over the shorter prerelease version. McDowell's is far and away the most knowledgeable and informative session, but Mirren and Volkman both provide funny memories as well. All three are joined by film critics and authors to keep the conversations flowing. Mirren's track has the most pauses, and she seems to have less to say than McDowell or Volkman. Volkman sounds like he is brought in via a teleconference, but he's the most frank about the movie. He is simply an on-set reporter, and observed a lot more without being officially involved as an actor or production team member. They are all extremely good sports who can laugh now at the production, but still extol its virtues when there are some to be seen. Malcolm McDowell claims his horse turned in the best performance at one point in his take on the film. Also included on the second DVD are a dozen deleted sequences and alternate takes of some of the most controversial sequences.
The third disc is where you will find all the supporting featurettes. There are extended interviews with two of the supporting actors in the film including thespian John Steiner and Penthouse Pet Lori Wagner. They both discuss Italian cinema and their careers far more than just rhapsodizing over their on-set experiences with Caligula. Steiner gives us an account of what the actors were like, while Wagner concentrates her memories as a sex extra involved with the Guccione footage. Director Tinto Brass is also interviewed, rounding out the newest additions to the extras. Also included are two versions of a 1980 documentary that runs almost an hour in the long version, and includes graphic on-set footage of the orgies, nudity, and violent effects. There's a shorter alternate version of the same documentary as well. All of the footage from the documentary is poor in quality, looking aged and unmastered. Also available is raw behind-the-scenes footage showing filming and set construction. There are still galleries with hundreds of images, and a DVD ROM section to round everything out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Caligula (Three-Disc Imperial Edition) throws in everything you could think of and then some into one package for the film, but many are wondering about the state of the transfer. In a previous edition it was widescreen, non-anamorphic, and not remastered well, but in this new set the film looks like at least some care has been given to the image. It looks improved with better color, but remains dark and grainy in quite a few scenes due to the old film stock. It will never look like it was made yesterday, but this effort is an improvement over VHS, laser disc, and previous DVD editions. But don't get the impression this is an excellent transfer. Caligula was shot using soft focus much like a Penthouse photo shoot, and often it is not as clear as you'd expect. There is a small black horizontal border above and below the frame on both prints. Contrast levels are low, and there are specks and digital artifacts aplenty. This is probably as good as it will ever look, but it still pales in comparison to other digital transfers of more conventionally shot films.
Do we really need three discs devoted to this pornographic epic misfire? Believe it or not, but Caligula (Three-Disc Imperial Edition) was originally billed as a four-disc set before it was released. The fourth disc was going to concentrate on the music, but rights issues prevented the score from being explored in-depth. At any rate, this is an unbelievable amount of extra material given to a film which is not particularly pleasant or successful. Sitting through the feature is a chore, and I wonder who will want to sit through the endless hours of extras brought in for this edition.
Three men with unstoppable egos made Caligula an unbelievable epic mess that is neither sexy or historically accurate. Gore Vidal's script was tampered with, Tinto Brass's vision was compromised by the producer's wish for pornography, and Guccione found his sexy footage inserted into an ugly film. Yet the movie represents a naughty grand vision from 1980 when film seemed to push sexual boundaries routinely. It played in the same theatres that ran Cruising that same year, meaning that fisting was shown on film at the local multiplex at least twice in 1980. It would never be made today, and perhaps that is a good thing when we consider Caligula has little merit as a film, other than to show perversity full throttle. It was a grand experiment gone awry, an attempt to legitimize pornography with some excellent actors and awesome production values. In the end sleaze triumphs over everything else, obliterating any good will provided by artists. It becomes what Caligula the historical figure was accused of—a mad cavalcade of sex, violence, ambition, and architecture. Insanity and perversity rule in this world.
Caligula (Three-Disc Imperial Edition) is as overindulgent as the film it presents. Two versions of the film, hours of extras, and commentaries by Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell make it one of the most extensive DVD sets ever produced. For years the film has been Penthouse's best-selling video, and certainly this set should appease anyone who is curious about why this film was made and how. It will sate your appetite for sodomy, fellatio, pedophilia, necrophilia, dwarves, and hermaphrodites. It's a legendary bad film, and it somehow will never cease to fascinate. The real reason to invest in this three-disc set is the chance to hear Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren explain what it was like to film this sadistic and grim feature. Surprisingly they offer a nice take, years later, and they are the most fascinating voices heard here.
Guiltiest of all, Caligula is the kind of movie that makes you wonder how these things happen. Can humans really be this sadistic? Caligula (Three-Disc Imperial Edition) answers it with a resounding "YES!"
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Studio: Image Entertainment
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